October 2023 AOTM: Leeann PassaroOct 01, 2023
Welcome back to TWN’s Athlete of the Month! Each month we are highlighting athletes in our network to share what they have accomplished outside of sports, their contribution to the athletic community, and more! Make sure to check out our socials and weekly newsletter to learn more about the athlete, what motivates them, and how to contribute to their cause.
Our October Athlete of the Month is Leeann Passaro!
Leeann is the Chief Operating Officer for The Hidden Opponent, an advocacy group that addresses the stigma attached to athlete mental health. The organization advocates and educates about mental health issues through blogs, podcasts, social media, speaking events, and an ambassadorship program. Their goal is to destigmatize mental health in athletics and promote an overall healthier sports culture.
She is a former student-athlete from Washington & Lee University and now also works as a high school English Teacher in Annapolis, MD, where she coaches soccer and lacrosse.
Leeann describes herself as a storyteller and a mental health advocate. She has been open about her struggle with anxiety and depression, after dealing with various concussions from sports.
Leeann has been featured in various publications, including The New York Times and Women's Health Magazine, for her work with The Hidden Opponent. In a recent article that published last year from Women's Health Magazine, they looked at the mental health crisis that women college athletes are facing, and explored why more isn't being done about it.
Leeann recounts how shattered she was when a former high school teammate took her own life, and how she navigated her own anxiety and depression after suffering a concussion that pulled her out of the game.
“For the first time, I was having trouble in school, having trouble on the soccer field, having trouble socially. I suffered in silence for a little bit, but began to figure it out with the help of therapy and medication and talking to my parents.”
She shares how she ultimately chose to attend and play for a DIII college to take her mental health more seriously, and how she was still grappling with her identity after being cut before her senior season. She talks about her experience in therapy and how helpful that process was. And she shares how now as a coach, she takes a different perspective, focusing on developing healthy and holistic people, not just successful athletes.
LEEANN x TACKLE WHAT'S NEXT
We were lucky enough to have Leeann moderate our Mental Health Awareness Month panel earlier this year. Alongside fellow current and former athletes, she led a discussion around the power of sharing our stories, and how we can work to erase the stigma of mental health for athletes.
Leeann emphasized the importance of being vulnerable and sharing with your teammates, and the power of positive self talk and how what we say to and about ourselves matters. She also spoke about the importance of storytelling but also the power of action, and the idea that we really need action to make change to the mental health culture.
“What kind of things do you do to take action for yourself, for your self care, for your wellbeing? So many amazing organizations are doing the good work of raising awareness. And that‘s huge and so important. I think storytelling can change lives, it has the power to connect people. But at the end of the day, The Hidden Opponent has shifted our mindset towards action. Action is what will change that stigma, that will change our environment and our culture for the better.”
She encouraged our speakers to share with audience some of the things they do to take action for themselves, and their advice around speaking up and asking for help. It was an incredible and impactful conversation for all who attended the event.
OUR FULL INTERVIEW WITH LEEANN PASSARO:
What motivated you to get involved with The Hidden Opponent?
I first met my now co-partner, Victoria Garrick Browne, when she visited my college campus, Washington & Lee University, in February of 2020. I met her briefly after her speaking event and told her that I had already been doing work in the athlete mental health sphere. She gave me her contact information, but when the pandemic hit just weeks later, we lost track of one another. LinkedIn helped us reconnect months later and we were perfectly suited to partner up and grow The Hidden Opponent together.
I had been writing and advocating for student-athlete mental health in small ways through college, as I had known a handful of student-athletes who died by suicide during their collegiate years and I also had personally struggled with anxiety and depression throughout periods of college. My own struggles began with concussions from sports and continued with a rocky relationship with my college coach.
Even though it had been my dream to play college soccer, I remember feeling so disappointed and conflicted that my student-athlete experience wasn't all that I once dreamed of. I now see that my experience as a student-athlete, for better or worse, led me to The Hidden Opponent. Holding an executive role at The Hidden Opponent has been the honor of a lifetime and I'm grateful that I get to use my experiences to lead such an impactful organization.
What did being an athlete teach you about the work you are doing now with THO and with teaching?
I wanted to work in education because, at my core, I believe in the power of a teacher, coach, or mentor. I'm fortunate to have a long list of adults who have shaped me for the better thanks to their mentorship in the classroom, on the sports fields, or in other areas of my life.
