Nicky Nieves celebrates at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 28, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Nicky Nieves is a Paralympic gold medalist in sitting volleyball. Nieves made her Paralympic Games debut with the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team in Rio in 2016, where the women took home the team’s first-ever gold medal after defeating China. In 2019, Nieves and the U.S. women’s national team won an impressive 25 matches and went undefeated on the year.
To me, mental health is one of the most important factors to the function of a human being. It’s the thing that will make you or break you. It holds so much power, that it can and will affect your thoughts, choices, self-expression and even your ability to interact with others.
Now take all of that power, and partner it with an elite athlete.
This athlete will perform on the world’s highest stage, millions of eyes watching, unexplainable pressure, and must put forth their best efforts not only for themselves, but for their team. This is my life as an athlete playing a team sport.
Mental health is what took the U.S. Women’s National Sitting Volleyball Team from winning silver medals to gold medals. It is the force behind our ability to understand and perform next to each other. Yet, it had not been until our coaching staff decided to have our team work with a sports psychologist, for us to fully grasp just how powerful our mental health was within our dynamic. Being able to voice our worries, our goals, and uplift each other took us from being a good team to a great team.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Not only was I faced with the grim reality the Games wouldn’t be taking place this year, but the reality that the hard work my teammates and I were putting in would come to a screeching halt. Everything from living at our training site, training every day, team camps and traveling for competitions quickly became a thing of the past, and I was confined to the walls of my home in Florida.
I’m not going to lie, I became depressed.
It felt like way too much to deal with all at one time (especially when my cycle of training was preparing myself to peak at the Games this summer). It happened right as I was working up to be my best self. I had all these written goals for my performance, how Tokyo 2020 Nicky would beat out Rio 2016 Nicky, who I would be for my team, how we would perform together, yet that opportunity was taken away from me.
It was in these moments I realized my mental health was in its most fragile state. If I did not find a way to stabilize myself, I would be headed down a slippery slope. Suddenly, everything we had learned in team and individual sessions with our sport psychologist were put to the test.
I can say without a doubt in my mind everything we learned - the team dynamic we built and the support we created for one another - came through and continues to provide for me when I need it the most.
Fortunately, my mental health on the court is just as important as my mental health off of the court. Private sessions, team zooms and phone calls from staff and teammates quickly became a staple in the new normal for our team. What’s so beautiful in the midst of this chaos is the understanding that we depend on each other for success not only athletically, but in life, now more than ever.
Don’t confuse this for a picture-perfect painting. There are still things we can and must work on. However, where we once were in comparison to this very moment is a completely different team mentally.
We have created safe spaces with each other; and I know if I ever need to cry and express my hurt I can call one of them. I know when I need time to process, heal, or deal with certain situations they will provide me with grace and love to do so.
I am full of gratitude to be able to have my team supporting me, especially during COVID-19. My team has a unique dynamic, as we have only had 4 teammates retire within the last 8 years. This means that I’ve been able to grow with these ladies, learn what makes them tick, learn their habits, what they need in times of stress, and in turn they understand me and my needs.
This pandemic has taken all training athletes in the midst of preparation for Tokyo 2020, and turned their worlds upside down.
I’m thankful I have a team full of ladies who understand the importance of mental health, who allow me to take the space I need all whilst making me feel supported and loved. Not only do we lift each other up, but we find ways to try and help fill each other emotionally when they need it the most.
If I could recommend something to my fellow athletes out there in this trying time, it would be to find a safe space to express yourself, find where you feel most loved and allow yourself grace (even if the world seems to be crashing in on you).