In the athletic community we are inundated with ways to improve physical strength; endurance; nutritional intake; psychological advantage. We have done a tremendous job of ensuring the physical health of our athletes, which is critical to their performance and physical well being.
One area that has been overlooked for quite some time, however, is their mental wellbeing.
As a Psychotherapist, I have had the opportunity to work with young athletes both individually and in group settings. Through this work, it became very apparent that there exists a need for athletes to have a safe space to consider, explore and discuss their mental health.
It is time to enlighten the sporting community to the benefits of supporting athletes’ mental wellbeing. As helpers in this area, we have the power to do so.
The reality is that with the amount of pressure our athletes experience in managing their sport as well as their individual lives they are being asked to cope with a tremendous amount. Research has informed us that 63% of student athletes struggle with mental health but only 10% seek help…10%!
That means the majority of athletes struggling with their mental health are doing so on their own. There are many reasons this occurs but basically, we can sum it up with stigma. Seeking help has a bit of a stigma to it, doesn’t it? Especially for athletes who are supposed to be strong and mentally tough.
Consider this: While working with a group of 11-year-old rugby players we were enlightened to see their fear at the thought of dealing with mental illness. Now when 11-year-olds are concerned about the stigma surrounding mental health, imagine how that looks as we get older and society continues to paint it with a dark brush.
Ways To Recognize An Athlete Needs Help
As helpers, we need to be even more vigilant in supporting those dealing with mental illness.
We need to be open and non-judgemental. We need to encourage complete wellness in our athletes and support, rather than inadvertently shame, those who need us.
As Massage Therapists, you are trusted professionals to those who seek your help. I mean what other professionals do people allow to put their hands on them; move their bodies in different ways, all with complete faith that you will help their condition?
Basically what I am so eloquently saying is: you’re in! You are an ally. You are someone who has the opportunity to be a change agent.
Think for a moment what you talk about with some clients while working on them.
I have had the opportunity to work closely with amazing Massage Therapists. I have witnessed them explore the physical concerns being presented and beautifully ask questions about what happened: where the pain is; what causes the pain; and skilfully inquire.
I have also witnessed the creation of trust, relationships, and a general camaraderie that exists between two people investing in one another for even a short period of time. This creates an incredible opportunity for you to explore further.
Does your athlete appear to be:
- Unable to concentrate
- Not getting things done
- Tired/sick/run down
- Experiencing recurring injuries
- Recovering from concussion
Plain and simple does something just seem off?
You are accustomed to working with athletes so trust yourself. If something seems off it likely is. You may be hearing or seeing something in an athlete you know that you do not usually see or hear; you may be hearing or seeing something in a new client that seems unusual. Again, trust that feeling and ask some questions.
This can be done in a variety of simple ways:
Be Aware…Notice Opportunity
- An event in the media can provide an opening to discuss something you may suspect is relatable to your athlete.
- An experience a teammate or someone in their sport is going through can provide a nice opening.
- A question they may ask you can provide an excellent opportunity to further inquire.
- Know their preferred method of communication. This will allow you to notice when something is different.
Start the Conversation
- Please help me understand more about…
- Be Curious!!!
Creating Support Systems
If you have the opportunity to connect with coaches or parents this can also provide you with clues that something is not okay with your athlete. Take the time to inquire about any noticeable changes in behaviour. In doing so you may inadvertently create a support system for the athlete that otherwise may not have existed. How incredible is that?
What you might hear from parents or coaches:
- Perfectionist tendencies
- Lack of confidence
- Preoccupied with failure
- Making poor choices
- Not being themselves
- Unable to rebound
- Struggling to cope
Seems easy enough, right?! Don’t let this list scare you away and prevent you from going there. Some of you may have noticed these things in the past but were not sure where to put them or perhaps, upon reflection, you are thinking of specific athletes where something felt off.
Without fail we come across coaches and parents who may have identified a potential mental health concern but have cautiously sidestepped the questions for fear of what to do next.
Well, I am about to let you in a little therapy secret I will keep no longer…ready for it? Here it is… You do not have to have the answers. Seriously.
Simply asking questions and showing individuals that you are paying attention and are concerned about their wellbeing is an amazing start. How refreshing for an individual who may be struggling to hear you say “I don’t know”. There is one thing you must do, however (perhaps I should have told you there was a catch before the big secret reveal) if you are going to take the opportunity to inquire, you have to follow up. Let them know that while you may not know how to ‘fix’ things you are going to connect them with someone who can help.
Have the name of a psychotherapist or psychologist on hand; support them in reaching out; refer them out to an appropriate professional. Whatever you choose to do just be sure to be a positive social responder who does not ignore, who does not judge, and who allows them to maintain their dignity in this difficult time.