Having the Hard Conversations in Sport
Updated: May 10
We watch what seem to be superhuman feats of athletic performance on TV and hear about the dedicated efforts and sacrifices it took for these elite performers to achieve the impossible. While these feats may, in fact, be extraordinary, the people performing them may also be struggling with real-life issues like any other individual who turns to psychotherapy. This was a major takeaway during my masters training when I studied counseling psychology with an emphasis on sports at the University of Missouri. With a desire to delve more deeply into the complexity that exists at the intersection of mental health and athletic performance, I sought doctoral training, and am currently in my third year of the Counseling Psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I also am the mental conditioning coach at a local high school, which is how I met Brian, a football standout. I want to provide a glimpse into the lived experience of a student-athlete whose concerns fall outside of stats and figures, and instead in the realm of mental health. It’s 5 o’clock on Friday. Many have been looking forward to this all week, and the time has finally come. Some can’t wait to get home and unwind for the weekend, while others look forward to going out. If you’re in high school, there’s a good chance you’ll end up at a football game around 7 to watch your team play under those Friday night lights. Society has a fascination with sports. People sit around for hours sharing their athletic feats that range from avoiding the gym class mile to their time playing in college. We’re willing to pay a lot of money to see our favorite teams play, and parents put hard-earned miles on the family car to drive their kids to practices and games. Sometimes, sports are associated with enjoyment and growth, while other times it’s fraught with pressure and anxiety. The student-athlete suiting up to hit the gridiron is exempt from neither. “Hey coach, can we talk?” This all too common question from a student-athlete to their coach could result in any number of conversations. Am I traveling this weekend? What’s the workout tomorrow? How’s recruiting going? Sometimes, these questions are geared toward acquiring information, while other times, they’re intended to start a conversation about something much deeper. When Brian approached me that night, the fall chill still hanging in the air after a tough mid-season loss, I could tell the look on his face meant one of those heavy conversations was about to begin. “It’s just been really hard lately.” Almost immediately, his eyes welled up with tears and Brian, the otherwise outspoken leader and all around tough-guy, opened up about his difficulty coping with the divorce of his parents. Things had not been alright for a while, and Brian was finding it difficult to manage the myriad of emotions that seemed to come and go without warning. Brian opened up about expectations from coaches, parents and himself and how as a result, he was no longer having fun, wanted to quit the team and stop working out altogether. He even shared that he had previously considered taking his own life. We walked and talked for a while, and Brian shared his gratitude for having someone to listen to the painful feelings he was expressing, who saw him as a person rather than only as the blue-chip recruit the media made him out to be. Before we parted ways, Brian denied a current plan or intent to end his life, and agreed to stop by to see the school counselor on Monday. Win or lose, the result of competition is often met with critique—from fellow athletes, coaches, and the public. Newspaper columns share stats and opinions about athletic performance, and interviews about last week’s performance are nitpicked until the next big news story hits. If the internal experience of the athlete is explored, it’s often approached from a mental performance perspective as opposed to one grounded in a genuine interest in their mental health and wellbeing. The brutal nature of the win-loss column is characterized by attempts to tell the tale of the game, but numbers cannot always recount a personal best, or growth, or even effort. The numbers can’t tell the story of the internal battles and triumphs plaguing the minds of 1.7 million high school student-athletes nationwide. While I may be somewhat qualified by virtue of my ongoing training in sports psychology and my years studying the complexity of optimal human performance and wellbeing, that talk with Brian could have been held by anyone with a genuine concern for who he was beneath the helmet and shoulder pads. All we did that night after a gutting loss to a cross-town rival was have a conversation. Person to person, and of course, I had the wherewithal to refer him to a professional counselor. That night Brian had someone to talk to, and today he’s back out at practice trying to improve his skill in the game he loves, along with his mental health in the course of a painful family-life transition. We all know someone like Brian, whether that above-average skill is in sport, academics or the boardroom. They may not share their concerns with us, but those concerns may be impacting their life in a paramount way—unless we have those tough conversations. When I think back to that conversation with Brian, I realize that the experience helped to shape the way I see the role of a sports psychologist working to improve either mental health or mental performance. It helped to deepen my belief that sometimes we need to take a step back from the game and slow down. We need to take a moment to check in with the student-athlete, who may be concerned about far more than the outcome of the next game or whether they will earn that free ride to college sports celebrity. Next time the question of, “Hey Coach, can we talk?” comes up, I’ll think back to Brian, even if the question is only about the game.
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