How former Duke pitcher is using her mental health journey, NIL to make a difference

·6 min read

Peyton St. George’s battle with her mental health during her sophomore season at Duke, at one point, made her want to pack her bags and leave Durham. The first player to commit to the Blue Devils’ softball program, started in 2018, St. George struggled to meet the high standards she had set for her career. In 2019, during her sophomore season, that snowballed into a loss of identity.

Though her sophomore year wasn’t bad — 2.58 ERA, eight home runs allowed and 45 walks allowed — it wasn’t up to par with the standard she had set. The first 50-win pitcher in Duke softball history, St. George credits Greg Dale, Duke’s director of sports psychology, with keeping her in Durham for the remainder of her collegiate career, which ended last month in Los Angels against UCLA in the Super Regionals.

“Without (Dale), I probably wouldn’t be at Duke,” St. George told the N&O. “I wanted to transfer after my sophomore year, and he convinced me to stay.”

St. George’s struggles during her sophomore season led her to eventually open up about her mental health battle. During her final season playing for the Blue Devils, and the first year where NCAA athletes were able to profit off of their name, imagine and likeness (NIL), the pitcher formed a partnership with the Durham Bulls, serving as a brand ambassador.

Through her visibility with the Bulls, St. George — who last month became the first Duke player to be drafted to a professional softball league when she was selected in the Athletes Unlimited draft — has worked to normalize conversations about mental health among athletes.

“When academics or your social life start to fall, everything else does,” St. George said. “My sophomore year was the opposite of that; I think my softball fell a little more than I was used to, so everything else kind of crumbled around it. My world kind of fell apart.”

Finding herself outside of softball

As a softball player, especially a pitcher, overthinking the game during a rough patch can have a cascading effect. Dealing with the rigors of a prestigious institution like Duke, combined with a grueling athletic schedule, left St. George little room for breaks and relaxation. Losing more in one season (Duke went 25-31 in 2019) than she had in four seasons (she went 63-10 at Atlee High School) while trying to build a culture from the ground up also took its toll.

“If I’m at practice for three hours and I have a paper due that night, I was just tearing myself apart thinking about how much work I have to do later,” St. George said, “when, in reality, I’m not going to be able to open my laptop at practice and write a paper.”

To combat that turbulent period, St. George painted, read Stephen King novels and hung out with teammates, despite her acknowledging that it would often be easier to “coop up in your room and be by yourself and feel all the emotions.”

Conversations with Dale helped her to understand the importance of being present on the softball field, in the classroom and other areas of her life. As she learned to separate who she is from who she is inside the circle, her passion for softball gradually returned.

“Our sports psychologist personally hates the word grind. He’s like, ‘Stop saying grind,’” St. George said. “’Normalizing the grind is normalizing things that impact you negatively in the head.’”

Having battled with not knowing who she was outside of softball during her sophomore season, last summer when NIL made it possible for college athletes to start making money through partnerships, it was important for St. George to work with brands that could enhance her brand.

“You see a lot of surface-level things that are kind of like one-time things, and your immediate thought is, ‘How much did they pay you to do that,’” St. George explained. “... Are people really being genuine? Or is the paycheck on the other side, you know, just that good that they would put this on their feed.”

In addition to her partnership with the Bulls, St. George has partnerships with CELSIUS energy drink, Diamond Kinetics, which sells softball and baseball training tools, and Bartleby, which offers things like study tools and writing tools. The 2021 ACC All-Tournament MVP said she uses all the brands in real life.

“All season long, she’s had little kids everywhere we go, looking up to her and fans of hers,” Duke coach Marissa Young said. “She’s impacting lives. She’s great on social media. Being able to use that platform to share her story and increased visibility with the Bulls is good for everybody.”

Duke softball pitcher Peyton St. George in action.
Duke softball pitcher Peyton St. George in action.

‘A mental health pandemic’

As St. George’s confidence returned, she initially wrestled with the idea of sharing her mental health struggles on social media. Having seen former USC volleyball player Victoria Garrick detail her struggles with mental health and body image, she remembered how powerful it was for her to learn that Garrick struggled despite “her life looking seemingly perfect.” As a result, she felt empowered and decided to start sharing her story.

“I didn’t realize how good of a decision it was to open that door until I did,” St. George said. “Just seeing the responses that I got and so many people that felt comfortable enough to share their experiences with me, even if they didn’t want to put it out there to the world.

“I can’t really go back from it. But, at the same time, I was like, ‘You know what, like, who cares?’ I’m only going to be a Duke athlete for five years. I only have one year left. I might as well share my story so that if one little girl is scrolling through Instagram like I was scrolling through Victoria Garrick stuff ... if it only impacts one person, then great. But if it impacts more, even better.”

Young, who gave her softball team one mental health day a semester to reset, take a break or catch up with any work they needed to finish, said she is proud of the way St. George has used her platform.

“I think it’s really brave and courageous of her to speak out the way that she has because I know so many people fear what others are going to think or how you’re going to be viewed if you share that you’ve had struggles,” Young. “I’m just grateful that somebody of her caliber, that has had the success that she’s had, wasn’t afraid to speak up and share her story.”

When it came to Duke players actually taking advantage of their mental health days, St. George also showed leadership.

“It’s like, ‘Who’s gonna take the first one?’ I was like ... I’ll take the first one,” St. George said with a smile across her face.

That’s because St. George, with Dale’s help, has come to understand the importance of rest and and prioritizing your mental health.

“It’s not something we can ignore anymore,” St. George said. “At this point, it’s a pandemic. It’s a mental health pandemic. The more we raise awareness, the more we can bring the uncomfortable discussion on mental health to light. A lot of baby steps, but eventually, we’ll get where we need to be.”