Will athlete's fear of flying keep him from soaring in the NBA?

June 29, 2012 at 8:40 AM ET

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Minnesota player Royce White sits on the bench during an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State in Minneapolis on Jan. 23, 2010.

By Cari Nierenberg

With the 16th pick in Thursday night's NBA Draft, Royce White became a Houston Rocket.The 6 foot 8 inch, 270 pound Iowa State forward has made a name for himself not only for his athleticism, court skills, and size, but also for his candid admission of a fear of flying.

White has made it no secret that he suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, which he was diagnosed with at age 18 and takes medication for. And the 21-year-old big man has been frank about his airplane phobia -- to the point where sports writers have wondered whether NBA teams would hesitate to select him because of the frequent flights required of professional athletes.

When discussing his airplane angst White tells the Star Tribune, "It's not so much the flying, it's getting ready to fly." In the hours before boarding, he worries and gets that nervous feeling in his chest and stomach, and he may also get sick.

"I know flying's safer than driving," admits White in a recent article in Sports Illustrated. "But if I even start to talk about flying, it does something to me physically."

Although White has fessed up to this common fear, it hasn't kept him grounded. "When I'm on the plane, I'm not panicking," he says.

During college, he flew with his teammates -- including a flight to Italy last summer. Still, there were also times when his grandfather drove him to games when opponents were a car ride away.

White traces his airplane anxieties to a lifelong fear of heights.

For others their flight fright is rooted in a fear of the airplane crashing or a fear of crowds. Or it may be claustrophobia from feeling confined in a small space, says Dr. Reid Wilson, director of, a self-help website with a fear of flying program online that he developed.

Wilson has worked with collegiate football players afraid to get on airplanes. But early in their freshman year, these players get dragged in to see him by the athletic trainer to "do something about this."

"These are guys who know how to be courageous and determined," points out Wilson, a psychologist. This ability to focus helps them rapidly pick up the skills to get over their fears.

This makes Wilson optimistic for White, adding that a fear of flying is "a very treatable problem."

He typically begins by finding out the root of the fear. Wilson says the real issue is often that a person doesn't feel in control on a plane. But he explains you have to accept these worries and scary feelings and know they will leave over time.

Many people like White have anticipatory anxiety before they even get on board. And Wilson says fearful flyers may think, "If I feel this bad now, imagine how I'll feel on the plane."

"People are often afraid of embarrassing themselves by having a panic attack," he says. So they work on developing the tools to deal with it, whether it's learning relaxation skills to calm their fears, or bringing along distractions to busy their minds, such as music, a steamy novel, or sudoku puzzles.

"Usually those with a fear of flying are very bright, hard-working, high-energy people, who really do things well," says Jean Ratner, a social worker who directs the Center for Travel Anxiety in Bethesda, Md. "But they have this one area of their lives where they feel frightened and don't know what to do about it."

Ratner knows these fears all too well as she struggled with and conquered her own fear of flying. "It so disrupts people's lives who need to fly for business, family, or personal reasons," she says. "They miss out on things."

Ratner thinks it may help that White will be flying more frequently as an NBA player. But "it only helps if he learns coping strategies to manage his fears and quiet down that nervousness," she adds.

"I give this guy a lot of credit because he's saying something some men fail to acknowledge," says Ratner. "If he can bring more attention to a fear of flying and anxiety disorders, more power to him."

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