As an Athlete, I Needed to Win the Mental Health Game

As an Athlete, I Needed to Win the Mental Health Game

by Alexis Belton

I love golf. And for me to continue loving it, I had to quit it.  

As an athlete struggling with mental health issues, there came a time when I had to step away from the physical game and concentrate on the mental game. It was not an easy decision. Coming from an athletic background, raised in a small town in Louisiana with a rich sports history, I grew up playing and loving all kinds of sports. I excelled at basketball and was offered college scholarships but later in high school, I fell into the game of golf. A health teacher asked if I was interested in playing it and while hesitant at first, I not only loved it but found it to be a sort of bridge that allowed me to give back and learn a lot about myself.  

While golf didn’t bring me the big fancy high stakes deals other colleges were offering for basketball, I did go to university on a golf scholarship. I initially started at a small school in Alabama, but it turned out I wasn't treated right due to my skin color.  I transferred after a semester to Texas Wesleyan University. There aren’t a lot of women who look like me in the game of golf, but I was determined to become a professional golfer. Fast forward, I played on the LPGA Epson Tour and Ladies Australian Tour and was the third-ranked female in the world on the World Long Drive Tour and a former PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship winner, I’d say I achieved that. But not without some learning, growing, facing challenges, and struggling internally.

Golf is a mental game. It forces your body to slow down but your mind needs to keep up. Everything is dependent on thinking, making decisions, and then thinking about those decisions. It’s a game where “golf therapy” exists – breathing techniques, focusing strategies, connecting your mind with your body, and getting into the right mental space are super important for the game. I even had a breathing coach. But I struggled to calm my mind.  

As someone who would later learn on a phone call that as a child I was diagnosed with ADHD and borderline bipolar, I was eventually able to connect the dots. Mental health was still a difficult subject to broach when I was growing up in a Black household in a small town in the middle of the Bible belt. My dad is an extremely positive person and while he means well, it was hard to talk openly about what was going on inside my head when I was younger. We just didn’t discuss mental health. And as an athlete, there was an added layer of just powering through. In some ways, I almost wished I had been physically injured rather than have a psychological condition.  

But that candid conversation with my mother helped explain a lot of things; the focusing difficulties, issues with learning, bouts of anxiety and depression, and the cycling through highs and lows began to make sense. But it would still be a while before I felt comfortable knowing and feeling all this.  

I never felt comfortable at a golf course, as a woman and a person of color. I was good at golf, but it often felt like I needed to become someone else to be fully accepted in the sport. As if I were some sort of imposter.  But moreover, I didn’t have boundaries as a professional golfer and that’s never good for one’s mental health. I wanted to please everyone, accept every offer; I thought every opportunity, every sponsorship, every chance to play in a tournament was a good one, especially for someone like me – Black and female. Overextended, exhausted and mentally drained, I finally realized I had to quit the game before it quit me.

I made that decision for my mental health. I needed to sit with what I was going through. I needed therapy and treatment and a safe place to open up. I needed to learn to impose and maintain boundaries and I needed to be fully healthy. People always think athletes are so healthy. We think that of ourselves too and it can sometimes get in the way of knowing when we’re not. 

Quitting is brutal. You feel like you’ve failed. You’ve let people down. You’ve let yourself down. I had all those feelings, but I also learned that sometimes it’s better to leave than to go on like that. I couldn’t just keep pushing things down. I was battling demons and struggling with thoughts of suicide. What was golf compared to that?    

Golf will always be there for me in some shape or form but what is extremely important to me now is to use whatever I am doing – like golf commentating, charity golf events, and forming my own nonprofit to benefit young golfers in their mental health journeys - for good. Golf for good, I call it. And if I can partner with more organizations and share my story on platforms like ADAA, then I’ve done some good.

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