Athlete Mental Health

May 24, 2022
Athlete Mental Health

Student athlete mental health. This is a topic that is close to my heart. One of the reasons that I became interested in being a psychotherapist and a mental performance coach (who works with athletes and high-performers) is because I know the extent and the impact of poor mental health on your physical and mental performance and really your overall life, right? 

 I just wanted to write about this topic today in light of the recent suicides by student athletes. There were three female student athletes from James Madison, Stanford, and Wisconsin that have just all recently lost their lives due to their struggles with mental health. It's so saddening when, when something like this happens and continues to happen and you read articles about what we're doing to improve the support services for student athletes in our universities and professional sports teams. 

There's a lot of things that we're doing right as far as providing mental health support for athletes and a lot of progress, but there's a lot of things that we could be doing better from a coaching standpoint, from an athletic department standpoint, from an university standpoint. 

From a coaching standpoint, coaches can be doing a better job of in terms of recognizing when their student athletes are in need of mental health support. It is so helpful for coaches to know how they unintentionally  trigger student athletes and make mental health worse. Coaches do a lot of things right. They refer their athletes to appropriate support staff, but there's also a lot of coaches who make things worse. So we're just going to talk a little bit about what we can be doing better to support athlete mental health and wellness. Maybe some changes that can be implemented. What can we do to better support student athletes? If you're a parent reading this, keep reading until the end because I will be talking about things to look for if your student athlete,  is exhibiting any signs of poor mental health. I will talk about things to keep your eye on and have a conversation about.

We've had so many awesome athletes who have come out and been spokespeople for mental health, right? Like Kevin Love (NBA player), Simone Biles (Olympian),  Michael Phelps (Olympian) and so many more athletes who have been advocates for mental health for athletes because they recognize the gap in mental health support and awareness for athletes. High performing athletes are in the spotlight, and there to entertain us, but there's a lot of stuff going on below the surface and it's important to remember that they are people too.

They need support just like you need support in your everyday life. You want to be looked at as a whole person and not just as a performer. The messaging that we communicate to athletes is really important. From a University standpoint and from a coaching standpoint, sending a good message that your team or your University promotes and encourages a culture where student athletes are looked at as more than athletes is such a big deal.

Messaging that communicates that athletes have an identity as a whole person first. That is so important. There are so many universities that do a really good job of that and others that can use a little bit more encouraging to make that messaging more of a part of their program or ethos.  A mentally healthy person IS a peak performer. Right? If you have a healthy person, they're going to be a peak performer for you. If an athlete is not good with who they are, they are not going be good as an athlete. You will not be good as an athlete if you're not okay as a person. So for coaches and parents.. remember that it starts there first. 

Sometimes those conversations can be hard to have with your student athlete about how they're doing outside of sport. A lot of coaches want to make that conversation really focused and tailored to the sport and performance and what they're doing. But from the top down from the head coach to the assistant coach, to the trainer, to the athletic support staff,  if you're checking in on athletes, like asking athletes how they're doing, Hey, it was your mom's birthday? Or how'd this test go for you? Or Hey,  you're, you're looking a little down. Like, how are you doing? Super simple check-in questions can really send the message to athletes that you give a shit that you really care about who they are, not just what they can do for you.

 Stress, anxiety and depression are the top three things that I see a lot of the athletes that I work with for. They have difficulty balancing school, sport, relationships and their social lives.

There's so many pressures within those things. So much anxiety. Sometimes depression is there as well, and that stems from athletes being in a perfectionistic space where they put so much pressure on themselves to perform that in turn, when they're not managing their expectations, that can turn into depression, anxiety or lead to disordered eating. So if you're a coach or you're a parent reading this, be mindful that these are some issues that commonly come up for athletes-especially female athletes (in regard to perfectionism and eating disorders).

If you're an athlete yourself and you're noticing any of these patterns, any of these signs coming up for you, just something to be mindful of and be sure to reach out to a mental health professional for additional support.

It is so important to really dig in and ask questions around behaviors and signs that you're seeing come up in your athletes. Decreased motivation, lack of energy, isolation or any changes in eating or sleeping patterns.

 So paying attention to those patterns. Sleep is such a big one that can in turn lead to irritability and anger and bad attitudes sometimes. So much of mental health is tied to sleep and food, so really paying attention to a shift in these patterns can help give you a clue as to whether an athlete is struggling. Are the under fueling? Binge eating? Over-sleeping? Under-sleeping? So just keeping an eye on those things. When an athlete is negative or withdraws from the team, that can maybe come off as like a bad attitude, but there might be something deeper there to question. 

