Salina Native Doing Great Work at KSU

Anne Weese, the doctor, the licensed psychologist, the never-put-a-Band-Aid-on-it savant, slides onto the dark gray couch in her black Kansas State Volleyball hoodie and smart, black-framed glasses. It’s a three-cushion couch, leather, perfect for a nap beneath the tepid glow of the dimmed three-light floor lamp that stands adjacent to the dark brown hutch. If not careful, it’ll swallow you whole, the gray comfy cloud. And the couch, oh how it could tell stories — stories of breakups, stories of burnout, tales of trouble back home, and accounts of COVID-related family death.

It’s Weese’s easel, the couch, as she traces and details with the tiniest of brushes, because there are no broad brushes allowed, you see, because she won’t allow it. Every K-State student-athlete is unique — heck, her eyes nearly well-up as she recites a touching testimony from a life she impacted, shaped, molded on that couch, in her own special way, through timeless hours, and oh, how the hours can fly so fast, and how others can draw out. There’s no telling if it’s raining outside the Vanier Family Football Complex because Suite 222 is basically a dark, warm, safe cave to spill the heart. And the heart, yes, when she reaches the heart, that’s when the client’s tear ducts can reach capacity like Tuttle Creek Lake Dam did so many years ago. Sometimes it’s when healing begins.

There’s probably no sanctuary quite like Weese’s office in the Flint Hills. And it would probably prove difficult to find anyone more caring. And how many times did someone pull the chunky white rope-knitted throw from the left side of the couch to make it all go away for a moment, and how many times did somebody look at the pair of purple upholstered chairs across the room, wondering who sits in those chairs when there’s the safety of this couch.

May is Mental Awareness Month, and Dr. Anne (pronounced “Annie”) Weese, Director of the Mental Wellness and Sports Psychology Department and a licensed psychologist in the state of Kansas, is here today, swallowed in the couch instead of propped in her chair, bearing her soul on mental wellness, and gesturing with her arms as she speaks about the very thing that she can do as well as breathing, which is helping others.

“There’s poor mental health, great mental health, and everything in between,” she says. “Sometimes in athletics, we look at it as all or nothing — everybody is fine or there’s a major problem that’s bad. That’s not the truth of it. If we look at all that gray area, we can do more preventative work and intervene more. These athletes aren’t all doing great. Everything’s not perfect for them if they’re not saying there’s a problem. They’re somewhere in between that.

“As a society and as a sports world, we need to recognize that these athletes are humans and parts of their brain aren’t even developed yet until they’re 24 or 26 years old. We’re asking a lot of them.”

It had been building for years, you see, this marriage between sports and psychology at K-State, which reached fruition when K-State hired Weese at her current post in March 2018, thus eschewing the binary view of young men or women as students or athletes, and embracing their needs from a humanness level, that student-athlete are human with mental and emotional needs.

“If someone is having a personal concern that’s interfering with their mood and their function and their performance or somehow is distressing in their life,” she says, “they can bring that to me. Nutritionists fuel the body, trainers heal the body, conditioning coaches will build the body, so anything outside of that usually ends up in my office.”

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It had been building for years, too, within Weese, a Salina native, whose mother taught her psychology class at Sacred Heart High School. At age 5, Weese dreamed of becoming the first female player in Major League Baseball. Some 15 years later, while chasing her sports dreams, she aspired to go pre-med, but received a 38% on her first organic chemistry exam, and thought, “Pre-med is not going to work out for me.”

Weese played basketball and softball at Seward County Community College — the Lady Saints went 72-1 during her two years under head coach Jim Littell — before she transferred to Notre Dame, where she tried out and made the team. She proved to be a celebrated walk-on — her family nicknamed her “Rudy” — and she was one of the school’s most popular athletes, with the crowd changing her name “Anne! Anne! Anne!” whenever she entered a game between 2002 and 2004. She played under legendary coach Muffet McGraw, and today a signed copy of McGraw’s book sits on the hutch in her office near the Bill Snyder bobblehead.

