The emotional fatigue of the WNBA bubble
Even the league’s MVP, A’ja Wilson, has found it hard in Florida
As A’ja Wilson stepped onto the practice court with the Las Vegas Aces, she felt numb, dissociated from the inbound plays and half-court sets she was participating in. It was a stark contrast from the joyous Wilson who the league and its fans had come to know and embrace.
That week, Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The shooting had weighed heavily on Wilson. There was a sense of helplessness being in a remote bubble. And there was fear knowing that, as a Black woman coming from a Black family, such an event could have impacted her own kin.
It’s a year when WNBA players have been asked to continue performing as the top players in the world during a truncated season, all while living in an enclosed bubble with their teammates and hundreds of miles away from friends and family. While doing so, these same athletes have also managed to lead the sports world in athlete activism, using every ounce of their platform to advocate for social justice in an effort to amplify the movement that has been felt across the country.
As the Aces’ practice continued, Las Vegas head coach Bill Laimbeer, noticing something wasn’t right with the star forward, pulled Wilson aside.
“Just get through it,” Laimbeer said, referring to Las Vegas’ practice. “Get through it and then you can go to your room and then you can think about it or not think about it.”
While the physical and mental demands of this basketball season, in which players have competed every other day, already presented a high potential for holistic fatigue, players have also grappled with the additional emotional trauma stemming from their activism.
In a season that pushed the mental boundaries of every player in the bubble, mental health awareness and the conversation about erasing the stigma associated with discussing mental health became a focus in the league.
For Wilson, who is preparing for Game 2 of the Aces’ semifinal matchup Tuesday against the Connecticut Sun, the mental toll of being in the bubble has weighed heavily all season long.
“I’ve struggled mentally, emotionally,” Wilson, the newly minted 2020 WNBA MVP, said. “I’ve been emotionally fatigued all the time.”
Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa has been out front in normalizing conversation about mental health and encouraging people both inside and outside of the bubble to seek care if necessary. For Achonwa, the topic of mental health hits close to home. When she was at the University of Notre Dame, she lost her best friend to suicide.
“Your mental and emotional state is just as important as physical. No one should fight these battles alone and in silence,” Achonwa said.
Achonwa said the sheer nature of the bubble against the backdrop of current events in the country has forced players, even those who have never struggled with mental health previously, to pay attention to and confront their mental health.
“Being thrown into a bubble in the middle of the pandemic, while trying to balance emotional trauma with everything that’s going on in terms of protesting in terms of police brutality … being away from your family in a crisis, playing in a condensed season and playing every other day, I mean, you’re throwing shots left, right and center,” Achonwa said.
Achonwa and Wilson agree that when it comes to mental health in the WNBA, there is an openness and vulnerability that allows for healthy dialogue and encourages players to seek help. Erasing the stigma of mental health is something Achonwa hopes is adopted across other sports leagues.
“As professional athletes, as these figures that are seen as superheroes … it’s important for us to be able to be vulnerable, to be able to show that we’re not perfect, that we do fight these battles and that it’s OK to talk about it,” said Achonwa. “It’s OK to seek help, it’s OK to not be OK all the time.”
Wilson has tried to apply that sentiment herself throughout the season. One of the best lessons she said she’s learned about navigating mental health issues in the bubble came from Aces assistant general manager Christine Monjer, who has pushed Wilson to “feel the feelings” as she encounters them.
“I think when we get caught up in rejecting feelings and not wanting to feel those feelings because of something, that’s when we get messed up within ourselves. If I cry, I cry. If I’m mad, I’m mad,” Wilson said. “I’ve been living off that ever since.”
On the court, Wilson’s MVP season led the Aces to the WNBA’s top seed through the regular season. Wilson averaged 20.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and was the only player in the WNBA to rank in the top eight in both categories.
But before the season’s start, Wilson almost never came to the bubble.
“I had kind of thought about not playing,” Wilson said.
For much of her career, Wilson has been private about her struggle with mental health. When it came to opting into the WNBA season, the biggest factors for Wilson were her mental health and the uncertainty around COVID-19.
“There were times when I thought about is it really for me, do I really want to do this, because I don’t know how I may react mentally to it,” Wilson said. “The fear of the unknown was there for sure.”
With the challenges of losing access to the resources and comfort of their home cities, and being separated from friends and family, advocating for mental health resources was a priority for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association before any player stepping foot inside the Bradenton, Florida, bubble.
“It was really important when we were negotiating for what the bubble would look like, that players would know they had mental health professionals they could reach out to, because obviously this season is far from normal,” said Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams, who serves on the association’s executive committee.
“We knew that it would be an adjustment for everyone, and so making sure we had people that players could contact and feel comfortable reaching out to both before getting in here and while we were here was one of the big factors that we talked to the league about.”