However, I've also suffered because of a coach who used his power to create a toxic and abusive team environment. I've spent time reflecting deeply on each of these relationships and I recognize how each affected my growth, confidence, and sense of self. I try to use these examples to craft my day-to-day leadership, whether that be in my role as a teacher, coach, or non-profit executive at The Hidden Opponent. I often joke that it feels like I hold three (or more) full-time jobs, but I see them all as very intertwined. I teach my English students in the same way that I coach my soccer team or guide student-athletes at The Hidden Opponent.
Being an athlete my whole life, I'm accustomed to careful time management, adapting to changing circumstances, or working to get the best out of myself and others. When I graduated from college, I was confident in my abilities and my career choice moving forward, but I underestimated just how much being a student-athlete would help me in my next step. No matter your career or life after college, there are a lot of lessons that you can apply from your life as a student-athlete.
What is the most important thing you did for yourself to start planning for life outside of sports?
Throughout high school and college, I was always involved in many different areas of campus life, many unrelated to sports. In high school, I served on student government, sang in the a cappella group, and spent my summers as a camp counselor. In college, I studied abroad, recited poetry at open mic nights, went on outdoor adventure trips, and developed my skills in videography. Growing up, my parents encouraged me to foster many talents and areas of interest. My mom always jokes that she wishes I continued with something more laid-back, like music, instead of soccer.
Being a soccer player was always one of my most prized identities, but it was never the only one. I can't stress how important it is to find passions outside of your sport and develop these early on. These passions may change and may always be second to your sport, but having these other outlets will be crucial when it comes time to transition out of sport, which will eventually happen for every athlete.
When and how did you decide you were ready to make the transition out of sports?
My college soccer career did not end on my own terms, which was hard for me to accept, but I came to see it as a blessing. Though I did not play soccer my senior year, I joined the club rugby team because I had picked up the sport while I studied abroad in Australia for the spring semester of my junior year. Rugby is a beautiful sport and it came to me when I needed it most. I was at a low point mentally because my time as a soccer player had come to an end and soccer had been so important to me for so many years.
Although I had other areas of interest, I was still left questioning my identity without soccer. Rugby gave me a new athletic outlet, which allowed me to push myself physically and mentally in new ways, all while being a part of an incredible team. My rugby coach ended up being one of the most important coaches I've ever had because he really believed in me and fostered my own confidence in my abilities. While we were a competitive team, I was able to relieve myself of the pressure I had felt as a soccer player and just have fun playing sports again.
While I've definitely transitioned out of sports, sports are still a part of me and my day-to-day. I'm no longer a competitive athlete and the only workout on my schedule these days would be my Saturday morning flag football league. However, I coach two high school teams - the varsity boys soccer team and the varsity girls lacrosse team - at the school where I teach. I've found such joy in helping young athletes reach their potential. While my involvement looks different from the sidelines, I still feel the same game day hype or the rush of a great play.
What advice do you have for athletes around moving on from sports to their next chapter?
At the end of the day, playing your sport is hopefully driven by your passion for the game. If you can find other areas of passion, you'll find that life outside of sport is really similar to being an athlete. You can bring many of the same principles of being an athlete to these new passions or your new career and find success thanks to them. Tackle what's next with the same energy, passion, and process that you had during your athletic career. Your time as an athlete will always be carried with you.
Why is speaking about your mental health journey so important? Any advice for athletes around advocating for themselves and their mental health?
I remember looking around the locker room one day and wondering if I was the only one struggling. I was not, we just weren't talking about it. Any individual athlete or team cannot be successful without health and wellness as a priority.
Sports culture has made great advances in treating the physical health of athletes in order to optimize performance, but we are just beginning to treat mental health in the same way. We have a long way to go, but I'm hopeful that one day, mental and physical health will truly go hand in hand as we look to get the best out of each individual athlete.
Athletes are calling for change in many areas of sports culture. By speaking up about our mental health, we are calling attention to some of the issues within sports culture and empowering others to share their stories. The stigma of mental health can be even greater in sports because some may equate "mental health" with "mental weakness." Sports culture teaches athletes to be tough.
Without these voices, we cannot change our systems to better suit the needs of student-athletes. Mental health also plays a huge role in other aspects of an athlete's life - physical health, social life, academic success, financial health, identity, and more. As such, it's especially important to bring attention to this issue and create change to holistically support all student-athletes.
Thank you Leeann for sharing your experiences, insights and perspective with all of us. It’s so important to share the whole story, both the ups and the downs, the positive and the negative. With grace and vulnerability, Leeann shares fully with all of us and encourages all of us to do the same. She shows us all how to speak out, share with others, listen and take action to change the culture for the better. We’re proud to highlight Leeann as our October Athlete of the Month.