Vice Sports: Inside U-M’s New Approach to Mental Health for Athletes

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By B. David Zarley

Adam Kern couldn’t sleep.

He was having a difficult freshman year at the University of Michigan, in his hometown of Ann Arbor. There had been the death of a family member, plus the usual oscillation between thrilling freedom and total unmoored terror that’s intrinsic to the college experience. And then there were the academic pressures, and the additional onus of being a student-athlete on the Wolverines track and cross country teams. While his twin brother, Nick, seemed to excel, by spring track season Adam was an athlete on the bubble. His struggles were starkly clear to him, and his failings measured empirically on stopwatches and result sheets. The generalized anxiety that he had since childhood—an anxiety that might manifest in music being stuck in his head or a complete freeze after the first page of a test; an anxiety that had led Adam to ask his parents for a therapist in fourth grade—just seemed to make everything worse. There was no let-up.

Every race took on the proportions of life and death; for Adam, being an athlete and being himself seemed one and the same, and as he confronted the possible end of his athletic career, a host of other frightening questions opened in turn. In April 2011, he ran the 5,000-meter race at Michigan State’s Spartan Invitational unattached—that is, for himself, not the university.

“To me, it was another chance to prove myself, that I was worthy to have a roster spot,” Adam says in the lobby of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

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