Sacramento Bee Somewhere To Turn

The challenges that happen in sports parallel the challenges athletes face in life, says Ross Flowers, who tries to teach student-athletes to apply this wisdom after college.

                                              (Picture by Debbie Aldridge/UC Davis)

Somewhere to turn

UC Davis is one of about 25 universities nationwide with a mental-health professional available to assist struggling athletes

By Scott Howard-Cooper - Bee Staff Writer

Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, October 8, 2006
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A12

The Bee's Scott Howard-Cooper can be reached at

Ross Flowers is not mentioned in the UC Davis sports media guide. Even his location has a certain anonymity: a cubbyhole of an office tucked into a wood-shingled building that blends perfectly into a bucolic pathway of thick trees out front and a park across the street.

But when athletic director Greg Warzecka is asked about Flowers, the under-the-radar existence ends.

"I've come to realize that Ross is very, very important," Warzecka said.

Flowers, and the University of California, Davis, are a rarity. UCD is one of about 25 universities nationwide with a mental-health professional dedicated at least part time to the athletic department. Flowers' schedule calls for him to spend 50 percent of his week with athletes and coaches, often by attending practices and events, and the other half with the student counseling office.

Experts say such arrangements help make athletes comfortable around mental-health professionals and far more likely to seek help if problems arise.

Of their eight counterparts in the Big West Conference -- the Aggies are provisional members and scheduled to officially join in the 2007-08 academic year -- only UC Riverside offered similar assistance at the end of the last school year.

Among the others, Long Beach State administrator Candice Chick, noting she has a master's degree in counseling and sports management, said she handles initial counseling and evaluation despite not being a licensed clinician or having a doctorate.

"If it's something that can be done in a month, I will do it," said Chick, adviser to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at Long Beach State.

California State University, Sacramento, like most colleges nationally, refers athletes to the campus health center, a practice that experts say can lead to a patient declining help for fear of being recognized in the waiting area.

The school recently increased services with the appointment of Paul Edwards as director of the Student-Athlete Resource Center, a role that includes serving as a liaison between the athletic department and health-care workers.

Among Sacramento State's eight peers in the Big Sky Conference, only Eastern Washington University had a certified mental-health professional within the department in the spring. A spokesman in the athletic department at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, said he wouldn't even know who to ask about such a policy.

Sandra Nevis, the training director for psychological counseling services at Sacramento State, said she has worked with about a dozen athletes there since joining the student-health center in 1997. Most of those athletes, she said, have been women, supporting a national belief based on anecdotal evidence that women are more likely to seek help while men will keep emotions bottled and are at greater risk to harm themselves.

"I think we could do a better job by providing more outreach to athletes," Nevis said. "I have talked directly to some coaches, and I think that helps. I think if we did that more that we would have more athletes feeling comfortable about coming in."

The response from the coaches, she said, is "along the lines of, 'Why should our guys trust you?' Athletes are part of a group as a culture. It's very inclusive. So I get some of the, 'Why should we let you in the club?' basically. And those are fair questions for them to ask."

Added Sam Maniar, a sports psychologist at Ohio State University: "There's certain sports I like to compare to the Mafia. It's very difficult for you to get in. Everything is handled within. You have to do something extraordinary to be accepted."

Sacramento State athletic director Terry Wanless agrees that "there's still a certain level of the macho-man mentality," but said he has seen great improvement in the level of acceptance for his school's psychological services.

Still, Wanless said he will not insist that Sacramento State coaches make counselors or psychologists part of the Hornets' sports landscape.

"I look at myself as an enabler," Wanless said, "trying to get them to be open about the process without demanding how they act."

Warzecka likewise said he cannot mandate a level of acceptance at UC Davis.

"I think Davis does a wonderful job of allowing a sports psychologist to be part of the athletic environment," Flowers said. "If we had the resources, I would love to have an office in the athletic department full time. But what we do have is a situation that allows me to be over there a lot."

Flowers' background as a track star at UCLA in the early 1990s helps him build relationships with athletes. He won three Pacific 10 Conference titles in the 400-meter relay and another in the 110-meter hurdles, a credibility boost within an insular society.

Flowers said he works with 10 of the 26 teams on a regular basis, usually visiting each about an hour per week to work on confidence building and motivation, areas that coaches generally welcome. That then becomes the first step to individual meetings with athletes on emotional needs.

Psychologists around the country have said they routinely are approached to discuss performance- enhancement issues, and only later find it was a mask for an athlete to get in the door without raising suspicions. Other times, experts say, the patient may genuinely believe he is struggling with athletics, and discover through counseling that a personal problem was the block to competitive success.

"It's a mix," said Steve Portenga, who worked in the UC Davis counseling office for two years before leaving in July 2005 to become the director of sports psychology at Denver University.

"Some coaches may barely know the athlete's major and GPA," Portenga said. "They'll definitely know their statistics. But then some people are very involved and attuned to all aspects. They know what's going on in their athletes' lives beyond sports.

"There's still room for improvement. But if you look at it compared to the rest of the country, they're ahead of the curve," he said, referring to UC Davis.

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