Having worked in the mental health side of the sports industry for nearly 30 years, I have witnessed a dramatic and positive shift in recent years with respect to the ways in which the sports-world views mental health support services. While there is still much more work to be done, famous athletes including Kevin Love, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, and many others have raised awareness that not only do athletes experience the same mental health issues as non-athletes (i.e. depression and anxiety), they also have their own unique mental health concerns that have not been identified until recent years (i.e. sport retirement concerns, performance anxiety, injury recovery mood issues, and living up to expected role model status are just a few examples). Yes, we are identifying mental health concerns more rapidly today, and we are even offering easier ways for athletes to seek the support they need, yet more work still needs to be done — especially as this applies to leaders and decision-makers involved in youth, interscholastic, collegiate, professional, and Olympic sports. Rather than viewing the addition of legitimate mental health services as a burden by means of extra personnel and costs, today’s sports leaders need to revisit their former ways of thinking and expand their thoughts on the benefits of properly treating athletes, and supporting athletes through their mental health challenges.
Why it’s time to provide mental health support to athletes
It is not “political correctness” driving the change in American thinking as it applies to mental health support for athletes, but instead it is a long overdue response to issues athletes have experienced for years. Furthering this point, athletes are not weak for not always being able to deal with everything that comes with being an athlete, nor should athletes seeking to improve their mental health be viewed as some sort of “damaged goods.” The time is now for leaders and decision-makers, including league operators at the youth level, athletic directors and principals at the interscholastic level, and AD’s and general managers at the college and pro level to change the paradigm when it comes not only to addressing mental health issues, but by employing credible personnel and appropriate approaches and measures to remedy problems that arise. Former Major League Baseball player Tom House drives home the importance of mental health with his recent tweet below:
I believe the philosophy from the top decision makers can make — or break — whether or not the mental health support introduced will make things better, or, ironically, make things worse. For example, when decision-makers come to the conclusion that they should do something regarding mental health, and then haphazardly list a random professional’s name on the bulletin board and casually mention it to athletes, not only will few use the services, but it also increases the chances that athletes won’t put much faith into mental health treatment if the leaders appear to have little enthusiasm for athletes to use the services. Simply telling an athlete “Yeah, we have some guy who’s card is around here somewhere is the person you are supposed to talk to…” is not the best way to give confidence to athletes that you buy-in to mental health support. In these cases not only do athletes lose faith, but often their original mental health issues are compounded as a result of them not being validated.
It is also important that coaches are vetted so that they do not respond to athletes seeking mental health support as “wimps” (or worse), and that they are not tough enough to help the team. The old school mentality of “no pain, no gain” is being replaced by a more contemporary, nuanced philosophy that recognizes athletes are human, and they have their own unique issues and problems to overcome. Instead, it is important to train coaches to embrace mental health services, and weed out those who refuse to update their thinking, or actually exacerbate problems with mental health-seeking athletes by treating them as though they are weak.
The (unforeseen?) benefits of mental health support
For many decision-makers today, they simply have not connected the dots as to why improved mental health support is not only the right thing to do, but also a fiscally sound maneuver as well. Simply put, a healthier team is a better team on all fronts, and this is witnessed by the following:
- Enhances overall team culture, chemistry, and cohesion.
- Leads to more wins on the field/court/ice, more fans attend games, and revenues increase as a result.
- Healthy athletes are ambassadors to the school and community, enticing future athletes to want to play at the school and motivating younger kids to make good decisions and act responsibly.
- For college and pro teams, a successful team branding can sell more apparel and other team gear, providing for another (or stronger) revenue stream with fans wanting to align with a winner.
Yes, there is a great return on investment across dimensions when it comes to mental health, as not only is it the right thing to do to take care of your own, it is also a fiscally-smart move that can lead to increased revenue for the league, school, or team.
While it is exciting to see a major paradigm-shift as it applies to athletes and mental health, it is important to implement mental health services with care and discipline so that optimal results are experienced. Haphazardly putting mental health services together is not the best way to go, nor is it healthy to depersonalize the mental health support as simply “some person you need to go find and talk to.” Instead, make it a point to know your mental health personnel, and treat those individuals with the same respect that you would offer all other helping professionals, including team physicians, trainers, strength coaches, and nutritionists.