As society becomes more complex each day, so do the factors that impact mental health. More specifically, in the sports world, athletes must endure a rigorous, intense, and competitive environment. However, it doesn’t stop there. Because athletes are seen as more than just a source of entertainment, but also a public figures, they must be aware of, and able to comment on, cultural, social, and political occurrences at any given time. It is inevitable to conclude that all these added stresses take a toll on an athlete’s performance and mental health.
In fact, over the past 10 years, athletes’ mental health has been a topic with increasing priority and interest worldwide. According to the National Library of Medicine, “Suicide represented 7.3% (35/477) of all-cause mortality among NCAA student-athletes.” This research primarily revealed that added stress interfered with mental health and detrimentally led to a great amount of suicide-related deaths among all levels of athletics.
Taking other factors into consideration, 7.3% is a significant percentage attributed to suicides as the cause of mortality, and this is at a lower division of athletics. At a greater scope, it is unimaginable the amount of pressure and stress that professional athletes face on a daily basis.
As a result of these types of data collected, a wide search for resolutions began, and thus the widespread interest in sports psychology.
In order to truly understand the importance of mental health in the sports world one question must be asked: What is a sports psychologist? In simple terms, a sports psychologist uses proficiencies in psychological knowledge to achieve the optimal performance and well-being of athletes ranging from recreational to Olympic needs.
Here are 6 of the most common things sports psychologists do:
Sports psychologists can help athletes overcome fears, such as fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, and general anxiety. This is common among athletes who are perfectionists or highly dedicated athletes that worry too much about what other people think in terms of their performance.
The most common role of a sports psychologist is to teach mental skills for enhanced performance. A mental game expert can help you improve confidence, focus, composure, intensity, and trust in athletic performance. These mental skills help athletes improve performance and can help in other areas of an athlete’s life.
Another common role of a sports psychologist is to help athletes mentally prepare for competition and practice. This includes many of the mental skills mentioned above but is applied to specific situations on the athletic field. For instance, in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, international guests were not allowed and the number of spectators per discipline was diminished from previous years. As a result, psychologists had to help Olympians prepare for an environment where cheers and distractions would not be in abundance.
Returning to play after an injury can sometimes be difficult for many athletes depending on the nature of the injury. Athletes are often left with “mental scars” long after an injury is physically healed. A sports psychologist can help injured athletes cope better with the pressures associated with returning to a prior level of performance–pre-injury.
As part of mental preparation, the role of a sports psychologist includes helping athletes develop mental skills used during pregame or prerace routines. Athletes learn how to focus on the process instead of results and be more proactive with their confidence prior to competition.
Another common role of a sports psychologist is to help athletes improve the quality or efficiency of their practice. Many athletes, such as collegiate athletes, have limited practice time. Coaches want to help these athletes get the most out of their practice time by understanding the principles of motor learning and performance.
Clearly, sports psychologists work with athletes to help them develop an array of skills that help them manage their busy agendas. Therefore, it can be said that sports psychology is one of the industries within the sports world that is rapidly growing both in demand and insignificance.
Sports psychology is also a fascinating field to explore which combines a passion for the sports industry with an interest in human behavior and the mind. Although more on the STEM side of the spectrum, it is important to keep in mind that physical aspects of athletics such as strength, speed, and stamina are equally as crucial as psychological aspects because after all, sports are mental games, making sports psychology the key to victory.
Imagine having front row seats right behind the 50-yard line at every Super Bowl or even courtside seats at the NBA finals. This sounds like a dream come true for most sports fanatics. Still, to those working in the sports media industry, this experience can sometimes be taken for granted.
Over the past decades, the introduction of high-quality equipment and devices has amplified the accessibility within the sports industry. Whether it’s capturing an athlete’s greatest victory or live streaming the biggest rivalry game in town, technology has made it possible.
It is important, however, to not overlook the people that make it possible for fans to reminisce on some of these greatest sporting moments. Camera crew, photographers, videographers, and journalists are the ones that have contributed to the glorification of the sports industry.
Being part of the sports media industry is no easy job nonetheless. According to freelance photographer Katelyn Mulcahy, sports photographers have great battles with “accessibility and approach”. Because attending sporting events has become a highly coveted experience, more and more people hope to be the ones to capture these moments. However, it can be quite difficult to take that one up-close shot that encapsulates the unique experience of the game. As Mulcahy displays the double-truck image of Shohei Ohtani she took, which was later published on the 2018 MLB World Series Program, she explains, “… again access, we were pretty restricted, but I was able to take a picture of him [Shohei Ohtani]”.
Whenever anyone thinks of a career in the sports business world, the skills most often needed are drive, perseverance, and sports knowledge. However, within the sports media world, creativity tends to be a driving aspect of the job. Unfortunately, such a unique skill to have, as is creativity, becomes a setback when so many people are interested in taking that one perfect shot. Eventually, it is inevitable to hit a point where it seems like all unique ideas have been exhausted. Although it sounds like a draining experience, at the end of the day, this process is what prompts creativity to continue growing within the sports media industry.
