Tackling the stigma: Bethany Balcer opens up about anxiety and mental health as an athlete
Forward spoke candidly about anxiety and confidence on Twitter during NWSL Challenge Cup
Bethany Balcer during a match against Portland Thorns FC at the Challenge Cup (Photo credit: Matthew Levine/NWSL)
Bethany Balcer during a match against Portland Thorns FC at the Challenge Cup (Photo credit: Matthew Levine/NWSL)

Whether it was Houston Dash’s Mario Kart results or Lindsey Horan’s famous teqball table, much has been made about what the NWSL players did in the Challenge Cup bubble on their down time. But, it’s not often that the players are asked how they were doing in the bubble instead of what they were doing.

For OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer, the experience did have some adversity. 

“The Challenge Cup was exactly that – challenging,” Balcer said. “I don’t think I was mentally prepared for what was going to happen. Having it as my ‘sophomore season’ was interesting to say the least. Last year I experienced a lot of growth on the field, and this year I grew a lot mentally. It’s refreshing to see growth in a new aspect that can help further my game.”

The challenges came to a head in OL Reign’s final preliminary round match against Portland Thorns FC. Balcer exited the contest in the 40th minute and took to Twitter postgame to speak frankly about her substitution.

“As an athlete with a platform, I want to be as transparent as possible,” Balcer said. “Social media can be dangerous and the idea that we are all living our best lives sometimes isn’t the truth. To have a place where I can be fully me and vulnerable about these issues is important. 

“For me not to use that would be inhibiting the reach I have to tell younger girls that what they are going through happens at every level of soccer, and they are not alone.”

While society at-large may have made strides to destigmatize the discourse around mental health, that trend has rarely shown through on a wider scale in professional sports. Balcer says that the athletes that fans see on their televisions every weekend are just like them, struggles and all. And that’s a beautiful thing.

“I think people only see us as athletes, who are always on, focused, and ready to play,” Balcer said. “Although that’s the goal, that’s not reality. We’re human beings too, and we struggle the same as everyone else. I’ve been learning that there is beauty and strength in identifying areas of our lives where we don’t have it all together, because more often than not, someone is experiencing the same type of feeling.”

In the following match – the quarterfinals against the Chicago Red Stars – Balcer bested her own anxieties. After a scoreless affair, the OL Reign forward stepped up to the spot to take one of the club’s penalty kicks.

“In the moment leading up to choosing to take a penalty, I could’ve said no and avoided the stress and anxiety of that moment,” Balcer said. “But I felt like avoiding it was still giving it power over me. To say yes and choosing to step into an anxious moment meant that I was overcoming it, because it no longer had a foothold in my decisions, and that is confidence to me.”

She slotted home her penalty past a diving Alyssa Naeher, but her side ultimately fell to the eventual Challenge Cup runner up.  

Much like the after the match against Thorns FC, though, Balcer took to Twitter to use her platform to describe her feelings on the night and how she found the power to overcome them.

Reflecting on mental health, Balcer added: “First and foremost, use your resources. There’s no shame in asking for help. Counselors and therapists are incredibly helpful, and provide practices to help overcome anything you may be experiencing. Be honest and open with yourself, and with people you trust. Don’t ever walk through it alone because there are people who want to help you. But, know that you are strong enough to win the mental battle, the physical battle, the emotional battle. Be kind to yourself always.”

OL Reign and Balcer are now on the eve of their Fall Series debut – a clash with Utah Royals FC, back where the Challenge Cup took place. While Balcer looks to gain confidence in every game, the club is looking to build as well.

“We have the same mindset we had going into the Challenge Cup,” she said. “Obviously, we weren’t thrilled with our performances, but we grew each game. We’re still finding a flow and a rhythm, and it’s exciting to see the parts come together each practice. I think being more creative up top and finding ways to put the ball in the back of the net will greatly benefit us.”

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