Understanding the Mental Game

The first time I really wanted to understand the mental psyche of a professional athlete was when my coach was being choked by my teammate.

That was 18 years ago — my rookie year.

My curiosity about that incident — and what was behind it in the mind of the two individuals — resulted ultimately in my obtaining a graduate degree in sport psychology and becoming a mental skills consultant.

In thinking about the emotional problems of athletes today, the first name that comes to mind is, of course, Lamar Odom. Although Odom is one of the biggest names to have been linked to struggles with mental health issues, he’s certainly not the first. After playing just 27 games last season, Milwaukee Bucks forward Larry Sanders walked away from the league (and $27 million) in part due to his battles with anxiety and depression, which he shared first publicly on The Players’ Tribune last February. Royce White, who was a first-round draft pick in 2012, left the league two years later after playing in only three games in part due to his struggles with generalized anxiety disorder. Outside of basketball, just a day before the New York Yankees played their home opener in the American League Wild Card playoff, CC Sabathia checked himself into rehab to treat his alcohol abuse.

These are only few of the cases that have become public. But they are just the barest tip of the iceberg. In locker rooms, just as at offices throughout the country, many individuals are dealing with debilitating personal issues. They all could use the help of a mental health professional.

In sports, we have to start addressing the emotional well-being of athletes. It is the only way to help those who might, without such assistance, be at risk of hurting themselves or others. For pro sports leagues that operate big businesses and provide entertainment and inspiration for millions of people around the world, it is also just the right thing to do.

Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association reacted to news of Odom’s recent hospitalization forthrightly. She pointed out there is a “complete absence of any type of transition program for the guys,” and indicated that the union would attempt in the future to address this omission.

That said, why haven’t more professional athletes spoken up to ask for mental health programs if so many of them are in need of help? Part of the reason is how athletes in the four major professional leagues — the NBA, NFL, MLB and the NHL — are regarded. They are seen as gladiators competing in leagues characterized by masculinity and machismo. Everyone in the locker room wants to be the alpha male. So the idea of an athlete not being in full control of his destiny (or asking for help) is viewed as sign of weakness.

To be clear, I’m talking in general about all four major sports leagues in this country. But as a former NBA player, I know the NBA. Of the four leagues, the NBA has done the most to begin the conversation about mental health and to begin addressing it through a variety of programs, shepherded by the NBA’s Player Development Department and the Players Association, and they should be commended for starting a vital movement.

But it’s not enough. All leagues need to do more.

I played for three different NBA teams during a 13-year career, and though on paper a league program to assist players with psychological concerns existed, it never made it into the team locker room. The kind of program that is needed is one that each team should have, and to which players can have access whenever they need it — home or away, before or after games. After my retirement in 2010, when I was the director of Player Development with the Orlando Magic, I argued for a team-based program. To date, however, it remains the case that most teams in the league do not provide the assistance that many players need.

I propose a three-pronged approach. First, the league should employ clinical psychologists who can handle serious illnesses such as depression, addiction, or other psychopathologies.

Next, teams should employ mental health professionals to help athletes deal with less serious problems, such as those associated with marriage and relationship issues.

And finally, there should be a focus on the kind of performance coaching that can provide athletes with the tools necessary to allow them to reach their athletic potential. Psychological tools such as communication skills, leadership development, sharpening focus, handling hardship, and retirement strategies are all resources that players desperately need.

Professional sports have an opportunity to lead the way in removing the stigma that comes with being an athlete who is struggling with mental distress. Leagues often support causes like Breast Cancer Awareness Month, using the color pink to spread consciousness. The NBA often celebrates “going green” initiatives with alternative warm-ups made of recycled material. These campaigns should be applauded – and we should learn from them.

Looking at the success of these campaigns, there’s no reason at all why professional sports can’t play a part in raising awareness and understanding of mental health issues. There must be a concerted effort to change society’s attitudes towards mental health. Unfortunately, at the moment mental health issues are viewed through a negative lens — and all the more so in sports. This has to end.

Franchise owners already provide their employees with top-of-the-line trainers and equipment to work on their game. They should also provide the resources and personnel to help them work on their mental well-being. Athletes are no different from anyone else. They too experience everyday stress. Having money, fame and notoriety does not make that stress go away. Like people everywhere, from time to time they need the assistance that only mental health professional can provide.

When we think about sports, we think about a beautiful backhand winner, or a speeding fastball, or a silky finger roll. Now it’s time we think about what’s going on with athletes above their shoulders.

This article was updated on October 30, 2015.