As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ll be exploring different aspects of the mental side of sports each Monday in a series titled ‘Mindful Monday’. In our third installment, we talked to former Rapids defender Marvell Wynne.
Wynne played for the Rapids from 2010-2014 and was crucial to the team's championship win in 2010. Later in his career, he was sidelined due to a heart condition, which took his life down a different path than he anticipated. Wynne talks the significance of mental fortitude when he was a player and how that journey evolved with his diagnosis and subsequent retirement. He also discusses the ways we can continue to grow mentally and why that is important for every person.
Editor's note: This piece has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
ColoradoRapids.com: How are you doing and what are you up to these days?
Marvell: I’m doing very well, thank you for asking. These days I’m out in Quincy, Illinois. I moved out here to be with my wife, we were married back in September of 2017. It’s very nice, very quiet here. A lot slower pace compared to San Jose, where I most recently lived or other places I lived like Denver and Toronto. Before the recent events I was an assistant coach for the community college out here - John Wood Community College. I was also a strength and conditioning coach for the Quincy University women’s soccer team. I’ve also been dabbling a little bit with yoga. My wife is an instructor so I’ve been taking her training, so, by the time this is over, I should be a certified yoga instructor. I’m also taking my certified personal trainer through NASM and training as a nutritionist so just learning the body very well. Looking to become an instructor or a teacher with some great background teachings not just my own experiences.
ColoradoRapids.com: You’ve reached the highest levels of the sport of soccer – first overall pick in the SuperDraft, you won an MLS Cup, you’re on Olympian – you have to be pretty dedicated, determined and committed to reach those peaks. Everyone likes to talk about the outcome but those high points usually don’t come without hard work, a strong mental approach, and a little luck. From your view, how did the mental side of the sport help you achieve your goals as you grew up?
Marvell: On the mental side of things, sports have helped me grow as an adult in a variety of ways. Soccer is an extremely communal sport. They always say, ‘one player doesn’t make a team’. In soccer, you can have one player that will score you a lot of goals, or that can keep balls out of the net, or defend well where nobody can run by and wins a lot of headers. Or you can have a midfielder that has amazing passes, never loses the ball, but, in essence, there is a lot of teamwork involved, there’s no way around that. I think, in general, sports has helped me be able to work well with others. There’s also a lot of integrity involved because when you are a part of a team, what you do matters. When the ball comes to you, all eyes are on you, and you have to rise up to the occasion. If you’re a defender, and someone is coming at you – right in that moment, all the attention is on you and them. Most people are hoping the offensive player will just juke you (the defender) out of your socks to get the ‘oooohhh’ moment and all that. But there you are as a defender, and you’re trying to shut them down. So, there comes a lot of points where you are working together for the same goal. But there are so many different occasions where you are the center of attention, and you have to perform. In general, sports have really helped me to focus on my own work at the same time knowing that I’m in a group situation and can help others as well. It’s also taught me that you’re going to have to do a lot of work on your own. When you’re at school, and you have the instructor in front of you, and you do what they tell you to do, but there is some homework that’s involved. You have to take care of yourself. You can train every day, but you’re not at the facility for the majority of the day. Taking care of yourself, whether that be diet, sleep, keeping yourself rested and training your own weaknesses to become stronger so they actually become your strengths. I think sports has helped a lot in getting some great cornerstones for becoming a successful adult.
ColoradoRapids.com: The mental side of the game is more prevalent and more talked about, in 2020 than it was say 10-15 years ago when you were coming up. How did you approach the mental side of your life when you were playing games every week – dealing with wins, losses, media, fans, etc.? If you could go back would you do anything different?