Athletes are really good at holding things in if they don't want a parent, teammate or coach to see that they are struggling. But sometimes things come to the surface. Anxiety, for example,  can really manifest physically. So, if you have an athlete who's verbalized that they're feeling out of control, they're shaky, sweaty, have difficulty breathing, (not just after an intense workout) those are things to keep an eye on for. 

Sometimes the thing that can make mental health worse, is coaches- God bless em! Some coaches are really good with athlete mental health and some handle athlete mental health poorly. Coaches see a problem and they want to solve it, but that can result in the athlete not feeling supported. If coaches truly want to help then they can refer their athletes to mental health professionals if they are seeing some mental health concerns. Knowing the difference between when to have a conversation and check in with your athlete and when to refer out.

So I think a lot of coaches and universities are doing good things with mental health for athletes and it's important to highlight things that people are doing right because we don't just want to be totally negative here. There are a lot of really cool programs and initiatives that, that are going well and people are doing right.

So the things that we are doing right- right now..Our mental health screenings at Universities are a really helpful tool to screen athletes who are most vulnerable when they're freshmen and when they're juniors and seniors thinking about transitioning out of their sport. That's when your identity is at its most vulnerable, you're coming in as a freshmen.

And you're leaving this world that looked so different for you. Your identity looks so different, so you're really, really vulnerable as a freshmen. So we want to catch all these vulnerable freshmen as they come in with these mental health screenings to kind of see where they're at.

And so a lot of colleges do that and have a big list of student athletes that you keep an eye on and refer to mental health professionals. The downside with that is that they're oftentimes not enough providers for student athletes to see. A lot of universities do a good job contracting with counselors. I'm contracted with Gonzaga amongst other Universities So they contract me for online therapy with student athletes.  

Universities can do a better job of having counselors on campus. Yes, it's awesome that there is funding for counselors and they're contracted out. But again, with that messaging, when you're not having counselors available on campus, but you have athletic trainers and doctors on campus (even acupuncturists and chiropractors sometimes too) but the therapists aren't..what message is that sending? 

The messaging is really important. Mental health within the athletic dept. should be more accessible to athletes. Having therapists off campus creates a barrier for athletes and also send the message that the mental health is not a priority within the culture.

Another aspect we can really do better is to have more check-ins with student athletes. Check-ins from coaches and athletic trainers in particular. One thing that I consistently hear from a lot of the athletes that I work with is just that they don't feel that their head coach really cares about them. They don't feel seen or heard as a person by their coach which can lead to decreased performance, confidence and a multitude of other significant effects. Head coaches are often so busy taking care of big picture stuff and so they're not putting in enough time into having substantial conversations with student athletes to make them feel heard, cared for and supported. 

So that is part of the problem, right? From the top down, the messaging is not consistent. 

If you are coach, I promise you that if your athlete feels cared for, and feel like you give a shit about them and you care what's going on with their family and, what's happening in their in their world, they will want to play better for you and be more invested in their performance.

Cause guess what? Players aren't going to perform for you if their mental health is in the dumps, they're just not. So we have to treat student athlete mental health as  we would a torn ACL or a concussion. Because it is  just as important as physical health.

So we have to help them a little bit. We can't just assume that coaches can put on like so many hats and just know these things. It's not fair to put that much pressure on them. I think that it's really important to do solid mental health training for coaches. If we want them to be referral sources for student athletes when things go down with their student athletes, we want them to know what to look for so that they can get their athletes the help that they need.

So if you are a parent or coach and you have an athlete who appears to be irritable, have a bad attitude or have any of these signs and symptoms that I talked about earlier, that's something to keep an eye on. Be mindful to not just write off the behavior or give consequences right away--Get curious first. Also it's important to keep a pulse on events in the student athletes lives that can trigger any suicidal thoughts, depression or anxiety. So paying attention to what that athletes like family life looks like, or if they're a transfer student, what their previous transfer situation looked like, or what their personal relationships look like. Those are important to be mindful of because any transition including breaking up with a significant other, family struggles, death anniversaries, or holidays can trigger anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

The main message here is to recognize as athletes as people first and be mindful of when they need extra support. We don't want to see any more of these student athletes slip between the cracks and suffer in silence. We want to make sure that we have wraparound support for them. And that mental health is at the forefront and prioritized within athletic departments and organizations.

If you have a teammate or you yourself have been thinking about suicide or having any dark depressive thoughts, make sure that you reach out to a mental health professional. If you know someone who needs to hear this message, make sure that you pass on podcast 031 to an athlete, friend or family member who could benefit from this info. 

So hopefully you got something out of this conversation. Make sure to tune into the Ready Set Mindful Podcast where we have more conversations about mental health, and sport psychology tips. If you haven't checked out, make sure to check out our free mental toolkit to optimize your mental performance. And if you're not following us on social, make sure you do that. We're on Facebook and Instagram @ReadySet mindful.  

Until next time!