Mental Wellness in Sport: Where Are We Now?

Mental Wellness in Sport: Where Are We Now?
Ashley Hughes highlights the issues plaguing the sport industry, focusing on their current mental wellness policy intiatives and how they could be improved.

The simple answer? Further along than we were four years ago, but the sport industry is still not exactly crushing stigma and providing adequate (or equal) mental wellness support to all athletes.

I founded Supple[Mental] Sports to make mental wellness resources accessible both from a comprehensive perspective and from a financial perspective. Mental wellness is not rocket science and mental wellness support should not, in my opinion, break the bank.

My company’s initiatives were inspired by my own mental wellness journey and tenure in the sport industry. I have PTSD and throughout my recovery process, I felt frustrated that resources were limited, that society had taught me to believe I was weak for struggling and there was no play by play for how to feel better.

At least, so I thought.

In sport, an athlete can go up to their coach and say, “Coach, I want to run faster.” The coach will put together a program for the athlete and so long as the athlete follows it, in a few weeks, they will most likely run faster.

But rarely do athletes go up to their coach and say, “I feel like I’m all over the place, any thoughts on how I can improve my focus?” or “When I’m behind the starting line my chest feels like it might explode, any advice on how to manage that anxiety?” — at least, not yet. 

But I want them to. 

This article is part of a series designed to draw awareness to mental wellness issues in sport. Later in the series I will offer policy initiatives, but for today, I want to highlight the issues plaguing the sport industry, including current mental wellness policy initiatives and the industry’s shortcomings.

 

The Stats: 

Numbers do not lie; the mental wellness statistics in sport are staggering, and yet are rarely discussed. If anything, I hope seeing these numbers will help athletes realize they are not alone in struggling as close to 33% of all athletes struggle with some mental wellness disorder. Moreover, I hope these numbers help industry leaders, owners, coaches, and family members understand that mental wellness issues are real.

  • 36% of elite athletes struggle with a mental health issue
  • 26% of retired elite athletes struggle with a mental health issue 
  • 38% of all soccer players worldwide were diagnosed with anxiety or depression in 2020 (FIFPro)
  • 33% of college athletes manage a mental health disorder (anxiety, depression, burnout, and eating disorders are the top four) (Athletes for Hope)
  • 10% seek help  (Athletes for Hope)
  • 25% of college athletes have reported clinical depression symptoms (Drexel University Study)
  • In 2013, the NCAA declared mental health the No 1. Health and Safety concern for athletes, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the NCAA made official recommendations (Global Sports Matter)
  • In 2019, all major conferences in the NCAA voted unanimously to offer mental health services to athletes (Global Sports Matter)
  • 10% of Olympic Athletes endured bullying/sexual abuse during their childhood (NCAA)
  • Suicide is more common in male athletes, however more female athletes will attempt (NCAA)
  • Group sports (soccer, basketball, volleyball) have lower rates of mental challenges than individual sports (swimming, cross country, track and field).  However, group sports open the door to hazing and higher rates of alcohol abuse

These numbers, especially when combined with the ongoing pandemic, truly shed a light as to how prevalent and impactful mental wellness disorders are in the sport industry. It is not as if one athlete, every once in a while, feels bad. We are talking about having 11 footballers on a pitch and three of them — your midfielder, keeper and right wing — are all feeling down, distracted or anxious. They miss passes, mis-read the ball and act out of fight or flight mode. Your midfielder just kicked the ball in the wrong direction! You slap your palm to your forehead, frustrated that your team is not functioning as a team — eight players may be, but three of them are out there acting like it is every man or woman for themselves!

This is just one example of how poor mental wellness can negatively impact physical health and player performance. This is just one reason it is imperative that the sport industry acknowledge the importance of mental wellness. From a business perspective, a team with poor mental wellness will cost more in trades and losses and sponsorship deals than implementing resources ever will.

Current Policies:

I can tell you with certainty that the sports world now takes mental health seriously and industry leaders across the board acknowledge the importance of the issue.

