Ivy Watts admits it took her years to come to grips with her own struggles with anxiety and mental health issues.
Now each time the former Waltham High track star takes the stage to tell her story, she hopes to make it a little easier for at least one athlete in the audience to recognize he or she isn’t alone in trying to separate success in the arena from intrinsic value as a person.
It was a battle the 2011 Waltham High graduate said she fought daily at the University of New Haven, where she was a Division 2 All-American. She was working toward a degree in psychology with a 3.98 grade-point average. She was part of five program records as a middle distance runner. She was named the 2015 Female Distinguished Student-Athlete of the Year and 2015 Northeast-10 Conference Co-Woman of the Year.
Yet, she always had this dread that she was falling short of expectations.
She said she had paralyzing fear in the days leading up to big meets that she would disappoint. When the races ended, a perceived lack of purpose made things worse.
“I was a college athlete and had no idea who I was beyond that,” she said. “Then I came crashing down. It’s difficult because your whole life you are cheered on because you are so good at sports. But that doesn’t have to define you as a person.”
Watts said lingering stigmas around mental illness, and a former boyfriend who discouraged therapy, delayed her from reaching out for help. But once she did, she not only realized she could help herself, but that her story could perhaps help others.
In June 2018, she started a blog called “Beautifully Simply You” (beautifullysimplyyou.com) about self-love and mental health, and began giving talks to high school teams and small groups in Greater Boston.
“When I first started my blog I was hoping that just one person would read it,” she said. “Then it turned out a lot of people in [Waltham] were reading it, and then word started to spread about it.”
She has since given her talk in front of 1,700 students at Nashua North High School in New Hampshire and has spoken at Bentley University, Emerson College, and Stonehill College. In June, Watts was in front of coaches at the NCAA Division 2 Identity Workshop in Indianapolis, Ind. In August, she spoke at a captains’ workshop at the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“I have been doing this a long time and I can honestly say that I think she resonated with all the athletes better than any speaker I’ve ever seen,” said Cindy Scott, assistant director of athletics at Bentley.
“I think our athletes really identified with her. This is a young woman who was at the top of everything as an athlete and student, and it was somehow never quite enough for her. I hope a lot of people get to hear her because she can make a difference for them.”
One of the messages Watts tries to impart: Athletes must remind themselves they “are more than just a time on the scoreboard.” She allowed that it was harder, at first, to share her vulnerabilities in front of large groups of strangers, but that she has become more comfortable with it over the past 18 months.
“It’s become less about me and more about the people I am talking to in the audience,” she said. “It’s not always easy to get it out. There are days when I am not at my best, and there are triggers that make it more difficult. But when I get on the stage I always feel it’s worth it if there is one student who hears my message and that changes, or even saves, their life.”
Over the past two years, Watts said she has spoken to more than 9,000 students and athletes, along with more than 3,000 administrators. Coaches and administrators, she said, must recognize the difference between an athlete pushing through a physical barrier and one crashing into a mental wall.
Waltham High girls track and field coach Francois Joseph had Watts talk with his team last year.
“For her to be able to talk about it now, and share that with other people, is great,” Joseph said. “We are all results-driven. But if a kid is just having a bad day, we shut them down. Then if it happens a couple of times that week, or a couple of weeks in a row, we will sit down with them and try to figure out what is going on. If they don’t want to talk to us, maybe there is someone else we can have them talk with to help them.”
Watts said she left her administrative job at Partners Health Care so she could be dedicated to her weekly blog posts and speaking engagements full-time. She has also talked with Bentley about developing a website for student-athletes dealing with anxiety and mental health issues.
“I didn’t want to pass up the possibility of doing something that could really help people,” the 27-year-old said. “A lot of people have told me that by me telling my story, then they are able to open up about their struggles, and then maybe tell their story to someone else. It’s a domino effect.”