Bubba Watson's Panic Attacks and Royce White's NBA Travel Issues Bring Mental Health To The Forefront of Sports

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Jan 04, 2013 02:10 PM EST
Bubba Watson tees off on the sixth hole during the Pro-Am
Bubba Watson tees off on the sixth hole during the Pro-Am round of the World Challenge golf tournament in Thousand Oaks, California, November 28."

Mental health issues have always been around in sports, with some athletes breaking down at crucial moments or others unable to deal with the pressure of a championship or a big game.

With the Internet and social media more powerful than ever, those issues have been able to poke through to the mainstream, including this week with golfer Bubba Watson, who spoke to reporters about his past with mental health issues as the PGA Tour season gets started in Hawaii.

Watson spoke with reporters at USA Today about fellow golfer Charlie Beljan, who suffered a panic attack in November at Disney before coming back and winning the Children's Miracle Network Classic.

"I've had plenty of panic attacks," Watson said to USA Today. "I actually went to the hospital three times thinking I was having something wrong with my heart, and my wife is like, 'What is wrong with you.' So I've had some issues, and I did some tests and a whole bunch of things where I had some issues."

Watson was preparing to play in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii, which started on Thursday. The defending Masters champion said that while he deals with anxiety issues, they usually come off the golf course, rather than during play.

"On the golf course I'm kind of in my comfort zone," he said. "Doesn't look like it but I am.

Watson spoke with Golf Magazine in an interview and said that he has been admitted to the hospital three times after dealing with panic attacks, but doctors have been unable to find anything physically wrong with him.

"I've done everything," Watson said about his panic attacks to Yahoo.com. "I've done EKGs, we've done tests, all kind of things. [The doctor] told me, basically, I need medicine. I need medicine that calms me down."

Yahoo wrote that Watson's last panic attack came in 2011 in Los Angeles at the 2011 Northern Trust Open, when he withdrew after a first-round 76. He also added that two of three times he has dealt with anxiety has resulted in hospitalization and they occurred in two-year increments, with the last coming two years ago next month.

"So this year, get ready," he joked to the Golf Channel. "I'll tweet some photos from my room, I guess."

Part of the issue for Watson was physical, after finding out that acid reflux may have affected the anxiety attacks.

"What we found out now is acid reflux, which is the same nerve endings as your heart-I was eating really, really bad, really unhealthy. I hired my trainer for health reasons, not golf reasons. I wanted to be on planet earth for a while. These health problems were arising, and my mind was racing; I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, my heart, do I have this, do I have that?" I was just freakin' out basically, in my mind," Watson said in the interview.

Watson also spoke at length about some of his fears, including his aversion to crowds and cniofined spaces, something he has to deal with while playing on the PGA Tour.

I'm afraid of three things: I'm afraid of crowds, I'm afraid of the dark, I'm afraid of heights. Those are my biggest three fears in life. Elevators, enclosed areas freak me out, as do big crowds. That's why I don't like concerts, I don't like certain places when I go into a restaurant. I like being in control of the situation and when you're in a big crowd you're not in control. It's like you're in a mosh pit. I'm real weird about certain things. I don't like that dark-that's just weird. I'm scared of heights," Watson said in the interview.

Beljan and Watson being so candid and open about their situations is good for other athletes in the sports world who may feel that they need to hide their anxiety issues from teammates or coaches. Beljan spoke to the paper and said that he now has the issues under control.

"I got myself into better shape, and I'm feeling healthier," said Beljan, who ranked second on the Tour in driving distance last year at 311.9 yards and seems perfectly suited for the 7,411-yard, par-73 Plantation Course. "I'm a little more flexible and I'm in better condition. I wasn't one to eat on the golf course, and I think that had something to do with the attacks. I have to give fuel to my body, so I'll be eating on the course this year, drinking a lot of vitamin water, too."

Watson had a big 2012, winning his first major at the Masters to reach fourth in the world rankings. He is hoping to have a big year in 2013 as well.

"Beginning of the year is always to win a golf tournament," Watson said. "The second thing is making the team event. In the U.S. we have a team event every year. We don't have a year off. This year it's the Presidents Cup, so that would be the second goal. I got my TOUR card for five years now. So that would have been No. 3, to keep my TOUR card. But I'm good for five years."

The issues with Watson and Beljan aren't just confined to golf. Royce White, the first-round draft pick of the Houston Rockets, has dealt with anxiety issues all his life and currently has yet to play for the Rockets during the regular-season due to his fears of flying and the apparent unwillingness of the team to provide a solution for him.

The 21-year-old spoke about the situation recently after the team assigned White to their D-League affiliate at Rio Grande Valley. White has not yet reported for the assignment and issued a statement earlier this week about the entire situation.

"I have chosen to not play, because the doctors and I believe it to be unsafe for unqualified Rockets front office personnel to make medical decisions, as they are not mental health professionals," he said.

White said earlier this season that he and the team were trying to figure out a way to use bus travel and other means, but that has not worked out.

"The reality is that it is not Houston's fault," White said on SiriusXM's "Off the Dribble" show, according to ESPN.com. "As much as we always want to try and blame one side or the other ... they've been thrown into a position now where they're forced to make things up as they go because a protocol has not been put in place for mental health up until this point."

White has spoken at great lengths in public about his battles with anxiety over the years and had hoped after he was drafted that the Rockets could figure out a travel plan for him after he missed the team's training camp. The Rockets took a chance on White, seeing a good deal of potential in the forward who averaged 13 points, five assists and nine rebounds in his one year at Iowa State.

"Here's how it goes," White said earlier this year to ESPN.com. "I'm scared (going) to the airport, I'm scared going up, I'm uncomfortable in the air and I feel like a million bucks when we hit the runway."

White said he is not seeking a trade from the team and that the issues aren't singular to the Rockets. He explained that the NBA does not have a standard procedure for dealing with mental health, leaving himself and the Rockets to figure things out as they go.

"I don't really think going to another team is something that would be better," White told the show. "And it's not something that I want to do. I want to play for Houston. I love the city of Houston. Since I've been here, the fans have been nothing but supportive -- that I've met in person. Twitter has been different. The fans that I've met in person have been supportive. The community here is great. I have a lot of friends that work in the organization, in the building, that aren't even related to practice or the game, so to speak. So I have no intention or desire to play for another team."

Earlier in his college career, White dealt with some other issues before settling at Iowa State, where he impressively led the team in points (13.4), rebounding (9.3), assists (5.0), steals (1.1) and blocks (0.9).

Taking a bus instead of flying is not something new in the sports world, but it is on this scale. Commentator John Madden was known to take his bus to broadcast football games, as was Tony Kornheiser when he was doing Monday Night Football. But the difference in those cases was that they two were not playing in those games and that football was only played once a week, allowing time for travelling.

White is a talented star, but will need support to have any type of NBA career. The fact that basketball is a team sport and golf is an individual game separated the situations for White and Watson, but any extra awareness out there for mental health issues is a positive for every athlete in professional sports. White has the potential to be a great player, but he has to find a way to get out on the court first.

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