Toughness was of one of head coach P.J. Fleck’s favorite topics this past offseason, so it came as no surprise when the subject resurfaced in his postgame comments Thursday night.
“We’ve talked about how fast we are, athletic we are, long we are, but I’ve told all of you this toughness piece that we talk about. And that’s not a macho tough, just this ‘macho man’ tough. That’s not what tough is,” Fleck explained. “Can you be committed? Can you control your emotions? Can you challenge each other? Can you have confidence? Can you concentrate? And I thought I saw that tonight. I thought I saw a tough football team out there.”
It came up again on Monday in Fleck’s weekly press conference, as he announced that Saturday’s game against Western Illinois is the program’s mental health awareness game, calling attention to what he calls “one of the biggest growing concerns in our world.”
“I think sometimes our guys are told that men don’t talk. We keep everything inside. That’s not how we talk about toughness and being a man. It’s being accountable for yourself, no matter how you feel, and finding a way to be able to control those emotions by letting others help you do that.”
As far as how the football program at Minnesota addresses the issue of mental health with their student-athletes, Fleck lauded the efforts of Dr. Carly Anderson, the athletic department’s Director of Sports Psychology Services, and her staff. He likened having psychologists on staff to hiring a strength & conditioning coach, a nutritionist, and academic tutors. All are essential.
Fleck also touted the program’s long-standing partnership with Rachel Baribeau, a former sports broadcaster whose “I’m Changing The Narrative” initiative challenges college athletic programs to foster encouraging and supportive environments that promote positive mental health.
If you need a real-life example of how invaluable these resources can be to student-athletes, look no further than Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim.
Two plays into the Gophers’ first offensive possession Thursday night in their season-opening victory over New Mexico State, Ibrahim took the handoff from quarterback Tanner Morgan and promptly ran through an arm tackle, followed his blockers, and stayed on his feet fighting through another tackle before being brought down at the end of a 16-yard gain.
It was a vintage run by Ibrahim, making his 548th career carry for the Golden Gophers. You would never have guessed that it had been nearly a year to the day since his last carry, and that he had spent that time recovering from an Achilles tendon tear in his left leg.
Since suffering that season-ending injury against Ohio State last year, Ibrahim has been open and honest about the struggles he faced in his recovery. During a postgame interview with the Big Ten Network after the Gophers’ 38-0 win over the Aggies, in which Ibrahim rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns, he shared how weekly meetings with a sports psychologist at Minnesota have helped him work through the mental aspect of his recovery.
“We just talk about everything I’m going through, and it got me through it,” he said. “Just expressing my emotions and understanding it’s okay to feel this way.”
Ibrahim’s willingness to open up about his own struggles speaks to the culture of openness and connectivity that Fleck has sought to create at Minnesota, and he expects his coaching staff to lead by example and use their personal experiences to connect with players.
“I think the more open you are about your life, the better,” Fleck said. “You can see things coming that [these student-athletes] necessarily don’t see yet because they haven’t experienced it yet. Some of these young people they’ve lost their grandmother and that might be the first person they’ve ever lost in their family. I mean, probably you or I probably lost a ton of people in our life. And we can tell them how we got through that.”
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