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Calvin Ridley’s decision to step away and focus on his mental well being carries lessons for all of us

Professional athletes are prioritizing their mental health more than ever before. Calvin Ridley is the latest athlete to take time away from sports and solely focus on finding inner peace.

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

“Recovery is not one and done. It’s a lifelong journey that takes one place at a time, one step at a time.”

When it was announced that Calvin Ridley was going to miss his second game of the season due to personal reasons, this quote appeared in my mind, as it appeared Ridley had suffered a setback prior to the game against Carolina. There weren’t any details behind the star wide receiver’s absence leading up to the game. There weren’t any signs that he would miss another game after not traveling to London for the Falcons’ win over the Jets due to personal reasons and returning against the Dolphins.

The one thing for certain is that what Ridley is currently enduring is too overwhelming for him to play the game of football. Instead of putting his health further at risk by playing in an unhealthy state, he took an honorable step in deciding to step away from the game in order to focus on his mental health.

As great as life can be for a top-level athlete and as easy as it may be to envy their lives, you have to recognize they are human beings before anything else. They have their personal struggles. They have their shortcomings. They have obstacles that may prevent them from being the best version of themselves. In Ridley’s statement on Sunday, he indicated that he believed stepping away would help him be the best version of Calvin Ridley he can be in the future. That indicated what was transpiring in his life was hindering him from being not only the game-changing wide receiver he can be, but who he can be as an overall person.

Ridley is a professional football player, but this conversation goes far deeper than how it affects an athlete’s performance.

Striving and stepping away

Stepping away from something means taking time to yourself. That could mean going to cognitive therapy, taking specific self-care treatment, or applying a variety of healing methods to find inner peace. It is easy to forget that the pressure athletes face is enormous, and there are healthy ways to deal with that and half-measures.

For all the discussion of how much they get paid and how popular they are, the physical and mental demands don’t get nearly the same amount of attention. Combine those stresses with how players have to deal with the toxicity of social media in the modern era, and you can see why athletes might need to take time and put effort toward making sure they are mentally right.

There is no telling what someone is truly suffering from, as I’m sure anyone reading this can attest and relate to. Athletes, like any of us, can be in a dark state where they can struggle to be openly candid about the core of their issues. What we can do for athletes and one another is be respectful, understanding, mindful, and supportive when that person is at a personal low. People can be very quick to judge and criticize rather than ask questions and listen attentively. They can put pressure on someone to reveal information that the person may not be comfortable sharing. Common demeaning phrases like “be a man” or “just be happy” that don’t do anything to uplift or educate anyone are used.

Being considerate can go a long way in helping anyone struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses. It helps bring comfort to a person struggling to find comfort in their life. Regaining a sense of comfort is one of the most significant steps in a person’s recovery. They can begin to find true self-belief, knowing in a way they did not before that they will recover and be stronger than ever.

Many athletes have spoken publicly about their mental health issues. Tyson Fury and Simone Biles are two extraordinary athletes who have taken personal breaks from being the best at their respective sports. By being vulnerable and sharing that athletes are not invincible, it raised awareness about how world champions and gold medalists can still be internally struggling even at their greatest highs.

This is not new, but what is new is that teams and sports are learning what it means to support these athletes, and athletes are learning that they do not necessarily have to suffer in silence or without rest. Yankees legend Mickey Mantle admitted later in life that he used alcohol as a way to help him cope with the loss of his father, and that it impacted not just his life but the lives of his family and those around him. Athletes and those of us outside the world of sports who are told to tough it out and feel they cannot take the time or talk openly about their struggles do not simply cease to struggle but find different ways to cope, and they are not always or even often healthy.

Sporting achievements and millions of dollars aren’t the obvious solutions to an athlete’s struggles. What they are suffering from outweighs the personal glory. What they need is time away from doing something they dedicated their lives to. With certified treatment and genuine support, they can get themselves on the right path towards serenity.

It’s bigger than being on the field

What Ridley did was courageous in taking the initiative himself to say he needs time away from the sport, but it’s not a given that teams will handle that well. How the Falcons have responded is commendable. Arthur Smith and Matt Ryan have publicly supported him during this challenging time. After coming off a late-night massive win over Minnesota, former Falcons’ head coach Dan Quinn took time away from his defensive coordinating duties in Dallas to reach out to Ridley. They all deserve praise for their efforts to help Ridley, along with maintaining his privacy when discussing the situation.

A person isn’t obligated to publicly reveal the reasoning behind their issues. If they want to keep the details private, they should be respected for the decision. The public can’t decide on how an athlete should approach their mental health issues. As long as the athlete maintains honest communication with those who are most important around them, they are taking the right steps towards recovery. It’s on the athlete to move forward with purpose in finding the healthiest practices towards conquering their demons, and teams to support those athletes and move forward either with them and with understanding.

The conversation about mental health continues to evolve exponentially in sports. The stigma is being erased by athletes vocalizing their thoughts and creating a safe space for players to be publicly vulnerable. Dak Prescott, Lane Johnson, and Hayden Hurst have done exceptional work in raising awareness and smashing misconceptions about athletes and mental health. If players and coaches can understand and acknowledge that it’s the right thing for a player to step away from the sport, why can’t everyone else take a similar approach? Why can’t fans understand a player needs to value their mental well-being before anything else? Why should their commitment be questioned if they address the situation and the organization backs them? Football is a grueling sport where players must be totally focused to perform at the highest level. Anything less will likely lead to a player enduring severe mental and physical consequences, to say nothing of on-field performance.

If you aren’t fully focused and can’t be at your best mentally, you can’t expect the athlete to perform to their highest capabilities. No matter how healthy they are physically, the mental side of the game needs to be considered at all times. Expecting a player to “tough it out” or “fight for the team” is nonsensical if the player is deeply struggling. They could get severely injured or struggle to perform to their standards, leading to criticism and hateful remarks that bring them down further into a depressive state.

Protecting and supporting the player should always be the focus for organizations and fans. They don’t need further pressure by being pushed to play. Instead, believe in their commitment to growth and the mental preparation they need to truly take on the challenges of a high-level professional athlete.

A hopeful future

It would be distasteful to make assumptions as to whether Ridley’s off-field issues have affected his performances on the field, as production isn’t the priority. The main priority is for the organization to provide him all the resources and time to get mentally right. Ridley has always been a consummate professional. He takes great pride in his work ethic, as shown in a recent excellent piece by Kris Rhim. As great as it was to see him dancing in the end zone in Miami, it’s evident he was not completely prepared to return.

They have put a lifetime of sacrifices and hard work into the sport they play in, the organization they play for, and the fans they play in front of. What we all can do as a society in return is be compassionate when they need our support and understanding, as we should be for everyone who struggles in their respective careers and personal lives. Expressing our gratitude to these athletes and one another and sharing encouraging messages is something that takes little effort, but can have a profound impact.

In the case of athletes like Ridley, that approach may help them get back to doing what they do best. Because of their high profile, the support they receive and the success of their journeys will help empower others to be vulnerable and confident in enhancing their own lives and growing. Most importantly, it will help all of us treat each other better and be mindful of when people we know, love, or just plain respect need time and care to improve their mental well-being.