Marvell: There wasn’t a lot of planning involved when I was playing professionally because I was so focused on the immediate. Life never really went further than the next game for me. You pretty much train four of five times each week. Other than that, you’re focused on your body when you’re not on the pitch. I approached things day by day. I would wake up and get myself physically and mentally prepared for that training. Going to the gym early, trying to get my body warmed up. Once I went out to train, I made sure I focused on each warmup exercise to get the most out of it. Passing drills, I’d try not to mess up, make every pass spot-on whether the correct foot, the correct pace, leading the player enough. Focus on perfecting everything. Then in a small-sided game, trying to perfect those things. Are you talking enough and helping out your other teammates? Are you running for other teammates? When you’re on the ball, are you completing your passes, maybe you have shots, crosses, trying to perfect every little bit. And then afterwards, making sure you cool down correctly. Make sure I get my stretches in. Are there any other activities or workouts I need to do in the gym to try to work off an injury or maybe strengthen my core a bit? I might need to go into the training room to get myself checked out to make sure there are no lingering aches and pains. If I could go back, I’d tell myself to relax a little bit more. I was very focused. If we were on an away trip, we went to some great places. There are a lot of MLS teams in some great cities. When we’d go there, at most, I might want to go out for a nice dinner the night before and that would be it. In my head, I’d think if I took a walk that night I’d be exhausted and have no energy for the game. It would be at 7:30 the next night, but I would always be so nervous and so focused. If I could go back I'd do it different, I would hope to maintain my level of commitment to the sport but be able to relax a little bit and enjoy it. People would always say ‘you’re living the dream; tons of people would kill to be in your position’. I would say ‘maybe I’m here because I am so focused and determined.' I was so strict with my own regimens, and I wouldn’t give myself the leeway to enjoy myself. Now that I look back on it, I think there were a lot of missed opportunities. Not necessarily that I could have done things to be a better professional but just having different experiences that not everybody can have, while also being a professional athlete. This just means going in with a smile, knowing that I’m in the position that a lot of people want to be in. Going into trainings every day knowing that I’m living the dream. I get to hang out with these great players, these great guys, these friends. Maybe see what’s going on in their lives a little bit more. I would just tell myself to take a breath and enjoy the time that I had.
ColoradoRapids.com: And ahead of the 2017 MLS season doctors revealed you needed to have heart surgery to address a potentially life-threatening condition. What was going through your mind at that time? How did your playing career up to that point, and the mental challenges faced daily as a pro athlete, help you in that moment?
Marvell: I was pretty calm initially. The thing was, because I had spent so many years playing soccer - I had been playing since I was three and by that time, I had been a pro for 11 years - I had hamstring injuries that could take eight weeks to heal, I had sports hernia surgery, concussions, torn groin, twisted ankles, broken wrists. So, when I heard about my heart, I really did think of it as just another injury. My surgeon pretty much made it clear that I could opt to not have the surgery and live a pretty normal life. I’d just have to have modified workouts, and, maybe eventually down the line, I might need to have this surgery just because it could get worse not knowing exactly what was wrong with it. Or, he made it very clear that if I went through the surgery, I’d be ready to go and would actually play again. In my head, I was thinking ‘this is just a bump; I can’t play with a torn hamstring, and I can’t play with an enlarged aortic root, so I’ll just get it healed.’ Stanford also made me feel very comfortable with the risks that were involved. They said ‘this is the success rate of this surgery’ so I felt very comfortable at the time, I said, ‘it’s just another injury. Don’t have the surgery and then not be able to play soccer or have the surgery and be able to play.' I didn’t even give it two thoughts. Granted, it was very selfish of me. I’m sure my mom was going through a lot at the time as well as my family. I wanted to play. I was a soccer player, that’s who I was and what I did. That was my life, so when it came to make that decision it was actually pretty easy. Up to that point, the challenges I had faced helped me because I knew I was already in a very fit athletic state. Not thinking the surgery would be was
ColoradoRapids.com: A year or so later in 2018, you had put in a ton of work to recover from the surgery, and you felt you were ready to play, which is astonishing. Did you have a mantra or something that kept you focused on getting back to the level you were before the surgery?
Marvell: I never really had a mantra or anything that kept me going or kept driving me. My dreams were met. I played for the national team. I played for the Olympic team. I made it to MLS on my own by keeping my head down and working and training as hard as I could. Whenever somebody would come to me and say ‘this quote helped me for this’ they wouldn’t really hit me because I know what it takes to achieve my goals. It wasn’t anything like ‘I’ve gotta keep going for this that or the other,' or 'if I just listen to this, it will help me.’ I woke up every day thinking that I was one day closer to playing, and that was its own driving force. I don’t know what that says about me in not wanting to accept people’s advice or being stubborn, but I didn’t need anything else to motivate me. I wanted to play again. That’s all I knew, that’s all I was. If I wasn’t playing soccer, then who was I? I just knew that my livelihood and my happiness were tied to playing soccer. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
ColoradoRapids.com: When it came down to it you were not cleared to return to play. Essentially you were forced to retire at age 31. Mentally, that must have been a challenge unlike any other you faced. You’ve mentioned in other interviews about the dark times that followed. What was that time like? How did you do to overcome those times and those thoughts you were facing?
