From Bearkat To Boston: Candice Williams' Journey In Mental Health And Sports
Feb. 17, 2023
SHSU Media Contact: Campbell Atkins
When Boston Celtics’ Director of Mind Health and Wellness Candice Williams sat on a panel promoting Youth Guidance Boston’s Working On Womanhood (WOW) program to discuss the importance of mentorship and its connection to mental health, most of the teenagers in attendance flocked to take a photo with the team’s power forward, Grant Williams. After all, it’s not every day you get to meet an NBA player.
It may be just as rare, however, to encounter an individual like Candice Williams. The Sam Houston State University PhD graduate has risen through the ranks of mental health while the field continues to garner more attention and establish a foothold in the world of sports.
Just ask the girl at that same January event who, rather than approaching Grant Williams, asked to take a photo with Candice.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” Candice Williams said on the encounter. “It spoke to her career aspirations to see other women in those spaces. That warms my heart.”
Williams’ own career aspirations were forged as an employee and graduate student at SHSU. The Huntsville native earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Texas A&M University before signing on as an academic advising coordinator in Sam’s College of Criminal Justice. She spoke often with undergraduate students in this role and assisted them with their plans after college, which inspired her to pursue her master’s degree in community counseling.
“I figured if students are coming to talk to me about what they are dealing with in their personal lives, because of the impact it had on their academic performance, why not transition to a career in counseling,” Williams said. “Coming out of Texas A&M and transitioning into a position that required a lot of responsibility really helped me develop into the professional and clinician that I am.”
Her natural charisma and ability to assist others with their issues, big or small, led to a role at Children’s Safe Harbor, a youth advocacy center in Conroe. While assisting kids experiencing trauma, she took the next step in her Bearkat journey and earned her PhD in counselor education and supervision from SHSU.
While applying for the doctorate program, Williams was required to complete a presentation on mental health. She realized, as an avid sports fan, that working with athletes was her ultimate dream job when considering her future goals. The focus of her presentation was mental health in sports.
“What I was saying I wanted to do was against the norm,” Williams said. “Knowing the trajectory my career has had, I definitely owe that to the support and encouragement of the faculty at Sam Houston because they believed in what I was doing.”
As one of the few members of the program focusing on mental health in sports, Williams’ dissertation earned her a rare research grant from the NCAA. When she left SHSU with her PhD, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former football players was starting to come to light in the mainstream and the world of sports was beginning to broaden its horizons in terms of mental health.
“The challenge, of course, is that there was always a stigma related to mental health,” Williams said. “There are some negative assumptions related to how it is introduced into the sports community. People would connect it to weakness or a lack of mental fortitude when, in fact, it is no different than our physical health. We would never tell a person they lack the ability to get over COVID-19 or cancer.”
Williams interviewed for a job with the NFL and, while she didn’t ultimately receive an offer, it opened the door for her to network with individuals in the space. In 2014, she accepted a position as program manager with The Trust, an extension of the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA), that required her to navigate and provide resources for former players as they transitioned into life after football.
“I had to connect players with resources over the phone, which helped me become more flexible,” Williams said. “I was sort of thrown into the deep end and had to learn how to adapt.”
After five years of invaluable experience, she accepted a position as athletic counselor with Ohio State University Athletics. She provided mental health resources to Buckeye student-athletes, coaches and trainers and was able to work closely and personally with these individuals. It was a seamless transition after having to work with players primarily via phone for the NFLPA.
While acknowledging the difference in age and expectations of student-athletes versus professional athletes, Williams believes the potential challenges of her roles with the Buckeyes and the Celtics are the same. She knows how far mental health in sports has come since the start of her career in terms of awareness, but those who are struggling still need to take the next step and seek professional help when necessary.
“I think people now understand that it’s needed, but the other part of that is the ‘now what?’ What does the action look like,” Williams said. “In some ways, a lot of education has had to happen on my part as a clinician in this particular field in terms of educating coaches, players, parents and even other sports medicine professionals. The biggest challenge is getting them to take that next step in utilizing their resources.”
Some athletes who have taken that next step have sought therapy or surrounded themselves with people they can speak with openly about their struggles with mental health. Many major sports organizations and teams have taken strides in recent years to fixate on mental health and provide greater resources. Some have even made it a requirement to have a mental health professional on staff.
“I am blessed to be embedded into an organization like the Boston Celtics that has a full-time position for mental health and wellness,” Williams said. “All of the organizations I have worked for, as well as myself, have been strategic in how we introduce the concept to players and coaches.”
Williams officially began her role with the Celtics in August and is just over the halfway point in her first regular season with the squad, who possessed the best record in the NBA at the time of this writing. When asked to detail any future aspirations, she said she preferred to focus on the present moment.
“I just want to lay the foundation for mental health and wellness in this space, particularly within this organization, and I have been supported to do so,” Williams said. “Rather than think about what the future holds, I really want to focus on how I can continue to make an impact right now.”
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