Mental Health Counseling
Those who are familiar with athletics know that student-athletes are not immune to mental health issues. The reality is that depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and other mental health problems occur at about the same prevalence rates for student-athletes as the general population. This means that roughly, 1 out of 10, of our student-athletes, will face a mental health issue in the coming year. Fortunately, help is available and most mental health issues can be alleviated through psychological counseling. At times medical treatment may also be necessary. In those cases, I work closely with our sports medicine doctors and the psychiatrist at the BYU Counseling Center to coordinate treatment.
Let me share an example with you. Last spring, a talented student-athlete was brought to me by her mother. This young woman had a difficult freshman year. Her grades were poor, she was under-achieving in her sport, and was becoming more and more isolated from her teammates and friends. She has a family history of depression and this athlete had experienced a previous episode of depression in high school. I have been meeting regularly with this athlete in counseling this summer and she was prescribed an anti-depressant medication by our psychiatrist.
Her recovery has been amazing! She is now happier, more motivated, is sleeping and eating better, has more energy, and has an improved ability to focus. Her mother reports that she has returned to normal. This talented young woman is once again passionate about life and will be one of our better student-athletes in the years ahead. This is just one of many success stories that have all started because a coach, trainer, teammate, or advisor recognized that someone might need help and made an appropriate referral to a trained professional.
No one lives in a bubble. Our lives outside of athletics have an impact on what we do in the classroom and in the sports arena. Look at what has happened to Tiger Wood’s golf game since his personal and family issues have been made public. Perhaps one of the greatest athletes of the modern era has struggled to perform at the level we have become accustomed to. Is it because he is not mentally tough or doesn’t know how to focus? Of course not! It’s because he is human and not just a golf machine.
What about our student-athletes at BYU? They too have personal lives that impact their performance. Some examples from this past year might help you see what I experience in my office. An athlete lost her best friend in an auto accident and felt personally responsible for her death. Another student-athlete was beginning to have flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse. One young man was considering joining the LDS church, but was having a lot of worries regarding how his family was going to react to his decision. Another male athlete was devastated after his girlfriend ended their relationship just weeks before post-season play. Even at BYU, we have student-athletes who struggle because of a family member’s porce, drug/alcohol dependence, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Fortunately, professional help is available when personal problems cause distress and negatively impact performance. Most student-athletes are quite resilient. Through psychological counseling they can learn to negotiate these difficult challenges while maintaining high levels of performance.
Some counseling issues are unique to student-athletes. It is common for many freshmen to struggle with the transition to college athletics. Some are unrealistic in their expectations and then lose confidence when they don’t make an immediate impact. Others feel like “imposters” and wonder if they really belong here. It is common for athletes who were highly recruited to wonder what happened when they come to campus and are no longer the center of their coaches’ attention. When an athlete’s identity is so wrapped up in how well he performs, and the public recognition that comes from success, we should not be surprised when athletes experience self-doubt and diminished confidence.
These are the times when student-athletes need a place to talk through their thoughts and not feel threatened that it will impact their future on the team. They need to know that it is okay and even normal to have self-doubts, to feel afraid or anxious, and to get discouraged. By simply talking through these feelings, with a qualified psychologist, most athletes will feel better emotionally and regain motivation. I also like to empower them by helping them identify what they “can” do to improve their current situation. It is helpful for them to recognize that many of the same things that helped them be successful in the past will work now if they are patient and consistent with their attitude, effort, and focus.
Other performance counseling issues that are common include coping with injury, dealing with conflict with coaches or teammates, managing the emotions that come with increased expectations due to past success, overcoming the fear of failure, and learning to separate self-worth from performance outcomes.
Psychological Skills Training
Through the years, many student-athletes have sought my assistance to fine tune their mental game. One of my greatest areas of expertise as a sport psychologist is in helping athletes know what it means to be “ready to play.” Great athletes are self-aware and learn through experience how to create appropriate levels of activation, manage their performance emotions, and focus on the proper performance cues.
Psychological skills for high level performance can be learned, developed, and improved. Athletes can enhance their ability to get their minds and bodies to work in harmony which produces optimal performance. Proper goal-setting for practices and competition can better enable athletes to focus. Simple performance routines can ensure that athletes are energized, emotionally centered, and mentally present. Positive programming through self-talk and imagery can enhance confidence and strengthen neuromuscular connections. Mindfulness exercises can help athletes quiet their minds on cue and help them get into a relaxed and focused state when needed.
These psychological skills are not trendy techniques that are learned quickly or used haphazardly. Rather, they are part of a well developed, comprehensive approach to performance excellence. I teach these psychological skills in Health 201 and team meetings. In addition, I have discovered that inpidual counseling is an ideal place to customize these skills to the unique needs of each athlete. I also have the technology available in my office to make personalized relaxation and imagery CDs and biofeedback equipment to train athletes how to get into “the zone.”
Your Support is Critical
Student-athletes will utilize the resources that their coaches promote. They trust their coaches and watch to see who they involve in the team environment. If coaches bring me into a team meeting, introduce me to the team, and encourage their student-athletes to meet with me they will be much more likely to do so. I would like the opportunity to meet with each coach and discuss my involvement for the new school year. Then I would like to come to a team practice and take a few minutes to share my role with the student-athletes. By working together we can ensure that the psychological needs of your student-athletes are being addressed so they can achieve a high level of success at BYU.