Marvell: It was building up to that time that actually had me in my darkest place. In October I had gone to the Mayo clinic for a third opinion on whether I could play or not. Because my cardiologist and my surgeon at Stanford said I was all good, no problem, clear to go. They’d done the surgery hundreds of times, and I looked great, and then the MLS doctor said he was unsure, so he wanted to wait a little bit longer... So, we went to the mayo clinic, and, apparently, my case was brought in front of a panel, anonymously, and, this group of doctors were presented with a 31-year-old African American male and basically, would you allow this person to play professional sports. And, bringing this up to a group of doctors, who didn’t know my experiences or anything like that, they went really conservative, and they unanimously said no. So, that pretty much sealed my fate in terms of playing soccer, at least in MLS, ever again. But who in another league would want to take a 31-year-old heart patient? Even though I was successful, and yeah, I hadn’t been playing in almost a year, but I’d been training and staying fit, so, it would have been an uphill battle to get back on the field with any team in any league to be honest, so I was rather depressed, November, December, January, to the point where I didn’t even decide to go home for Christmas. I just wanted to stay up in San Jose, be by myself, and that was that. I was clinically depressed, according to my doctor, when in January or so I went in for just a check up or whatever. He had me fill out a form, and he offered to give me some exercise, therapy or medication, is how they wanted to treat it. I didn’t really want to, I was already excercising, as much as I could, and I didn’t want to get therapy or get medication, so I just decided to step away from all of it, take a step back and take a breath. And then I realized that maybe this wasn’t the end. February, March, I had gotten the go ahead for disability, so currently I’m on disability, and I will be for quite some time. But, it’s a little bit of something to just ease my mind. And then, I just decided that it was time to retire. I realized that I hadn’t officially retired, it was just kind of out there. I recorded at home, I went into the stadium the next day, and I was working on the elliptical, and Ricky Durango, our player manager, came over and I said, 'hey, you’re going to have to retire me,' because I didn’t want to press the button to send it out to all social media. So I had it all set up for him, he just had to click send and he officially retired me. And, I overcame those thoughts, the depression side of things, just by reminiscing, saying, you know ‘I did well, and life isn’t over once you’re done playing sports or done playing soccer.’ So, I just kind of looked forward to what possibilities could be, and I put my head down, and said ‘You know what, now it’s time to start driving toward some other type of career, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I at least have a lot of options. So, you know what, let’s just see what comes along.’
ColoradoRapids.com: You seem uniquely prepared to deal with the challenges that the pandemic is presenting and the uncertainty of the future given the hurdles and challenges you’ve overcome. How has this time been for you? Has your past presented you with a unique viewpoint on this time or are you like most people, dealing with it one day at a time?
Marvell: It’s bothered me much less than others. I’m pretty much a homebody myself. I still have that soccer mentality, where I’m not going to go out and exert my energy for any reason, so I’m not really an outdoorsy person, but I’m probably going to have to change in the future, you know I might enjoy going on hikes or going up mountains and exercising for fun like everybody else does instead of conserving my body for a game on the weekend. But I’ve also been going through a lot of studying and training, so I’ve been keeping my mind busy. I have a little gym here, so I’ve been working out on my own. If I can, I go out for runs. So, I’ve been trying to keep myself mentally and physically active, which is going pretty well. My wife is going through some transitions with her businesses, and, honestly, things aren’t as well as they would be if everything was open, but she’s found different avenues for her yoga and for her restaurant and her grocery store that she has, so she’s adapted fairly well. We’re both going through some things, to be honest, but I do think I have a unique viewpoint of everything just because I know how to take care of myself in so many different ways because I’ve been doing it for so long. Whereas other people will say ‘I need to get out,’ ‘I need to do this,’ or ‘I need some kind of instructing or tutoring or help going through different things’ that they don’t have the skills to do themselves. I think everything that keeps me going from the day to day, I have enough experience to get through it and be happy about it. Whereas I know some people, want certain reliefs and things, and they don’t know how to get it themselves. I’m trying to get myself to a level where I’m trained so I can maybe help some people out with maybe nutrition or maybe some stretching through yoga or some strength work.
