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What Made Maddy Run: A Tragic Truth Surrounding Mental Health in College Athletics

What Made Maddy Run tells the story of Madison Holleran, a New Jersey soccer standout and UPenn track star, whose tragic death in 2014 rocked the country. Written by ESPN journalist, Kate Fagan, the book takes us through Maddy’s life and the private struggles that lead to her suicide in her second semester of college. With the help of the Holleran family and the Madison Holleran foundation, this book opened dialogue for a problem that plagues athletes- the stigma surrounding mental health.

My entire life, to this point, has been devoted to athletics. The contents of this book brought on a topic with which I am familiar with as both a certified Athletic Trainer and an athlete, how our mental health is impacted by athletics. According to the NCAA, the three leading causes of death in student athletes are accidents, sudden cardiac death, and suicide.

Now read that again. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in student athletes. We screen for cardiac red flags on pre-participation exams and we have rules in place that limit high risk behaviors that
lead to accidents, so what are we doing to address mental health?

Reading Madison’s story highlighted a few things that are common within our age group and within athletics. The first being the role that social media plays in our lives, the second being “chronic perfectionism”. Throughout the book, it is mentioned several times that you would not have been able to tell that Maddy was struggling with her adjustment to an Ivy League school or to becoming a college athlete.

Maddy’s Instagram page was perfectly curated, complete with photos at parties with her friends, edits of landscapes in the city, her own drawings, laughs, and smiles. This was the image that Maddy wanted the
world to see, the image that she so desperately wanted to maintain.

She was a soccer star with a commitment to Lehigh and several state championships. She had picked up
track and won several titles that were rewarded with recruitment by division one schools, like Penn. She was a high achiever in the classroom. She was well known and well-liked. Maddy had it all and failure was never an option. This is chronic perfectionism.

Maddy had forgone her commitment to a school and sport that she loved, because the weight of an Ivy was too great to pass up. In her first semester, she had begun to hate track and did not feel confident in her classes. This is when her family noticed a change in her that they hoped would be resolved by a change of school or by quitting track.

Maddy felt torn, she had never given up this piece of her identity before. This is something I think that all
of us, at one point or another, can relate to. The fear of letting down the people around us can be powerful. The thought of quitting your team can be polarizing, college students today have been said to be less empathetic than they were previously. The weight of academics, athletics, and social acceptance can simply feel like it is too much. Yet beyond the shallow surface of phrases like, “if you need help, reach out,” we are not doing enough to destigmatize mental health in athletics. The silent struggles that we face are isolating and being an athlete offers its own unique stressors. Madison sought counseling, she went to church, she had friends and family who she confided in, and still she felt hopeless.

Kate Fagan left off by saying this, “there is no one thing. There are rivers that merge and create a powerful current. And we can’t fully know why they all merged, right then, right there, around Maddy.” So, the question is now, what can we do to help the Maddy’s in our own life?

Sources: What Made Maddy Run

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