Savvy Simo talks intersection of athletic success and mental well-being
Joy Hong and Jacqueline Dzwonczyk, Daily Bruin staff

Thirteen UCLA student-athletes spoke out about mental health over a month ago.

Savvy Simo wasn’t one of them.

But the junior indoor and beach volleyball player said she knew UCLA Athletics was releasing a video March 14 that allowed student-athletes to tell their stories.

“I didn’t go because, at the time, I was very overwhelmed with how I felt,” Simo said. "I’ve been dealing with more anxiety just from life itself – not even from school or volleyball."

The Southern California native said anxiety has been part of her life since high school, but her transition to college as a student-athlete was almost seamless.

The defensive specialist started her UCLA career with the indoor volleyball team in 2016. Simo helped the Bruins finish 27-7 on the season and reach the NCAA regional final for the first time since the program won the national championship in 2011.

But Simo injured her back diving for a dig during a beach volleyball match that same year, and moved in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season.

“Life’s moving so fast in front of me that I get overwhelmed with a lot of things.”
- Savvy Simo

Melinda Kirschner, the Counseling and Psychological Services' Athletics Program coordinator, said first-year injuries often make the already-difficult transition to Division I athletics even harder.

“Oftentimes, (UCLA athletes) are really used to being the best at their sport, and coming here at a whole new level is a big adjustment,” Kirschner said. “If someone gets injured, that can be a real challenge because they want to build their relationships with their coaches and their team, and if they’re just a little bit separate as a result of the injury, that can be hard.”

While the injury wasn’t ideal, Simo said her anxiety doesn’t generally stem from volleyball.

“Life’s moving so fast in front of me that I get overwhelmed with a lot of things,” Simo said.

The third-year dual-sport athlete realized the only way she could work through her feelings was by talking about them. Simo had booked a CAPS appointment once during her freshman year, but didn’t connect with the counselor.

Simo said she has learned over time to talk about her feelings to people she trusts.
(Alice Naland/Daily Bruin)

“I’m very extroverted, so I usually don’t have a problem saying how I feel or what’s going on,” Simo said. “But sometimes it’s not easy to talk about how you’re feeling because it makes it feel more real.”

Earlier this season, Simo approached Toral Desai, an assistant athletic trainer, about her anxiety.

Desai suggested Simo give counseling another shot.

“If you’re hurting and your trainer says, ‘Let’s see a doctor,’ you’re going to go see a doctor,” Simo said. “But if you’re stressed and your trainer says, ‘Let’s get you to CAPS,’ you might be a little more hesitant. I don’t think it should be like that.”

So the junior started meeting with Kirschner this year.

Simo said she now attends regular meetings with Kirschner – who had been working with beach volleyball – where she often has insightful conversations, receives advice or just vents about a bad day.

She still gets dizzy. She still gets overly tired. She still worries.

But Simo still wakes up to her 6 a.m. alarm and hops on her moped to go to weight training. For Simo, even through the ups and downs of volleyball, the sport has been therapeutic.

“Sports help me so much,” Simo said. “I’ve met people who their anxiety stems from volleyball, or their anxiety stems from sport, and that’s horrible. ... I go to the weight room and I go to practice and every day I feel so much better after I go play.”

Simo said it's not just the volleyball that helps her through rough days. It's also the conversations she has with her teammates and coaches, including beach volleyball assistant coach Jenny Johnson Jordan.

Jordan – a former member of the UCLA indoor team and former professional beach volleyball player – said she found herself in a similar situation during her career.

“Having dealt with anxiety and depression at a very deep level at one point, I can definitely hear what (Simo) is saying,” Jordan said. “I would never want to force a player into saying too much, but I think it’s helpful to know what’s going on with your athletes, even if it’s not specific.”

Jordan said that getting to know her athletes on a personal level helps develop trust between players and the coaching staff.

“Having dealt with anxiety and depression at a very deep level at one point, I can definitely hear what (Simo) is saying.”
- Jenny Johnson Jordan

The decisions coaches make – moving players from court to court, changing partnerships or even pulling players from the lineup – are most effective when they have their athletes' trust, Jordan said.

Beach volleyball coach Stein Metzger and Jordan have paired Simo with seven different partners during her three years, but she still boasts a 76-22 record – which Jordan said has to do with Simo’s ability to form good relationships with her teammates.

“At the end of the fall we ask (players), who you see yourself being successfully partnered with, and almost everyone has (Simo) on their list,” Jordan said. “She is so versatile and she does connect well with people.”

Sophomore transfer Lea Monkhouse has now played 17 consecutive matches alongside Simo. The pair has won 14 of its last 15 matches, with 12 wins coming against top-10 opponents.

Simo said their success has come from the balance of their different personalities – something the whole team works on with Kirschner.

“(My partners) know my personality so well (and) I know their personalities (because) we’ve taken tests on it (and done) activities with people that come in and work with us,” Simo said. “Maybe other teams are doing stuff similar – I don’t know – but I think it’s so critical to our success.”

With five beach volleyball seniors graduating, Simo will be just one of four players remaining from the team's championship lineup a season ago. Simo will also be one of two seniors to lead next year’s indoor team, which finished with a losing record for the first time in program history last year.

Simo has managed the pressures of two Division I sports, injuries and lineup changes.
(Alice Naland/Daily Bruin)

The rising senior said she has learned the importance of personal well-being in the life of a student-athlete – something that can guide her leadership of the Bruins next year.

“It’s not even about winning, it’s not even about the trophy – it’s just about how our team was so connected and so close and so supportive of each other,” Simo said. “I can try to bring that to the indoor side because I know what it looks like and I know what success looks like.”

And for Simo, success isn’t just measured based on athletic performance.

“You can’t perform if you’re not feeling your best,” Simo said. “You can’t win games unless you’re doing well off the court.”

Simo said she is still dealing with stress, but when she’s playing volleyball, none of it matters.

“When I’m stressing, this is not me, this is not who I am,” Simo said. “You accept who you are, but you’re so much more than your stress, your worry, whatever you’re going through.”