Over the course of the season, the league has offered various resources for players to assess their mental health. At the beginning of the season, psychologists were made available on-site for players and staff in the bubble. Psychologists have since been made available to players via Zoom. Williams said the league has also conducted voluntary mental health check-ins every couple of weeks for both players and staff. Wilson added that through daily activities such as temperature checks, players are given questionnaires that ask if they seek help or had interest in speaking to a psychologist.
“They really do care about us in a way that they are really trying to help us make sure that we are OK mentally,” Wilson said.
The league has also worked with players and teams to help expand the confines of a bubble where it’s nearly impossible to stop thinking about basketball. Players have access to a pool and can participate in activities, including golf. The league allowed for teams to take individual beach days. There were themed nights, such as seafood night. The New York Liberty came up with an idea for a Brandy vs. Monica Verzuz battle watch party in which players wore either #TeamBrandy or #TeamMonica shirts.
“These circumstances aren’t easy, but I think they’ve tried to make it not feel so mundane,” Williams said.
For many players, the hardest part of being in the bubble is the inability to turn basketball off. If they aren’t playing in a game, they’re lured to the gym on their off days, preparing for a game the following day, motivated by their competition, who they can see around them daily.
Achonwa likened this cyclical routine to the movie Groundhog Day.
“If we’re not constantly on, if we’re not constantly working, then you can’t be the best in your field,” Achonwa said. “That takes a toll physically and mentally. Sometimes you feel like you’re being spread thin. …
“If you wanted to maybe have some time alone and go to a pool and go relax, other teams are there, the refs are there, the coaches are there. You want to go eat … where we’re eating is virtually a giant conference room.”
“I got a tech in a game and then the morning after I saw the ref that T’d me up in the weight room,” Wilson added.
How players have coped with the lack of escape varies. For Wilson, she said she’s created her own bubble within the bubble – a mental space where she can focus on the little things, disconnect with the surrounding environment and get in tune with herself.
“It’s just the way that I may attack a day, the way that I may get up, because I’m mentally exhausted because of what’s going on in the world to Black people or just focusing on the real reason of why I’m here, but at the same time being able to produce for my team every night,” Wilson said. “It is tough, I do probably just a lot more meditation, a lot more praying, just getting connected within myself.”
As the season has progressed, and the mental and emotional capacity of players have been pushed and tested, Wilson has found herself repeating a common refrain to refocus:
I’m here for something that’s bigger than me.
Despite coming to the bubble already carrying reservations about how her mental health would fare, when Wilson was asked whether she wanted to participate in the league’s new social justice council, she didn’t hesitate. Wilson knew that it would add an emotional burden to her season, but she believed that the impact of her being involved in the group outweighed any personal downside.
“I wanted to be that role model for the girls that look like me,” Wilson said. “It’s hard being a Black woman in America, and on top of that I’m a female athlete. I wanted to be that voice, and that voice for that little girl that’s watching me run up and down that court every single day.”
As a member of the social justice council, Wilson has played an integral role in how the WNBA has advocated for and recognized Black victims of police brutality and social injustice. Over the course of the season, the council has spoken to the families of victims it honored in an effort to highlight their stories in the way their families desired.
“It is super, super tough. Sometimes I just have to take a step away from it because it can get just emotionally drained,” Wilson said. “You’re talking to families that have lost so much and yet they’re still taking the time out of their day to talk to us and for us to feel their feelings. I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve taken out of the bubble.”
For a league that is 80% Black and has dedicated its season to fighting against social injustice, the mental and emotional weight of such work has taken its toll on WNBA players.
But as players who have Black spouses, siblings, parents and children, and themselves are Black women in America, not using their platform this season simply wasn’t an option.
Following the shooting of Blake in late August, players staged a strike as an act of unity with the NBA and professional sports leagues around the country. The entire Washington Mystics roster wore shirts with seven bullet holes on their backs. Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins knelt with her 5-year-old son Emanuel. The following day, players decided not to play regularly scheduled games, instead dedicating the day to reflection.
“I wish it wasn’t so hard to be a Black woman in this society that we didn’t have to take a day of rest in the middle of our season,” Achonwa said. “That we didn’t have to sit out games to be able to recharge our batteries so that we can mentally and emotionally perform our job.”
Despite the discouragement and mental drain that comes with the continued adversity players have had to overcome both in their season and in their activism, Achonwa, who has since departed the bubble after the Fever failed to qualify for the playoffs, said she found motivation in working with her WNBA community and being among a group of women who endured the toughest season in league history while fighting for a cause bigger than themselves.
“Where I find motivation or courage is, you look around and some of my friends and some of the players that are in this bubble they have their kids here, still operate businesses back at home, are still managing households – the women of the WNBA are badass,” Achonwa said. “They do, and we do, so much, and can still be great at doing our job.”