When fans think of professional athletes, most tend to lean towards believing that these are people with great mental health. The reason is because these are people that reach the highest level of their individual field and something like that cannot be done without a strong sense of confidence, both internally and externally.
However, as athletes are now reminding us today, that is not at all the case. As Kevin Love said, everyone is going through something.
And that is especially true at the collegiate level. College players are expected to juggle so much, whether it be their play on the court or their academics off of it. Like many, these transitions are tough, but they can be combated with experience and a continual growth mentally.
Sophomore guard Max Heidegger has had an interesting start to his college career. This past season, Heidegger became the face of the UCSB men’s basketball team becoming a breakout star who averaged a team-high 19.1 points per game on a very efficient 43 percent shooting and 40 percent from beyond the arc.
The Malibu, California native was one of the key reasons for the Gauchos’ historic turnaround, winning 23 games this year compared to winning six the previous season. The 23 wins also tied the program’s best mark for wins in a single season.
However, even he could attest that in a time of winning that the balance of everything never comes easy.
“It’s hard in general, everyday. It’s really tough balancing your time because obviously you want to relax a lot and hang out, but it’s tough with school, obviously, and having your basketball obligations you have to do and then also you have to work on your game on your own,” Heidegger said. “Balancing everything and getting your time organized is really tough. For me personally, having other things to do that aren’t basketball or school, other obligations, it gets really tough because I’m not free to do anything until six or seven, especially in season.”
And yet, it hasn’t been an easy ride for the sophomore. In his freshman campaign, Heidegger averaged just 7.6 points per game and shot 26.8 percent from the field and 20 percent from three-point range.
Along with that, the former high school All-CIF player was battling injuries, something that has bothered him throughout his career.
“It was really tough on me personally. Right before the year I got hurt again, in high school I had a ton of injury problems so that was a little disheartening for me, but it was kind of after the season it came to a point where I could feel sorry for myself but I knew I had things I had to do to improve myself and so I went out there and did it. But it was for sure difficult during the season and after,” Heidegger said.
A lot of times, we as fans take these things for granted. Heidegger has clearly transformed his game and it’s easy to chalk it up to new coaching or schemes but, in reality, it was a lot of hard work both on and off the court.
New Head Coach Joe Pasternack and his staff certainly played a huge role in the turnaround of the UCSB men’s basketball program, but at the end of the day players are the ones who make the real difference come game time.
In his first game this season, Heidegger was amazing. The sophomore led the Gauchos to a roaring 85-66 win over a talented North Dakota State squad in which he scored 33 points. Heidegger was definitely ready come game one, but not without a lot of hard work before that.
“Going into this past season I was a little anxious especially early on. Right before our first scrimmage I was anxious, because I hadn’t played in a long time and I didn’t play particularly how I wanted to so I was putting a lot of pressure on myself,” Heidegger said. “I was definitely anxious before this year but obviously it all worked out. I mean, it certainly wasn’t easy, after last year. It was tough, it was tough on all of us. We all as a team, over summer, pulled ourselves up and pulled ourselves together.”
Heidegger carried the momentum of that first game and parlayed it into a great season, one that was filled with many awards, smiles and most importantly, wins. This season was not perfect for the guard as he still struggled at times but, overall it was a much different experience.
“Obviously things are easy when things are good, shots are going in and you’re winning games it’s easy to be positive and it’s easy to have confidence,” Heidegger said. “I had some games this year when I struggled but even still, playing well and having a great year, it’s tough as a competitor to swallow that, to play bad and go back to the drawing board. I felt that from last year my freshman year helped me out a lot in terms of maturing and dealing with not everything going my way in college. It helped a lot with dealing with adversity.”
And even in a season where the Gauchos were winning games and having players like Max contribute at a high level there are always bumps that could get in the way.
This year, UCSB dealt with two major incidents off the court and completely out of their control. The first being the Thomas Fire, a natural disaster that affected an entire community.
“It was super tough on all of us, mentally. One day we come back to Santa Barbara and then we evacuate. We don’t know if we’re going to play, when we’re going to play. It’s hard to focus on games when you have those outside factors. Especially because we’re having to practice at high schools in Santa Barbara because our gym is smoked out. We walk in there and you can smell the fire and ash in the gym. Stuff like that was hard on us, staying in hotels in LA waiting for games,” Heidegger said.
I knew it was tough on all of us, but that’s when the team part came into play. We tried not to focus on it too much and just take it in strides, but looking back it was hard going place to place and not knowing what was happening. We thought we were in the clear and then with the mudslides we couldn’t drive anywhere, it was a whole one thing after another. I knew for us it was obviously difficult but I knew it was difficult in the community as well but I know for our guys it was tough. We had a good enough support system between us and obviously our coaches to push through that,” Heidegger added.
The second thing the Gauchos had to deal with was the Hawai’i bomb scare on the morning of January 13th. Thinking they were just going to play a game that night and nothing else, many of the UCSB athletes were still sleeping when people of Hawai’i were sent an emergency alert that a missile was headed for the country.
“That was a very weird and interesting experience. We tried not to think about it too much. Once it was over, for me personally, I brushed it off. I know a couple other players and all of us were a little bit shook still but we tried our best to shake it off, but it was super weird,” Heidegger said. “The whole day seemed weird but we really wanted to get out of there. It was a very odd experience. We’re sitting there in the morning thinking if this thing hits then that’s a wrap for us.”
Athletes do amazing things on their respective field of play, but they are not superhuman. And when sudden tragedies strike they too are affected.
Heidegger is just one example of an athlete who has overcome plenty of adversity in just two years and you could chalk that up to a lot of things. The great thing about sports is the feeling of camaraderie and that’s something that can’t be replicated.
“It feels awesome to have guys that you can trust and talk to. At the end of the day a lot of those guys I’m still going to be talking to. It’s a great feeling to have that camaraderie and friendship,” Heidegger said. “Once I’m done playing that’s probably going to be one of the parts I miss the most, being with my teammates and even just sitting in the locker room talking, hanging out. It’s great to be part of the team.”
At the end of the day, athletes are people too. They also need time away from what they love doing, they also need time to be with their friends and they also need to be weary of taking care of themselves mentally.
It is easy for us to constantly come down on athletes after hard games. There were people who came down hard on Max after he only scored three points in a Gaucho loss to Long Beach State this season. But it’s important to remember that, like us, athletes are people, and their struggles are something we should sympathize with, not belittle.
A version of this story appeared on p. 6 of the May 24, 2018, edition of the Daily Nexus.