Upon graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in Psychology, she was reunited with Littell, as he brought her to Oklahoma State to serve as a graduate assistant coach when he became associate head coach for the Cowgirls in 2005. However, it was upon receiving her master’s degree in counseling and pursuing her doctorate in philosophy that she bade a tearful farewell to the sport she had loved for more than a decade. She was so “devastated” that she wasn’t around basketball anymore that she couldn’t watch basketball for a year. And yet, she had opened a door to a whole new world. Where one dream died, another dream was realized. She is trained in Biofeedback, DBT, and emotion-focused therapy.

“As I dug more into the field and making mentors, I realized that there are people who are doing what I do now who blend sports and their love of psychology, and when I realized there was a possibility that was my beacon,” she says. “I tried to develop all my practicum to get me as much contact with athletes as I could, and I trained in biofeedback and areas that I thought would be helpful for sports performance.”

She served as an intern and postdoctoral fellow at K-State for two years. As a licensed clinical psychologist, she served as staff counselor at Virginia Tech (2013-16) and dedicated her time between traditional students and student-athletes. Then she spent two years at Oklahoma State. Then, finally, she returned to Manhattan. And she brought her sanctuary to life in Suite 222 at the Student Athlete Enhancement Center on the second floor of the Vanier Family Football Complex, and she brought an area of need to life, and she altered lives, and she quite possibly saved a few along the way.

“Really the most gratifying thing is when I can create a space that’s safe enough and comforting enough where people can tell me my truths,” she says, “where these big tough athletes can come in and tap into some human emotion and share something that’s vulnerable to them, that’s most gratifying part of this. It’s just connecting human to human and creating some safety and comfort in their lives. That’s why I’m here.”

This February, Weese returned on Homecoming weekend to Seward County Community College, where she was a member of the 2001-02 national championship team and was inducted as a member of the SCCC Hall of Saints alumni as part of the college’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2019. She detailed “The How and Why of Mental Health,” before an audience at the Greenhouse.

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While mental health challenges for student-athletes is hardly a new phenomenon, The American College of Sports Medicine Statement on Mental Health Challenges for Athletes in August 2021 reported that approximately 30% of women and 25% of men who are student-athletes report having anxiety, and only 10% of all college athletes with known mental health conditions seek care from a mental health professional. Approximately one-in-five adults live with a mental health condition during their lifetime, the study stated.

The NCAA Sports Science Institute lists the most common psychiatric disorders in student-athletes are disorders involving anxiety, mood, personality, hyperactivity, eating, body dysmorphic, adjustment, substance use, impulse control along with psychosomatic illnesses.

“You can see a stark generational difference between the comfort in talking about mental health needs,” Weese says. “I’ve seen a big shift. Actually, everybody talks about the stigma of mental health in sports, but when I started, I was slammed from day one. I was like, ‘Where’s the stigma I’ve been hearing about?’ We’re seeing more and more young folks being medicated at a younger age for mental health needs and engaging in therapy at younger ages.

“I don’t know if the trauma trickles down and the needs are more urgent, or if there’s more pressure for this generation, or if we’re just becoming more comfortable about being honest about how we’re doing.”

They call March 11, 2020 “The Day Everything Changed,” when COVID essentially shut down life, and the ensuing months certainly confirmed so much had changed, as student-athletes saw elevated rates of loneliness, loss, anger, sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, mental exhaustion and depression, according to a report by Sports Illustrated that detailed the Student-Athlete Well-Being Study released by the NCAA in February 2021. Among nearly 25,000 student-athletes from conferences and all divisions surveyed, some of the biggest mental concerns included academic worries (43%), lack of access to sport (33%), COVID health concerns (31%) and financial worries (24%).

These concerns among student-athletes in the Little Apple didn’t cease just because the City of Manhattan lifted its mask mandate in May 2021.

