Saskatchewan·Point of View

Opening up to my football friends about mental health taught me what 'team' really means

When I finally got the courage to talk, the response surprised me. I learned that being part of a team extends way past the game itself.

When I finally got the courage to talk, the response surprised me

University of Saskatchewan Huskies wide receiver Yol Piok says his teammates were very supportive when he opened up to them about mental health problems he was experiencing. (Heywood Yu/University of Saskatchewan 2019/Get My Photo)

This piece was originally published on Jan. 29, 2020.

Finding freedom was easy for me as a kid. All I had to do was grab a football and find a field.

As I got older the game became more serious. It also became part of a larger struggle I was having with mental health. 

I battled severe anxiety. I worried about disappointing my teammates. 

At the same time, I was scared of what they would think of me if I told them about my mental health troubles. I worried they would think I was soft. 

When I finally got the courage to talk, the response surprised me. I learned that being part of a team extends way past the game itself.

'A win for one of us is a win for all of us'

Football helped me gain some of my greatest friends and taught me priceless values. The work and accountability needed to play at a high level create a brotherhood that goes beyond the field.

The first time I was able to bench press 225 pounds, I had 30 of the biggest men you can imagine screaming and yelling while I pushed the bar to the finish. After the rep we all celebrate together. I was the one that completed the rep, but a win for one of us is a win for all of us.

Moments like these make football special.

Physical preparation is important, but the mental side is also crucial.

Everyone prepares mentally by watching film of opponents and their tendencies. I also had to prepare to deal with my nerves, which became overwhelming at times. My heart felt like it would beat through my chest. My palms were sweaty. 

I didn't want to let my teammates down. 

University of Saskatchewan Huskies wide receiver Yol Piok celebrates a touchdown. (Heywood Yu/University of Saskatchewan/Get My Photo)

'Just pre-game nerves'

I remember the first time I threw up before an athletic event. It was Grade 4, before my first 800-metre race. I had no idea why, but I had the sudden urge to vomit. When my race was called I got up, threw up, and made my way to the start the line. 

This continued for years in track and eventually made its way into football. In my senior year of high school, I did it before every game. I was too embarrassed to talk about it. 

My coaches asked if there was something wrong, but I shrugged it off and told them — and myself — it was just pre-game nerves. 

I started to realize there was more to it once it started making its way into my daily life. 

'What is wrong with me?'

School became difficult. I would become self-conscious about what I was wearing or whether people liked me. 

I didn't know what was happening to me and was too embarrassed to talk to anyone about it. I started isolating myself. That's where true depression made its entrance. 

I would wake up physically exhausted regardless of how much sleep I got. Activities I used to love began to feel like chores. The only place I wanted to be was in a dark room alone. The exhaustion would turn into sadness and a whirl of thoughts that always ended with, "What is wrong with me?" 

I believed since I was young that sharing your emotions was a sign of weakness. I thought I should just suck it up because it wasn't physical pain. I didn't want to share because I felt like I would be seen as broken. 

The turning point was when I started making decisions that hurt the people closest to me. That's when I knew I had to deal with my issues. 

Yol Piok is a wide receiver for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. (Josh Schaefer/University of Saskatchewan/ 2019)

'Never be ashamed'

A counsellor helped me understand my emotions and what they were stemming from. After many emotional sessions, I just felt so free. 

Before I started getting help, the thought of opening up to my teammates was a nightmare. 

It ended up being the complete opposite.

I remember the conversation I had with one of my teammates. They could tell something was wrong.

When I told him how I was feeling, he became very emotional and let me know that our relationship goes beyond the game. He also made it very clear to never be ashamed to talk about how you feel.

It shocked me at first but later I realized how much he truly cared for me.

Talking to them about my struggles made our relationships deeper and helped destroy the stigma of mental health. 

It reminded me that the true beauty of football is in the bonds you get to build. Every Huskie alumnus I have met has said that you forget the scores of the games you played but you never forget the people you play with. Now I understand why.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, help is available.

For an emergency or crisis situation, call 911.

You can also contact the Saskatchewan suicide prevention line toll-free, 24/7 by calling 1-833-456-4566, texting 45645, or chatting online.

You can contact the Regina mobile crisis services suicide line at 306-525-5333 or Saskatoon mobile crisis line at 306-933-6200.

You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.

Kids Help Phone can also be reached at 1-800-668-6868, or you can access live chat counselling at

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Yol Piok is a wide receiver for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.