When a Wrestling Meet Becomes Traumatic

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Natalie Graves

By now we have heard about the sickening video that went viral of a New Jersey high school wrestler having his dreadlocks cut before his match. If 16-year-old Andrew Johnson did not comply with the referee’s demand, he would have forfeited his match. Not wanting to let himself or his team down, he allowed his hair to be hacked off by his team’s trainer in order to compete. To Andrew’s credit, he won his match. I commend him for his perseverance to perform on such a high level while facing what was probably the most embarrassing moment of his young life.

Even with his triumph, I have questions. How will this traumatic experience impact Andrew Johnson and how he functions going forward? Will this affect his performance in future meets? Are we addressing the mental health needs of athletes in general?

What the referee Alan Maloney (I need you to know his name) did was beyond traumatizing to this young man. He even has a track record of making a racial slur in the past to another referee who was Black. We need to understand that this was more than getting a simple haircut; this was an attack on Andrew Johnson as an athlete as well as a teenage male of color. Without hesitation, I believe that the adults in that gymnasium failed to keep him safe.

The commitment to play any sport is not an easy task, but to make the choice to wrestle requires a level of dedication unlike other sports. Being part of a boys’ wrestling team often results in a brotherhood. Wrestlers must manage their weight at all the times in order to compete in their designated class. This in itself requires extreme discipline. Need I mention the prowess it takes to achieve wrestling moves like takedowns and escapes?

So much of an athlete’s time is spent trying to be his or her best he or she can while also being good a teammate. Simply put, being an athlete becomes a great part of your identity and who you are. Similarly, deciding to wear your hair in a certain way is a part of your identity. With dreadlocks, it’s an entirely different ball game (pun intended). It takes time to grow hair to the point that it locks into the desired style. Andrew Johnson made the choice to put in that time, and a referee took it all away with simply cry of foul!

To be told that your hair will cause the forfeit of your match in the sport you love is unthinkable and a choice Andrew Johnson should have never had to face. His “haircut” was done haphazardly for all his peers, fans, the opposing team and the world, thanks to social media, to see. This was a violation of his body, that no one should experience, especially not a teenager.

As a licensed professional who works with athletes and their mental wellness on a daily basis, there are parts of Andrew Johnson’s character that I feel were targeted, singled out, and attacked. In fact, this experience places him at risk of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) while playing a sport.

Understanding Trauma

Some factors that result in traumatization include an occurrence during childhood, an event that happens unexpectedly, an event that leaves the individual feeling helpless, or if the person is experiencing other stressors.

All of the above happened to Andrew Johnson. When this occurred, Andrew Johnson was only 16 years old. He did not have any indication that his hair would be an issue to compete. In his meet just a week prior, no concerns were mentioned. While watching the video, his vulnerability was clear as he stood still watching his hair, his own DNA, being removed from his head. Oh, and did we forget that this was happening with the pressure to perform well during the match?

What are the Symptoms of Trauma?

When traumatic events occur, they can cause emotional and physical symptoms. Some common symptoms include flashbacks of the experience, avoidance of reminders of the event, dreams or even nightmares of the event, negative feelings (i.e. fear, anger, sadness, and irritations), and self-blame for what happened. When symptoms last for 30 days or more, a diagnosis of PTSD may be applicable. These responses can be life-altering if not treated.

Working Through Trauma with Therapy 

The best practice is to seek assistance shortly after the traumatic event has taken place. I surely hope that this child was provided mental support immediately. Even if help is not immediately available, there is never a bad time to go to therapy. Simply go when you can. A therapist who is experienced with treating PTSD can assist with helping a victim recognize and normalize feelings while redirecting unhealthy thinking and identifying any symptoms that may be present. Understanding what is happening emotionally after a traumatic event is an important component to recovery. Whether it is a single event or multiple incidents over a period of time, it is vital to seek professional help. A therapist can provide supports to begin the healing process.

Sports and Athletes’ Mental Wellness 

While awareness about mental health is getting better but more attention is required to eliminate the many stigmas that still remain. High schools, colleges, universities, and sports associations must make a commitment to support mental health of their athletes.

Studies show that athletes have very specific needs and are less likely to seek help compared to their non-athletes’ counterparts, especially those in the limelight. However, particularly in the case of adolescents and teenagers, the sports community must accept the responsibility of protecting them from both physical and mental harm. In the case of Andrew Johnson’s mental health, this did not happen. It is yet to be seen whether Andrew Johnson will experience any symptoms related to PTSD, but if he does, my hope is that gets the mental health support he needs.

Natalie Graves is a licensed clinical social worker and an expert in the area of mental health and wellness for athletes. Graves owns a private practice (Natalie Graves Athletic Counseling) specializing in this discipline. A proud native of Chicago native, Graves earned a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Chicago State University and a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Additionally, Graves completed an Addictions Studies Program at City Colleges of Chicago Kennedy-King College. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. To set a complimentary consultation, call 773-294-3903.

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