Below is a list of best practices I believe will support and enhance the mental welfare of the sport industry based on my personal experience as a patient with PTSD and research over the past three years.
The first step to solving any problem is awareness. The second? Invest in solutions. I hope the below best practices offer guiding principles to teams looking to invest in the mental welfare of their athletes.
- Think Preventatively – Think of mental wellness initiatives as an investment. Just like athletes strength train and eat healthy to prevent injury, athletes can also learn basic mental wellness practices that prevent major psychological challenges. The ROI may not be immediate, but the investment in policies and practices will pay dividends in the future. When it comes to mental wellness, it’s human nature to ignore mental challenges until we cannot (aka hit rock bottom). Yet, with a knee injury, the moment an athlete feels a twinge of pain, they meet with a physio to start strengthening or rest to avoid the injury worsening. A preventative mindset can avoid unnecessary pain, suffering and financial loss. Benching a player for an entire season costs a lot more than five hours of therapy.
- Start Em’ Young – In last week’s article about building a winning mentality, Dr. Jake Jones shared that kids start to build confidence and learn to regulate their emotions around the ages of 8-10. When youth players are taught basic mental wellness skills they are more equipped to handle life’s challenges later with ease. Players can more easily focus on the game rather than feel like their life is turned upside down during the peak of their career.
- Take a Holistic Approach – Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to create an elite athlete. Offer resources to parents, coaches, significant others, siblings and friends of athletes so they feel empowered to support one another.
- Diversify Life Experiences – As tough as it may be for owners to read, players need a life outside of sport. They need friends and family that can expose them to other interests and keep them grounded. Not only will this help with transitioning to life as a civilian (because of age or injury), but help players feel more supported or avoid that Keeping Up with the Jones’ mentality. Perhaps a player has a tough day at practice and really needs to vent — only his dad is his coach, his mom is his manager and his friends are on the team — who can he call? Who does he turn to after a tough day? When athletes have a life outside of sport they learn to better manage external stressors like finance, family and friend dynamics, school and more. The earlier an athlete learns to manage life off the pitch, the more focused the athlete will be on the pitch.
- Manage Expectations – For lower leagues or younger players, a healthy dose of reality can do wonders for a player’s mental health. Yes, it’s important for athletes, especially young athletes to believe anything is possible — mental wellness is not in the business of crushing dreams or destroying confidence — but setting realistic expectations is important. Encouraging a 5ft tall 18 year-old to go pro as an outside hitter in volleyball is setting him or her up for failure.
- Educate, Empower, Provide and Step Aside – It is human nature to feel afraid of things we do not understand which is why knowledge is power. Teams and federations that invest in mental wellness education empower athletes to take care of themselves.
Education can include basic communication skills like how to validate someone who struggles, to learning the stats to crush stigma, to understanding the impact anxiety has on the body, to becoming aware about resources available to enhance focus and decision making.
The path to mental wellness is not linear; by providing a myriad of resources not only will athletes feel supported, but have access to learn what works for them. Oftentimes people need guidance rather than hand holding and very few people like being told what to do. Once a team provides education and resources, the athlete is empowered to take next steps. When humans are given choices, they are more apt to do what’s best for them.
- Keep it Simple, Stupid – (KISS). Implementing new policies in any industry can feel terrifying, but it’s important to avoid feeling paralyzed by fear. Instituting mental wellness policies need not feel like rocket science. Teams do not need to provide a tailored solution to every athlete or challenge, but rather make resources available to athletes and their support networks that are affordable, comprehensive and empowering.
Integrate Policies and Practices- Along the lines of keeping policies simple and providing resources, it can be challenging to all of a sudden add mental wellness into training programs. In mental wellness it’s important to understand a little bit goes a long way. When instituting policies, it’s unnecessary to mandate weekly workshops for players and coaches. Perhaps there’s one workshop, one time that gives a team an overview and coaches integrate small mental wellness exercises into their daily training regimens. It’s much easier to ask a team to do one minute of deep breathing at the end of practice than it is to tell athletes every Friday they have a 90 minute wellness check. Mental wellness practices do not need to be or feel dramatic. Small changes will create a long and lasting impact.
Know Your Audience – When instituting policies, present them in a way that relates to the audience. When speaking to players, help them understand why meditation is good for their sport. When speaking to parents, help them understand why avoiding the phrase, “Just get over it” will make their life easier. When speaking to owners, help them understand the positive impact investing in mental wellness has on their assets and liabilities (players) and their bottom line.
- Stay Affordable – As federations look at instituting policies, keep in mind team budget’s vary. Keep resources accessible for all to level the playing field. Instituting mental wellness policies need not break the bank.
- Use the Basic Human Needs as Guiding Principles – When teams and federations start instituting policies consider integrating the five basic human needs:Safety
A school wants to hire a male sport psychologist, will the female athletes feel safe approaching him if they need professional support?
A team offers a meditation class to athletes and makes it mandatory, will athletes feel empowered? What if the team offers a meditation class and makes it optional?
The same team that wants to offer a meditation class hires a teacher that does not know the first thing about football. Will players feel confident what they are meant to learn is in their best interest?
The same example applies to trust? Do players feel they can trust their coaches or owners if the team hires someone who is unable to relate?
Perhaps a team considers offering a class on coping skills — will this class help a player better understand him or herself or confuse the player?
When basic human needs are compromised, mental wellness is jeopardized. When creating new policies ensure the space is safe and the content is empowering and the source credible.
- Offer Transition Programs- Retirement, injuries and financial challenges are leading stressors for athletes. Establish programs that prepare athletes for civilian life or managing more money than they can understand.
- Be Aware of the True Power of Sport – Sport has the ability to teach life lessons that enhance or impede the human experience. However lessons need to be taught. Athletes need teachers that integrate and relate the benefits of sport to life on and off the pitch like nutrition, team work, discipline, time management, cultural diversity, emotional regulation, confidence, communication and mental wellness. Not only do these lessons enhance an athlete’s life in general or performance, but make sport more appealing to investors, especially parents. A parent may recognize their kid is not the next LeBron, but they put her in basketball camp anyways so she can make friends, learn to work as a team and attain other life skills.
- Be Interesting – Many mental wellness practices can be fun, enlightening and relaxing. Avoid sending 300 page PDF documents to industry leaders hoping they’ll read it — they won’t. (I wouldn’t).
A phrase I often share with my clients or skeptics is that if we fail to take care of our wellness, we will eventually be pressed to manage an illness. Experiences that challenge the psyche are not usually a case of if, but when. Challenges in life are inevitable on and off the pitch, so why not prepare for them?
When establishing mental wellness policies, work to educate, empower and prevent.