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Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck shares his struggles with mental health

Saint Paul Pioneer Press - 9/8/2022

P.J. Fleck endured five shoulder surgeries during his playing career as a wide receiver and spent the 2005 season on injured reserve with the 49ers. Besides the bum joint, he was not feeling well.

“I struggled with mental health,” the Gophers head football coach recalled on his KFAN radio show Tuesday. “… I went through a really tough time in San Francisco.”

That story has been something Fleck has shared privately with his players since he came to Minnesota in 2017. And while it occurred nearly two decades ago, Fleck brought it up publicly a few times this week to be an example for how he sought help and spoke to a psychologist about what he was going through.

And that flashback is topical with the Gophers hosting their Mental Heath Awareness Game at 11 a.m. Saturday against Western Illinois at Huntington Bank Stadium.

On Monday in his office, Fleck picked up a pastel-covered paperback book titled “The Anxiety Solution: A Calmer Mind, A Calmer You” by Chloe Brotheridge. He was about 25 pages into it, with five separate pages of notes stuffed in to double as a bookmark.

“It’s really good for me,” Fleck shared with the Pioneer Press. “If you are always saying that somebody else should be better, but you’re not becoming better at the things you tell them they should be better at, then you lose accountability.”

Fleck wants his players to know it’s OK to not be OK and that toughness is not withholding emotions or feelings but finding a way to seek help and strive for self-improvement.

The football program has weekly Monday meetings with Fleck and non-coaching staff to discuss how players are doing. They will identify players who might be struggling — maybe it’s their body language, something someone said or their physical appearance and actions. There might be a warning from a poor performance in school or a struggle in their personal life. Injuries can be a clear precursor.

Then the leaders act. “That way we can all put our arms around him if there is something,” Fleck said.

After starring in last week’s 38-0 victory over New Mexico State, running back Mo Ibrahim gave credit to weekly meetings with a sports psychologist for helping him through the year-long recovery from a torn Achilles tendon last September.

“We just talk about everything I’m going through, and it got me through it,” he said on Big Ten Network. “Just expressing my emotions and understanding it’s OK to feel this way. I’m happy to just be back out here with my teammates.”

Ibrahim, Chris Autman-Bell and Tanner Morgan are three examples of Gopher players who have made it a point to say they have worked on identifying more as a human than as prominent college athletes.

Carly Anderson, the U’s director of sports psychology services, and staff are available to meet with players.

“It’s crucial,” Morgan said. “I think it’s something we don’t take for granted as a program with the resources we have, being a part of this program and being a part of this university. With Dr. Carly and her team and also the coaches … are always available. It’s encouraged to use those resources. It goes a long way for anybody going through things or if you want to improve the mental side of your game, which is a huge part of it.”

Fleck said he has a “small circle” of people he talks to about personal stuff at least once a week. “That is my way of being able to get that out,” he said on the radio. “I learned a long time ago, if it’s just your spouse taking that all on, then all they hear is the problems. Then that can all of a sudden affect the relationship.”

Fleck warned about the harms of social media on his players’ lives, how their self-worth is tied to what pops up on their phones and how that can take a hit if they receive negative feedback online.

Fleck said he spends “a lot” of his time on players’ personal lives and ways to help them better themselves. “I don’t know the percentage, but it’s a lot,” he said. “And it’s a lot more than it’s ever been.”

The Gophers will welcome back motivational speaker and author Rachel Joy Baribeau for Saturday’s game. She has been a nearly annual visitor to Minnesota since Fleck took over in 2017.

On Saturday, the Gophers will wear a green ribbon sticker on their helmets to honor the color associated with mental health, and Huntington Bank Stadium will air a video about the topic during the game.

“You don’t want to force somebody to do something, but you are constantly putting those people in front of them,” Fleck said about providing helpful avenues and examples. “You are constantly sharing stories that had to do with your life that helped you through it.”

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