Reducing Mental Health Stigma in Sport, Community | Sports

We’ve all been told to prioritize our mental health for one reason or another.

With public health, political and social struggles at an all-time high, it’s especially important that we take care of ourselves mentally.

Athletes are often told to take care of their mental health, as it will help them stay at the top of their game.

Find a balance between doing your best mentally and physically, and you’ll be in the “zone.”

If you are, or have ever been, an athlete, you know exactly what the “zone” is and how good it feels.

Certainly, with the increasing pressure to perform at a high level and to be human and vulnerable to emotions and struggles, we would help these athletes navigate their lives outside of their sport.

So why not us ?

No one thinks twice when an athlete breaks an arm and takes time to recover before returning to their sport.

An athlete pulls a muscle and sits on the bench for the rest of the game, taking time and following the proper treatment to improve.

Yet when an athlete struggles with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or any other mental issue, we suddenly change our narrative.

Many top athletes have attempted to adjust this narrative, in part by being open to talking about their own mental health issues.

Simone Biles is one of the best gymnasts in the world – tied as the most decorated gymnast of all time with a combined total of 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, including four Olympic gold medals.

Biles has undoubtedly put in the work – the insane amount of time, energy and commitment to become one of the greats in her sport.

When she competes well and wins medals for her country, we will cheer her on and revel in her talents until we are out of breath.

That is until she dropped out of team competition from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (held in July 2021), citing mental health issues as the reason for her hiatus.

Then, for some reason, we change our narrative.

The same media that praised her for her poise and precision on the gym floor turned to criticism and disapproval of her decision to prioritize sanity over winning medals.

Mikaela Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA and the youngest slalom champion in Olympic alpine skiing history (just 18!), is no stranger to success.

Unfortunately, Shiffrin is no stranger to difficulties either.

On February 2, 2020, the skier’s father, Jeff Shiffrin, died suddenly after sustaining a serious head injury in an accident at the family home.

Shiffrin debated giving up skiing from then on. Her father had been her biggest fan and supporter.

Luckily for us, she hasn’t stopped skiing and continues to give us incredible performances on the slopes every year.

When Shiffrin opened up in the middle of this year’s Olympics about her struggles ahead of her races – huge expectations from herself, fans, coaches, close friends and family – she was not comforted with open arms by several media sources.

Instead of admiring her for being open about her struggles and the very real mental task it takes to be an Olympian, the media focused their live broadcast on her sitting on the incline after not finishing a race, the head down, looking defeated.

Other riders were still competing, but the camera didn’t turn away from Shiffrin.

“What a mistake. What a disappointment,” an NBC commentator reported after Shiffrin dropped out of his race mid-race earlier this year. “It will live in infamy for the rest of time.”

Athletes are often criticized for their failures, which is a big part of why many will say it’s so important for athletes to keep their mental game as strong as their physical game.

The pressure these athletes face to compete, to represent their country and to win can be unbearable.

This pressure ripples through athletes even at the youth, high school and college levels – during the developmental years, however – and can have detrimental effects.

Whitman College baseball head coach Brian Kitamura knows the importance of prioritizing the mental health of his players.

After all, baseball is one of the most mentally demanding games.

Whitman students have access to a variety of mental health resources, and in his seventh season as Blues head coach, Kitamura encourages his players to take advantage of them when needed.

“From the coaching staff’s point of view, we want to be able to point our players in the right direction,” Kitamura said. “It’s something we’ve been very supportive and open about, encouraging our players to access resources on campus.”

Kitamura mentioned that his team regularly practices breathing and mindfulness exercises during baseball season.

Starting workouts with deep breathing and/or visualization has been a great way to help players clear their hands and reset before heading to baseball, Kitamura said.

Players are invited to come in and rate their rankings on certain stressors – mentally, physically and even academically, so the coaching staff can tailor team training to enable players to perform at their best themselves.

For athletes attending a prestigious school and playing college sports, mental health can often take precedence over other seemingly more relevant stressors.

Yet, mental health should always remain our number one priority.

“We want our guys to understand that mental health is not just a huge concern, but an important way to gauge where you are at in life,” Kitamura explained.

Kitamura ensures that he and his staff check in on players on a weekly basis in a variety of settings, including practices, study rooms and scheduled check-ins.

It’s about making sure coaches can interact with players organically and intentionally, off the pitch, he said.

When it comes to professional and Olympic athletics, Kitamura thinks there’s a lot of room to grow, but we’ve still made progress when it comes to opening up the conversation about mental health in sport.

“The more elite athletes can talk openly (about mental health), the more college athletes will talk about it,” he said.

“College athletes always look up to professional athletes as role models whether or not they have a chance to compete at that level in the future,” Kitamura added. “The way we talk about it is going in the right direction, but there is a lot more that needs to be done to raise awareness and create more opportunities for students and student-athletes to not only address mental health, but to talking about it openly – as opposed to being reactionary when something goes wrong.

Just as college players idolize their professional counterparts, young athletes and high school athletes see role models in college student-athletes.

Kristen Duede, Mental Health Specialist for Walla Walla Public Schools (WWPS), ensures young students have access to positive role models.

Duede’s role includes many responsibilities, the most important of which is providing support to individual students and finding them access to mental health resources.

“The ultimate goal is to connect students with someone long-term outside of the community,” Duede explained. “We’re trying to lower the barriers on how to do that.”

At the grassroots level, Duede and his team of coaches and mental health specialists are working to reduce the stigma around mental health by opening up the conversation and, as Duede said, understanding that a mental health issue is not a failure of your person.

“It’s (mental health) a natural reaction to stressors and being able to access it early is really helpful,” Duede said. “Understand that there’s a brain science behind your mental health – and it’s just as important as your physical health.”

Walla Walla Public Schools offers a variety of programs aimed at providing students with mental health resources.

Some of these include Sources of Strength which, as Duede described, is a hope-based model for suicide prevention.

The goals of the program are to focus on hope, help, and strength, and to encourage students to partner with mentors in the community – teachers or otherwise – to help maintain positive mental health.

Another fun and new addition to Walla Walla High School is the Mentor Madness program.

Since the beginning of March, the students have been meeting every Tuesday at noon to face the teachers in different games. Teachers are nominated by students to participate – students on one side of the slice and teachers on the other.

Whether you are a young person, a college or professional athlete, or a student…or just a human being, mental health issues are not something to be ashamed of.

The more we normalize it and become more comfortable with our struggles, the stronger we will become.

About Walter J. Leslie

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