Anger attacks were college hockey coach Mark Wick’s biggest depressive symptom. For years, he let the sport’s macho culture mask his need for help.
Mark Wick had been skating by with his volatile temper for years. As coach of the men’s ice hockey team at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, he usually saved his angry tirades for the team when they didn’t practice or play to his standards.
If he went home upset, he was liable to lash out at his family.
“My kids and my wife knew that if we lost, to ‘stay away from Daddy,’” says Wick, 56, whose three children are now in or through college. “I would be irritable, and there was a good chance I would holler at them. I took it out on the ones I loved most—my wife, kids, my team.”
Then came a night in January 2015, when the Saints lost the last home game of the season to a team they usually trounced. As the victorious visitors performed a stick salute to their fans—a gesture considered disrespectful to the home team—Wick erupted.
He began screaming at the opposing team’s coach. Players from both teams stepped in to restore peace.
Putting his job and his reputation at risk turned out to be the slap in the face Wick needed. His wife, Linda, had been urging him to get help for his irritability and moodiness for years.
Just a few weeks earlier, Mark Wick had become so distraught at losing an away game that he rocketed into fury, then dropped into despair.
“I got on the guys hard,” he recalls, then went out to walk it off. Instead, “I could hardly breathe. I felt like I had a huge weight on my chest. I was crying.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m a terrible coach. Those guys don’t listen to me. Come to think of it, I’m a terrible husband, father. Everyone would be better off without me.’”
After his season-ender explosion, he was ready to accept an intervention. Linda Wick, who is a nurse, quickly arranged appointments for her husband with a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
Mark Wick remembers one of the first things his psychologist told him: “Depression is not your problem—it’s the fact that you don’t take care of your depression.”
Despite a strong history of mental health issues among relatives and in his immediate family, Wick had wrapped himself in denial for decades, refusing to recognize his verbal outbursts as signs of a depressive disorder.
While sadness and withdrawal are commonly thought of in association with depression, it also can express as increased irritability and anger, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.
When symptoms fall on that end of the emotional spectrum, it can be more difficult to recognize the underlying depression, even for the family physician. It may be harder yet when it comes to men because of male stereotypes, and hardest of all for men in contact sports like hockey, who are basically expected to be aggressive.
His wife had long been concerned about Wick’s excessive anger at work and self-isolating, testy behavior at home. Back when they were still college sweethearts, she suggested his moods were part of a depressive disorder.
“She saw it, but I wouldn’t admit it,” Wick says. “I didn’t like that word—depression.”
In retrospect, he can see early signs of perfectionism and self-criticism. As a young athlete in hockey-mad Minnesota, he had trouble accepting defeat. Academically, he would berate himself if his grades fell below his own expectations.
After earning a master’s degree in athletic administration, Wick joined the coaching staff for the hockey program at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. By the time he left six years later, he was head coach.
“It was something I was passionate about, college hockey,” he says. “I enjoyed the college environment, being around athletes.”
HIDDEN IN HOCKEY
In 2004, Wick returned to his alma mater, St. Scholastica. Under Wick as head coach, the men’s hockey team nailed their first winning season in 25 years during the 2005-06 season.
The Saints made it to their league finals in 2007 and 2014, and reached the NCAA national championship tournament in 2009. The Northern College Hockey Association named Wick coach of the year in 2009 and 2012.
Along with the accolades, however, came rising expectations.
“I put more pressure on myself,” he says. “The year would start off great; I’d be very positive. I wouldn’t yell a lot. But as the season went on, little things would get me. I’d become more irritated.”
Over time, Wick became “notorious” for yelling in the rink and the locker room. One of his triggers: If a player arrived late to board the bus for an away game, or the team missed a play during a drill, he took it to mean that they didn’t respect him.
According to Wick, elsewhere on campus “everyone loved me. They thought I was fun and caring. When I got with my team, that’s when I would lose my composure.”
His sport offered the perfect cover for his depression-fueled anger: “I wasn’t the only coach acting like that,” he says. “It was kind of the culture in hockey, so it didn’t really raise the red flag.”
There’s been some give in the rink-side stigma about mental health in recent years, such as NHL teams tagging onto Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk campaign. As Wick’s diagnosis became public knowledge, he started hearing from other coaches who also were dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression.
ON THE OFFENSIVE
Wick and his wife relocated to Minneapolis in 2018, after several more seasons coaching the Saints. He still has a toe in college hockey, helping out the coach at Augsburg University, but Wick’s true passion now is speaking about mental health to high school and college athletes.
Wick, who has a certification in mental health first aid, tries to give his young audiences tools to assist teammates in trouble.
“I felt there was really a need out there for education,” says Wick. “Many students were struggling but not getting help. Coaches were concerned. They didn’t know what to do.”
In April, Wick offered advice to about 120 attendees at an American Hockey Coaches Association conference on what to watch for and how to approach a young player.
By sharing his story, Wick hopes to challenge shame, ignorance, and the macho culture of the sports world—all factors that prevent young athletes and their coaches from seeking mental health care.
What not to do, he says: Ignore emotional distress, “hoping it will go away.”
Adds Wick, “We have to look out for each other. There are a lot of successful people who live with a mental disorder, as long as they control it.”
• • • • •
What works for Mark Wick
Seek out those who “get it.” Wick attends an all-male peer support group. “I can tell if one of them is not doing well and they can tell the same about me. It’s honest conversation where you can get your stuff out to get out of that hole.”
Arrange for reality checks. “I need people close to me let me know when I’m going back that way,” Wick says, referring to a spike in his depressive symptoms.
Find tools for emotional release. Wick’s therapist made him an 11-minute meditation tape that he listens to before getting out of bed and at the end of the day. Wick has also experimented with mantras, deep breathing, and a technique called tapping that is derived from the principles behind acupuncture.
Printed as “Everyday Heroes: Delay of Game,” Fall 2019
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