But here’s what Weese noticed: About five or six months into the pandemic, some K-State student-athletes started to get angsty. Some student-athletes overtrained and overexercised in preparation for a return to campus, which in some cases prompted unhealthy eating and training patterns. Rates of depression increased. Once back on campus, K-State became the first Big 12 Conference football program to suspend football after 14 players tested positive. Feelings of anxiety weren’t exclusive to the gridiron, either.

Weese tells stories of some student-athletes living in angst under the dark cloud of COVID, wondering, “Is it me this time?” and “Am I going to take down the whole team?” She says some athletes, some who will play professionally in their respective sport, dealt with isolation of sitting out eight weeks due to contract tracing. She tells of freshmen who battled through the adjustment of college life amid the pandemic. She tells of student-athletes who established unhealthy sleeping habits — staying up until 3 or 4 a.m., then taking a class remotely, and returning to bed.

“On several different levels, COVID was very, very hard, and then they had to perform in their sport above that,” she says. “Nobody had been through a pandemic before, so there was no direction. Nobody knew what was going on. Nobody knew how to do this. There was no model for how to do this successfully.”

And now? The couch is seeing more occupants over the past three months than earlier this year. That’s due, in part, to the grueling final three months of the spring semester, when student-athletes can face burnout having trained since the previous summer. It also comes at a time when exams and papers are due before or after spring break. It all prompts a dark topic that has recently made national headlines — the topic of student-athlete suicide.

Deaths of a Stanford women’s soccer player, a Wisconsin women’s track athlete, a James Madison softball player, a Northern Michigan men’s track athlete, and a Binghamton men’s lacrosse player in March and April were all ruled to be by suicide.

“It’s been really scary the past few months,” Weese says. “I just dread getting that text or that call when you see these stories around the country of athletes dying by suicide. That’s my biggest fear. I’ve been losing sleep over the past few months. I’m just wondering who I’m missing, what I’m missing – is there somebody struggling who I haven’t connected with? It’s a scary thing right now.”

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In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, K-State staff at the Ward Haylett Invitational handed out decals that read “Break the Stigma.” Less than 200 yards from the track, behind Tointon Family Stadium, construction remains ongoing on the Morris Family Olympic Training Center, which is scheduled to open in time for the 2023 season.

The training center will dramatically enhance the student-athlete experience with a state-of-the-art Mental Health and Wellness area, a nutrition and refueling station, Sports Medicine Rehab space, in addition to a 14,000 square foot strength and conditioning center. A portion of Charlie and Debbie Morrison’s $10.2 million gift includes funding for hiring of staff, suicide prevention and bystander training, wellness research, mental health treatment, and a biofeedback/performance laboratory.

“We have a second full-time employee starting in July, so that’ll be a huge relief to get her here,” Weese says. “I’m very excited about that and the department expanding. We’re have very generous donors in the past couple years. Charlie and Debbie Morrison heavily supported this area of mental wellness, and we recently received a $750,000 donation to mental wellness, so we’re using that to build positions and resources and build up the library. We’re going to get a performance lab. There are very, very exciting things coming for the mental wellness of our athletes.

“It’s going to fill that beautiful space we have in the Olympic Training Center.”

For now, Weese sits on her couch in Suite 222, continually flattered by her clientele list (“Some athletes come in and say, ‘Hey, you worked with my teammate, and she told me you were really great,'” Weese says) and how other clients, new and old, continue to prosper on and off the field of competition, several having poured their hearts and some still reaching the levels of Tuttle Creek Dam, yet all sharing two constants: Weese and the couch. The delicate brush continues to trace and detail, the marriage between sports and psychology intertwined like the rope-knitted throw that hangs off the side of the couch.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, but for Weese, it’s an everyday venture broken into hour-to-hour increments. The suite, the cave, is dimmed, yet flashes of light emit during times of breakthrough, when individual difficulty meets small victory. It’s a place she knows full well.

It’s the doctor, the licensed psychologist, the never-put-a-Band-Aid-on-it savant, and the couch.

And for an hour, it’s a world of healing.

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KSU photos