At present in the US, the NCAA mandates sport psychologists be available to all athletes. US Soccer has a partnership with the Calm app (a meditation app) and professional athletes have begun to speak out about their psychological welfare.

In the UK, Premier League teams make sport psychologists available to academy players all the way up to their first team. Some academies, like Manchester United, place younger players with host families in order to create a sense of normalcy around school and friends. Others move entire families so that the athlete has the support of their parents. 

In Japan, according to professional footballer, Ami Otaki, there are no mental wellness policies in place as players seem to have adapted well to new regulations amidst the pandemic. However, the Chinese Football Association has a designated mental wellness liaison. 

Many pro leagues, specifically the NFL, and college teams also have “reintegration” programs for athletes leaving their sport. These programs help athletes find jobs and discover life outside athletics. 

However, while these policies are certainly a step in the right direction, there is still vast room for improvement. 

Industry Struggles:

In the past four years, the sport industry has made immense strides to support the mental wellness of athletes. (Thanks Kevin Love!) However, there are still major milestones to overcome including stigma reduction and The Pedestal Mindset, as well as identity issues, individualism, accessibility to resources, taking action and the bore factor...to name a few.

Stigma Reduction & The Pedestal Mindset. In my line of work, I hear the word “stigma” multiple times a day. The word implies we have a negative belief system attached to mental wellness and we do, especially in the world of sports. Why? Enter The Pedestal Mindset.

Athletes are revered like Gods. The public places athletes on a pedestal. Athletes seem to lead a life many would want — from the riches, to the fame, to the six packs, the travel. Athletes look like they have it all; heck, athletes look like they can do it all. They become figures we mere mortals can look up to. At the end of the day, though, athletes are not Gods; they are human beings. (Hate to break it to you Chad Ochocinco.) 

By placing athletes on a pedestal, we tell them it is not OK to not be OK, which makes it difficult for athletes to come forward and ask for help. 

Identity Issues. Retirement and career ending injuries often bring up an identity crisis in athletes. If you are a parent, have you ever introduced your child as The Quarterback? If you are an owner, have you ever introduced an athlete by their position before their name? If you are a coach, have you ever seen your player outside your sport? Far too often an athlete’s entire network identifies them as such. 

For athletes, it can be difficult to recognize that they are more than one thing. They can even forget they like things other than their sport.  Athletes identify themselves by their sport, stating “I’m a footballer,” “I’m a swimmer,”  or “I’m an Olympic medalist.” Yes, athletes are those things, but they are also other things too: they are parents, friends, yogis, travelers, book lovers, writers, cooks and more. 

Individualism. Mental wellness initiatives in sport are currently tailored to just the athlete, but it takes a village to create an elite athlete. What about the parents, coaches, siblings, friends and significant others involved in the athlete's life? 

In order to truly support mental wellness in the sport industry, resources need to be available to everyone. 

One of the most beneficial programs I did for PTSD offered a “secondary survivor” program for my parents. They received eight weeks of counseling that gave them the space to talk about how what happened to me impacted them and lessons on how to best support me and my recovery. 

I am not a parent, but having watched mine feel helpless trying to help me navigate the pain of trauma, I can only imagine what it is like to be a parent of an athlete struggling and having no idea what to say. 

I have been a coach and I can attest how heartbreaking it feels to recognize one of your athletes is struggling, but feel like everything you say is wrong.

As an athlete, it can feel amazing to have a team offer a full scholarship or pay for your family to relocate with you — talk about a way to show an athlete people believe in them! But it can also cause immense amounts of pressure; what happens if the athlete is injured and loses their scholarship? What happens if their career dwindles and the whole family was uprooted?  The athlete is not the only one who will need help in that situation.

Understandably, mental wellness resources are usually geared towards the athlete in sports because of costs. 

Cost is one of the main reasons many of the current policies are biased. 

Access to Resources. Current policies in place by the NCAA mandate teams have sport psychologists on staff. That is great if you play football or basketball for a Division I school. Oklahoma has a sport psychologist just for football and three others for the rest of the school’s athletes, but what about schools that have 10 or 12 teams and just one sport psychologist available?

