Author: Donato Fanelle, M.A.
It’s usually when a storm hits and the water begins to leak through the ceiling that we notice our roof needs to be repaired. The roof provides protection from the storm, so it needs to be fixed – but it could be dangerous to climb up there to fix it in the midst of howling winds, treacherous rains, and booming cracks of lightning. It would be much more effective to check on the status of your roof, repair any damages, and upgrade its integrity when it’s a nice day outside. As JFK said, “the best time to repair a roof is when the sun is shining.” Similarly, athletes often seek ways to develop mental toughness only after they begin to struggle with something. Yes, if an athlete is struggling with internal issues, it’s important that they talk to a trained professional so that they can get the necessary help. However, athletes should not wait for a leaky roof to make sure they are prepared for the storm.
Recent developments in sport culture offer a shift from old-school perspectives, and athletes and coaches are now finally realizing that someone struggling with their mental health can still be mentally tough. Following in the footsteps of the NCAA, in the past few months both the NFL and NBA have created initiatives to expand the mental health services available to players. These elite athletes will now receive the same access to treatment for mental illness as they would receive for physical injuries.
Now although we do not want to quiet those that are advocating for athlete mental health, we feel it is important to clarify some misconceptions about it and how it pertains to mental toughness, and which professionals are qualified to address various concerns:
- Mental health entails clinical issues that are diagnosed and treated by a licensed psychologist or counselor. Some examples of clinical issues are eating disorders, addiction, and PTSD.
- Mental wellness issues include topics such as happiness, well-being, and general life stress. These concerns can be addressed by both licensed and non-licensed professionals.
- Mental toughness includes skills and mental strategies that can help an athlete overcome challenges and ultimately reach peak performance levels. It can be developed through mental skills training, and it can also enhance mental well-being and aide in the prevention of some clinical mental health issues. Mental toughness can also be addressed by both licensed and non-licensed professionals, but if you’re involved in sport, we recommend working with someone with specific training and experience working with athletes.
- Sport psychologists are licensed psychologists that are qualified to diagnose and treat clinical disorders. The best ones for athletes should also have training in sport, kinesiology, physiology, or have an in-depth understanding of the culture of athletics, so be sure to check their credentials.
- Mental training/peak performance consultants usually have advanced training in sport psychology, kinesiology, physiology, sport sociology, as well as generalized knowledge and training in counseling and psychology. Consultants are not necessarily licensed, but they should be qualified to work with athletes and they are trained to offer referrals to licensed professionals should they detect the possible presence of a clinical issue.
When we talk about mental toughness, it’s important to understand that it’s not some innate ability that some athletes have and others do not. It’s something that can be developed through mental skills training. Mental skills are thought processes and behaviors that allow athletes to efficiently and consistently be in control of their minds. Some examples of mental skills are composure, concentration, imagery, self-talk, routines, motivation, goal-setting, and confidence. These skills can be developed and improved with practice and proper training. And these skills are not just beneficial to athletes – they can also be applied to performers, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, lawyers, business executives, and military personnel. Everyone can benefit from mental skills training!
The mental health initiatives from the NCAA, NFL, and NBA are crucial for the overall well-being of players, and hopefully other leagues and organizations will continue to expand the services offered to their players. However, athletes do not need to be suffering from a mental illness to talk to a professional about ways that they can improve their performance. Rather than waiting for a leaky roof during a wicked storm, athletes should utilize those sunny days to prepare themselves for any nasty weather that may come in the future.