ColoradoRapids.com: What advice would you give to players or fans today when they might be in a low spot mentally, especially during this current time?
Marvell: For all the fans and players that may be at a lot spot mentally, I would say to just know that there’s going to be a time after all this is done, where you’re going to have time to shine. And, when that time comes, where are you going to be? How prepared are you going to be? If you’re a fan, and you’re kind of low, you want sports coming on and all that stuff, then you can watch those old games, get a little bit of nostalgia going, be even more hyped for when the season comes around again. If you’re a player, this is an amazing time to show how dedicated you are to your sport, to your profession. There are going to be players out there who are taking this as a time to relax. Who are like 'oh my gosh, I don’t have to push as hard as I would if I was with my team, if I was with my coach.’ But this is an amazing opportunity to really better yourself. To really get some good routines going on that you know will help you out in the future. Whether it’s actually being on a ball or working on your opposite foot. Whether it’s working on just juggling or working on a couple of moves. Or really focusing on your diet, on how much exercise you can do or on strengthening or core work. There are a lot of things you can do on your own, and I would recommend that you set aside almost the same amount of time you would do for a training session, and do your own thing every day. Make sure you’re familiar with that routine, because once you get back into it, you will have that routine again, and you don’t want to come back into it kind of unprepared. You want to come back into it, hopefully, ahead of the game. Not just ahead of where you think you’d be physically, but maybe ahead of your teammates, maybe ahead of your coaches, because you know they have lives too, and maybe you’ve been solely focused on how you play, and you can come back ready to go and hit the ground running.
ColoradoRapids.com: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Why is it important to have a month where this topic is more a part of the public conversation?
Marvell: It's important to have a month of mental health awareness because I think it goes largely not as noticed as physical health. It’s hard look at someone and think ‘wow, they look really healthy mentally.’ I think it comes to a point where we all need to take a step and just calm our minds or just mentally strengthen ourselves because it’s an extreme part. You can be mentally weak but physically strong and not really go very far, you can’t really do much for yourself, but if you’re mentally strong, it seems like there’s not much that you won’t be able to take over and control. If you look out into the world - how many jobs or experiences are just you just need to be physically strong and that’s it, and you can do whatever else you want? If you look at it the other way and think - how many jobs, businesses, outings that you can go to where mental strength is key? I think, in order to know that you’re in a safe place and a happy place, to a place of excitement and to a fun place, I think it’s important to self reflect and know, if you have anything bringing you down in your life, can you cut that off to make yourself happy? Are there any good things that you need to add more of, just to keep you going? Because that’s always important. You don’t go out and smile everyday just because you’re physically strong. You have to be in a happy place mentally. And I’m not saying it has to be one or the other. Working out physically makes me happy. Being physically fit makes me happy. I like being able to say 'I did this,' 'this was for me,' and that makes me feel good, so it helps me out mentally as well. I think there just needs to be a time where we relax ourselves and just think inward about our own mental capacity and our frustrations and things that make us happy as well, we can really start to fine tune and really work out our everyday mindset
ColoradoRapids.com: Any parting words of wisdom for Rapids fans?
Marvell: I would first say that everything you do is very much appreciated. It’s very difficult for players to thank each fan individually, but, when we can, we do. Whether it comes to appearances, or clapping the fans when we walk out onto the field or clapping the fans when we walk off - everything you guys do is greatly appreciated... It’s always been so much fun for the guys, the stadium is so great, I just really want to say, parting words of wisdom for the Rapids fans is thank you for everything you do. You are appreciated. I bet you all bleed burgundy, which is amazing. Stick by your team. Stick by the guys. They’re there playing for you, for the team, for themselves, for their families. It’s all one big family. Keep going strong, guys. We appreciate you all.