Former pro basketball player sheds light on mental and emotional toll of the game

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Tyson Hartnett now lives in New York City where he loves playing street ball. (Courtesy of Tyson Harnett)

When South Jersey native Tyson Hartnett first hit the basketball courts in 4th grade, he had no idea what kind of journey he was in for  -- all the ups and downs and finally redemption on the road to playing professional basketball. In his new book, Hoop Dreams Fulfilled: An Athlete’s Failure and Redemption on the Journey to Professional Basketball, Hartnett opens up about his struggle with depression and anxiety as he pursued his hoop dreams.

His journey

Through most of grade school, Hartnett played multiple sports as many kids do, like baseball, soccer as well as basketball, and it wasn’t until 7th or 8th grade that as he says, he got a real bug for it. And when his family moved to Medford from Atco, NJ, he played for Shawnee High School where he really excelled.

“That was when I became really passionate and dedicated to it.  I wanted to get a scholarship to a Division 1 school and play for the NBA,” he remembered.

He did go on to win a scholarship and play for the University of Maine, a Division 1 school, but once there, he hit some snags that he wasn't expecting on the road to his dreams of pro ball.

“It was really difficult time for me when I realized that I wouldn’t get much play time there,” he explained. He left Maine in 2007 after only two years and felt adrift for awhile. After struggling with depression, he transferred in 2008 to Rowan University, a Division 3 school where he got more time on the court and received All Conference Honors. He then went on to play pro ball for two years overseas with Nassjo Basket in Sweden, Tiro Federal in Argentina and Deportivia Valdiva in Chile.

The mental tolls of the game

When he decided to share his experiences in a book, Hartnett didn’t realize how difficult it would be. “Going back into my own struggles with depression and anxiety were hard to do. When I failed, I felt like I was nothing. I was so one dimensional, my whole identity was wrapped up in basketball.”

In his book, besides sharing his own personal journey, he shines a light on the athlete mindset, how their single-minded focus on their sport causes intense internal pressures that many of them are afraid to talk about.

“In college especially, athletes are overwhelmed with both grades and playing well. They tend to start questioning, ‘Am I good enough?’”

“Sports are imperfect. There is no perfect game and this is what leads to depression and anxiety. Athletes are always pressuring themselves to be perfect.”

Hartnett emphasized that athletes need to stop putting so much pressure on themselves and instead spend time cultivating other parts of their lives.

Failure is a part of life, an important part, where we learn to pick ourselves up off the ground and keeping going. Hartnett believes that athletes instead of hiding their fears should talk about failure.

“You need to have persistence. Ask yourself how many times am I going to pick myself up after failure?”

Hartnett worries that mental health has been a taboo subject in the sports world for too long. “The focus is always on physical training, on how to perfect your shot, but there are not many resources offered to help deal with the mental tolls of the game.”

He explained that besides the pressure they put on themselves, these athletes struggle to live up to expectations of their coaches, teammates, family and even their local community.

“It is a huge part of the game, affecting how the players play and how they will react in the future, but it is never really addressed.”

He encourages athletes to not be afraid to admit that life isn’t perfect, to open up to people and to not be afraid to seek treatment.

“If you don’t have someone to talk to, your negative thoughts can take over. Depression is a silent killer, but people are scared to talk about it.”

While not as a big a factor when he was in high school and college, social media today adds even more pressure on athletes to only show a perfect image to the world. Hartnett worries that it exasperates everything. While scrolling through their friends and teammates Facebook and Twitter feeds or photos on Instagram, these young athletes forget that what is online is often a mirage and that there are others going through the same struggles that they are.

With his book, he hopes to help young athletes, their parents and their coaches, but he believes there are also universal lessons in the book that anyone pursuing any dream and can take heart from.

“Keep fighting –whatever it is in your heart. You can’t control what you are good at. Basketball always sucked me in. Figure out what you are called to do, no matter what society says, and pursue it.”

Hartnett now lives and works in New York City. He also offers training for young basketball players through his website, http://basketballtrainingclub.com/


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