The same challenge is presented in the football structure in the UK. What the Premiere League offers is great, but what about the lower leagues? 

Do not get me wrong, after six years of lobbying, I feel stoked the NCAA finally made some moves, but there are some caveats outside of access to sport psychologists.

Kudos to US Soccer for forming a partnership with the Calm app (a meditation app), but where is the education?  Athletes are told all the time meditation is good for them, but rarely do they understand how it impacts their brain or their performance.

An additional complicating factor is finding the right fit for an athlete and a therapist. I am a huge advocate for therapy, but I’ve had seven therapists! Whoever a school or team hires may not actually support the best interest of every athlete under their care or supervision. If there is one thing you take away from this article it should be that not every therapist is the right fit for every person, and therapy is not for everyone.

Furthermore, not all sport psychologists can support every issue they encounter. A sport psychologist I interviewed for a later article, Dr. Jake Jones, was the sport psychologist for the University of Utah.  He understood he needed to make resources available to female athletes who encountered sexual assault or harassment. He knew he was the last person they would come to for help.  

Beyond money and knowing therapy is not a panacea for mental wellness, there seems to be confusion throughout the industry regarding just how many mental health resources exist. 

I interviewed pro footballer Jobi McAnuff for an article in this series as well and when I asked him what resources were available to him outside of sport psychologists, he asked “What else would you suggest?”  (Take my self-care workshop, believe me, there are plenty of resources out there, most of which are fun)!

Mental wellness resources need to expand beyond sport psychologists. Therapy, while integral to my recovery, is only one-two hours a week. What the heck can you do with the other 166 hours in the week? A lot. (More about that later).

One of the main reasons industry leaders struggle to implement policies is because they seem unsure what policies exist. 

Take Action. While awareness is the first step to solving any problem, at some point action must be taken. Offering sport psychologists up is a great step, but there are other initiatives that could be launched (that cost less), yet industry leaders seem hesitant. 

This, I understand.  Most industry leaders can agree mental wellness is important, but they sound terrified anytime they are asked, “What do you suggest we do?” Why? Because no one wants to tell an athlete to do more or tell anyone what to do.

This is a completely rational thought, but not one that should stop the implementation of mental wellness policies.

Power is a basic human need. Telling an athlete, coach, team, federation or nation they must do mental wellness exercises/activities will backfire. The moment you tell someone they should, have to or need to do something they will usually either do the exact opposite or nothing at all, even if it is against their best interest.  Have you ever told a toddler “Don’t touch?” What did they do? Touch “it.” The same principle applies to adults. 

Mental wellness policies need to be based around empowerment, education and exploration. People have to want to take care of themselves first, but many feel unsure where to start.

Taking action does not mean industry leaders instruct a team to meditate every day; it means they offer up a meditation class while explaining its benefits and basic guidance to try it. Maybe the athlete loves it, maybe not, but now he or she can decide if this is something they want in their life.

Perhaps another issue with taking action is The Bore Factor.

The Bore Factor.  One of my worst nightmares might be rounding up a bunch of industry leaders and teaching them my workshops only to watch their eyes glaze over or fall asleep.  While I find psychology fascinating, I recognize I am a nerd and not everyone feels the same way.  This is why it is important mental wellness programming is engaging and tailored to the audience. Avoid taking a page out of the NCAA playbook. The NCAA built a coalition of top docs and industry leaders to create a mental health guidebook. Readers, I read this kind of research for fun and I found the book to be a snoozefest. The information is important and useful, but presented in a way very few coaches or athletes would want to read. 

In sum, the industry is making strides. We have come a long way since 2017 when I sustained trauma. People who once referred to me as “crazy” and “emotional” now ask me for policy advice.

Sport is moving in the right direction, but until misconceptions around mental wellness can be negated in a fun, engaging and empowering way, (which they can — hire me, you will see), we have some serious work to do

Stay tuned for next week’s article: “Overcoming Stigma.”

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