OLDS — From the eighth grade in the greater Toronto area (GTA), Austin Nzige-Nyambok has relied on his uncanny ability to see positives.
However, conversations about mental health weren’t always top of mind for Nzige-Nyambok growing up, the product of a different cultural outlook on the subject as both of his parents were born in Africa before meeting in Canada.
“A lot of it is about being tough, being perseverant, having that mental grit, ensuring that nothing really fazes you,” he said of his upbringing.
“So I kind of grew up that way, thinking that adversities and everything are just a part of life and we should never really take a second to evaluate how our mental (health) is doing through those times.”
Now, as a key member of the Olds College Broncos men’s basketball team, Nzige-Nyambok has found ways to maintain his positivity, though his perseverance has been tested on different occasions.
As a freshman at the University of Rochester in the fall of 2017, Nzige-Nyambok believed he was a step closer to ‘making it,’ having left his hometown of Markham, Ontario to play NCAA Division III collegiate basketball.
However, it wasn’t long before the dream turned dark as he suffered a concussion in the YellowJackets’ final preseason game, and his positivity faded.
“I didn’t really want to believe I had a concussion,” he said.
As a result, he pushed through until he developed a lung infection, rendering him unable to walk long distances without feeling sick and keeping him off the court for the rest of the semester, reduced to a support role.
“That was when I really had to take a second and sit down and think about who I am, not just as a basketball player, but as a person,” he said. “What do I bring to the table, more than athletically, not even academically, just as Austin?”
Stripped of his identity and confined to his bedroom, Nzige-Nyambok questioned whether or not he’d made the right choices.
Feeling lost, Nzige-Nyambok sought out counseling on campus.
“It's kind of weird, you know, to have that conversation, to walk into that building and be like, ‘can I speak to this person about this issue?’
“But when you actually do sit in it, and you do have that conversation, and the individual does reassure you that this is normal, it feels a lot better. It makes you able to better contextualize what you're going through.”
Nzige-Nyambok believes his soul-searching process helped him recover more quickly than he otherwise would have.
“It took a little bit of time, but I kind of realized that before anything else, I'm someone who serves others,” he said.
“I want to use my story to help the next individual who might not look like me, but have the same aspirations as me, or have the same ideologies towards life as me to be able to be successful, and I think that’s where I was able to find my fit.”
Throughout his mental health journey, Nzige-Nyambok has embraced the identity of being a student-athlete, though he has also experienced some of the stigma associated with expectations around male student-athletes, a topic he believes is too easily overlooked.
“You're just expected to just do what you're supposed to do, just get the job done, and I think what people don't realize is that males are humans, too,” he said.
“We need to really understand that in the sense of, just because I’m a man doesn't mean I can't cry, doesn't mean I can't talk about my emotions, doesn't mean I can't talk about my situation, it doesn't mean that I can't actually sometimes let adversity get the better of me.”
He also sees the stigmas and pressures of societal expectations being transferred to younger generations, particularly through the use of social media.
“I think we kinda lose touch with the fact that being human means failing. It means making mistakes, it means getting almost at the goal but falling short, but then trying again tomorrow, and I think that trying again tomorrow is something we don’t really talk about,” he said.
“You’re going through Instagram and you see people having the best times of their lives, and you say ‘Oh, all these people are good, their lives are perfect, they’re amazing!’, but you don’t know. That’s why a month like this where we talk about mental health is so important.”
Over the years, Nzige-Nyambok, who admits to being one of his own toughest critics, has prioritized his mental health and developed coping mechanisms to combat concerns, including getting in touch with nature, journaling his thoughts, or in some instances, withdrawing and hoping for a better tomorrow.
Though he doesn’t experience mental health issues on a daily basis, Nzige-Nyambok has made use of Olds College’s health and wellness services, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel like for someone like myself, who kind of keeps everything to myself, being able to have that outlet of just explaining, even if we're not really tackling what's going on, just being able to say ‘Hey, this is what's happening, this is where I'm at with life, these are the things that are bothering me, these are the things that I'm trying to get to,” he said. “It's uplifting in a sense, because it's that peace of not going through it alone.”
Nzige-Nyambok also credits the college with providing safe environments to facilitate conversations and growth.
“A big thing Olds College does is make us feel as though this is like a family-like thing we have going on,” he said.
“I've been able to have conversations about things going on, maybe not the specifics of it, but maybe just say ‘Hey, I'm going through it,’ and then you'll take a second and be like ‘I get it.’ To hear that, it does a lot that we don't even realize.”
As a word of advice to future student-athletes, Nzige-Nyambok believes organization and not being afraid to have tough conversations are the biggest keys to success.
“Take a second and just realize like before anything else you're human,” he said.
“You make mistakes. You go through problems. Life is not as good as you would hope it to be sometimes. That's OK. Don't let that be the end-all, be-all. Don't let that stop you from being the best version of yourself.”
This article, edited by the Albertan, was written by Olds College sports Information and Esports coordinator Geordie Carragher.