Authenticity and Mental Health in Sports and Corporate America

Do you remember when Simone Biles decided not to compete in the Tokyo 2021 Olympics because of mental health? What a moment. 

Beverly Oden, guest on episode 2 of Unlocking the Club, remarks on the bravery it took for Biles to do that. 

As a former Olympian herself, Beverly knows the pressure and training that would have made a decision to step away because of mental health a near-impossible thing to do. 

And, in doing so, Simone Biles showed just how important it is for athletes to prioritize their mental health and speak up about it. Today, many athletes are doing just that, and it’s changing the conversation around professional sports and personal well-being. 

We talked about all of this with Beverly on the podcast as well as her advice for how each person can find their authentic voice in the corporate world to successfully navigate it. 

Navigating the Club

Part of Beverly’s “eclectic” mix of career opportunities was working as a journalist for Sports Illustrated. This was in the peak of magazines, where there was a lot of money and opportunity in the field. 

As a black woman in the industry, Beverly wasn’t really part of the “club” of white men. While they were increasing diversity with more women on the team, the intersectionality of Beverly’s identity brought more levels to work through. 

Growing up as one of the only black people in her neighborhood, Beverly understood what it felt like being just outside the club—she was used to it, she didn’t need to be in it.  

And navigating that in a professional space is a bit different. 

There’s the club that goes out for drinks and rounds of golf—things that earn the ever-important social capital in the corporate world. 

But you don’t get invited if you’re not in the club. 

So, Beverly had to find other ways to be her authentic self and build connections and opportunities for herself. There were two key lessons she learned at this time: 

  • Leverage your knowledge: As a former professional athlete, Beverly had more knowledge than a lot of her colleagues about the athletes they were interviewing. This gave her an edge that helped her be successful in the role. 
  • Advocate for yourself: Unlike sports, a true meritocracy, the corporate world requires you to speak up to stand out. Putting your head down to work hard and hope they notice doesn’t bring promotions and opportunities—advocating for yourself does. 

Beverly moved to New York for the job at Sports Illustrated, so this time of learning to navigate the club was also a time of deep self exploration and freedom. And, through it, she learned to find her authentic voice. 

Finding Your Authentic Voice

But the most important thing to navigating a system that’s not made for you is to find your authentic voice. 

For Beverly, it took a while to do. But as she navigated living in New York and a corporate job, she was able to build up confidence in who she is and what she has to say. 

One empowering memory Beverly shared was going out in New York and hitting the clubs. 

This was during the time when I was with the WNBA, so a group of us would go out, Beverly too, and we’d go right up to the front of the line—”Hey, we’re with the WNBA and we want to get in.”

And we got in. 

Beverly remembers the empowering feeling of that. And it taught her—and all of us—the power of confidence and authenticity. You don’t have to be something you’re not, you just have to be confident in who you are. 

So, today Beverly has confidence in herself and her work. She’s found ways to connect with others in a way that makes sense to her and takes on projects that are aligned with her goals and values. 

And, when other people have an issue with who she is or what she stands for, she just remembers—it’s a them problem. Who she is is not the problem. And if she keeps speaking out with a clear and confident message, other people will start to listen. 

Mental Health in Sports

There was a time in Beverly’s life where she didn’t feel confident, though. 

Beverly competed in the 1996 Olympics in women’s volleyball. The team was going for gold but didn’t even medal. 

Beverly was gutted. More than that—she was demoralized, humiliated, despondent. 

Her identity as an athlete was so tied up into her identity as a person. So to fail in volleyball was to fail as a person. 

And so she quit. She left the sport and pivoted into journalism. 

A lot of people didn’t understand the decision because she was still in her prime athletic years. 

But for those who knew Beverly, they knew it was just a job for her—not a passion. She realized that she didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t have to stay in something that didn’t turn out how she wanted. 

Because it wasn’t the love of her life, she could drop it. She decided she could be good at something else and succeed in another area. 

And because she was able to cut it off, she was able to find her identity as a person beyond her identity as an athlete. 

This experience has made Beverly passionate about mental health in sports. She sees the immense pressure athletes are under, from grade school to professional level to only be one thing—and athlete. 

And it’s at the cost of discovering identity and protecting mental health

But things are shifting. Today, many athletes are speaking out about mental health and social justice issues. They’re finding and using their voices. 

It’s an important shift, and one Beverly wants to be part of. 

Today, she’s working on becoming a counselor who will specialize in working with people of color, trauma victims, and athletes to support their mental health. You can connect with Beverly on LinkedIn or Twitter, or tune into our full interview to learn more about her passions and initiatives.