Behind the Whistle: Fighting the Stigma of Mental Health


This story initially appeared on Behind the Whistle, the official blog of the IWLCA, and is being republished with permission from the organization. Nicholle Marshall is a junior defender at James Madison University.

On Wednesday, October 12, at Sentara Park, two rival teams, James Madison University and Virginia, came together for something greater than just a lacrosse game — we came together to break the mental health stigma by playing in honor of Morgan Rodgers and in support of Morgan’s Message

You might have seen glimpses of the day from the Instagram takeovers on the @morgansmessage account hosted by my senior teammate Elise Fiannaca, on the @ilwomen account hosted by my senior captain, Kacey Knobloch and on the @jmulacrosse account hosted by another senior teammate of mine, Lilly Boswell. My three teammates did a phenomenal job of not only capturing the day, but also capturing the significance of this fall ball scrimmage.  

Both teams' efforts of togetherness and encouragement on and off the field alluded to the fact that being a student-athlete can be daunting at times, but you are not alone, and it is OK to ask for help, especially from your teammates, coaches and staff. If you do not already know about Morgan’s Message, it is a non-profit organization amplifying stories to confront student-athlete mental health. JMU and UVA’s women’s lacrosse teams decided to join together in partnership with Morgan’s Message to break the mental health stigma by building a community for athletes and creating a platform for advocacy.    

This game day inspired me to share my journey as an athlete and encourage other student-athletes to share their own. In high school, I felt a void at times because I noticed a lack of camaraderie within my game. While I always felt blessed to have resilient teammates and coaches, I often “felt alone” being the only lacrosse player in my grade at my high school to pursue the opportunity to compete at the Division I level.

I had a challenging time opening up about my struggles, the pressure and the hardships I endured as a high school athlete determined to get to, and to compete at, the next level.

My classmates just did not understand the weight that lacrosse held in my life. While I found some grace in playing two years of high school ball with my sister, Gabrielle Marshall, who recently helped Binghamton University to a program-best finish (so proud), I often felt I was “piggybacking” off the connections she formed with the coaches and older girls on the lacrosse team.   

Fast forward to my first year at James Madison, where things began to change. Even though my career started during the pandemic, a time of isolation, I was in awe of the closeness of the team. I was almost shell-shocked at the support that was shown for each teammate. I did not feel the void I once had felt. I did not feel the absence of camaraderie anymore. Through my experience on this team, I can genuinely admit that I have found my sisters for life. It is an amazing feeling, one I hope you see in how our team competes on game day, especially on the game days we play for something bigger like Morgan’s Message.  

If you weren’t following Instagram or in attendance at our scrimmage on October 12, I want to share what you would have seen and what our team experienced playing a great game against a great rival. You would have seen the Dukes, my dawgs for life, play with passion. You would have seen how much we love and support one another. We hunted ground balls in packs. We barked, like proud Duke Dogs, on the sideline, so loud it reverberated. If you watched us play, you would have seen the way we have each other's back. I want everyone to know the way we have each other's back on the field is parallel to the way we lift each other up off the field. My teammates are my ride-or-dies until the end.

I am so grateful to have worked through my high school struggles to find teammates and a program that carries the weight of competing for championships, embraces the challenges of being a student-athlete and finds joy in the camaraderie of playing the game we love with and for the people we love. 

I am also so grateful for our coaches and staff who help to cultivate this amazing opportunity and rewarding experience. I want to give a special shoutout to Doctor Bob Harrison, our team's sport psychologist, who was on the sidelines (like he is for most of our games) during the game in support of us and Morgan’s Message.  

As a fellow ambassador of Morgan’s Message, I am extremely proud of my team and the Virginia women’s lacrosse program for increasing awareness around mental health in sports. Athletes need to know it is OK to ask for help because the champion’s journey is full of difficulties, pressure, hardship and struggle, but it is also full of people — teammates, rivals, coaches, support staff, families and sisters — who can help you and who want you to know you are not alone on your journey.   

Today’s a great day to join us in lifting up Morgan’s Message by sharing your story, connecting with your teammates, asking for help or becoming an ambassador for Morgan’s Message


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