Capturing the right shot, however, seems to always be an exciting experience filled with shock. Mulcahy never knew that her image would make it onto the MLB World Series Program, and much less did she think it would be a double truck. As Mulcahy puts it, “If you didn’t make what they wanted then they might put it somewhere else.” Photographers find out what images are being utilized at the same time that viewers have access to the content.
Referring back to Mulcahy’s experiences, once you’ve gained access into the nooks and crannies of the event the question is: now what? How do you determine what a worthwhile shot is? How do you make sure you don’t miss a spectacular dunk or touchdown? Like Mulcahy says, “Sometimes you leave without a single good shot and that’s part of the job.”
Still, the job does not end once the game is over and all the photographs have been taken. In fact, hours of work follow each sporting event for those working in sports media. Mulcahy shares that after each event she averages about 2000-3000 images which she must look through, star or tag, and make minor edits if necessary before making a final submiss of about 100-200 images. According to Mulcahy, at a much bigger sporting event as is the Super Bowl, which happened this past month at the SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, around 54,000 pictures were necessary to capture the event’s scope.
Out of the thousand pictures that come out of a single game or even of a single player, narrowing it down to a single picture can be quite the haunting and time consuming task. However, most people in the sports media industry would agree that having that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is all worth it in the end.
Regardless, the sports media industry is a very competitive field with great opportunities to grow and develop professionally while being a good way to mix creativity with a passion for sports. Still, the sports media industry is nowhere from perfect, and therefore, it continues to develop. For sports photographers, learning new techniques and equipment is crucial in the process of moving from good to great. As a parting tip, Mulcahy says that “going above and beyond and getting there early” is what truly makes the difference between an average photographer and a great one.
On April 24th, 2020 Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s older brother Jace Prescott committed suicide. This tragic news combined with the COVID-19 pandemic’s dreary social isolation propelled Prescott into a state of depression and sparked a national conversation about the normalization and stigmatization of mental health disorders. Since then, athletes across all leagues have united together to transform their own adversities with mental health into national action.
Until recently, the term mental “toughness” was often used in place of mental health in the sports atmosphere. Athletes were expected to be resilient, rigid, unfazed, and show few signs of weakness. But now, pioneers such as Prescott are paving the way for a new, more empathetic national conversation to be had.
After his own difficulties with depression, Prescott emphasizes how crucial it is to maintain one’s mental health and ask for help when needed. In an interview with USA Today, Prescott explains how the conversation surrounding mental health must be normalized in order to help the nation understand the prevalence of mental health struggles while also teaching a nation built on “toughness” to embrace vulnerability.
“Mental health leads to the health of everything else,” Prescott said. “Before I can lead, I have to make sure my mind is in the right place to do that and lead people to where they want to be. I think that it’s important to be vulnerable, to be genuine, and to be transparent. I think that goes a long way when you are a leader and your voice is being heard by so many you can inspire.”
Conversely, Fox Sports commentator Skip Bayless had a different stance. Bayless boisterously criticized Prescott as he viewed his open vulnerability surrounding his mental health difficulties as unbecoming of a leader and as a hindrance on the football field.
“I have deep compassion for clinical depression, but when it comes to the quarterback of an NFL team, you know this better than I do. It’s the ultimate leadership position in sports. You’re commanding a lot of young men and some older men. And they’re all looking to you to be their CEO, to be in charge of the football team. Because of all that, I don’t have sympathy for him. Look, he’s the quarterback of America’s team. If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you in the toughest spots, and it definitely can encourage others on the other side to come after you.”
Ironically, Bayless’s comments starkly display the exact stigma that Prescott and other athletes are attempting to break down. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers takes a different stance than Bayless and instead applauds Prescott’s courage and bravery for his battle with depression and his openness to converse about it.
“Strength is taking care of yourself, taking care of your mind, understanding how important your thoughts are, and understanding how important positivity is,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s phenomenal in speaking out because that takes true courage and that’s true strength. That’s not a weakness at all. I applaud Dak. It’s a beautiful thing when people start talking about it because at the bare minimum it makes you more relatable to people. We all have the same struggles and the same issues.”
Five-time National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star and UCLA Men’s Basketball alumni Kevin Love has also been a trailblazer for mental health awareness within the NBA. With a history of depression, Love has also endured intense anxiety throughout his life. One day, Love’s emotions became too overwhelming to handle and he experienced a panic attack on the court in a 2017 home game versus the Atlanta Hawks.
“I was having trouble catching my breath,” Love wrote in a piece for The Players’ Tribune the following March. “It’s hard to describe, but everything was spinning like my brain was trying to climb out of my head. The air felt thick and heavy. My mouth was like chalk. I remember our assistant coach yelling something about a defensive set. I nodded, but I didn’t hear much of what he said. By that point, I was freaking out.”
After this experience, Love came to one conclusion. His entire life had been dedicated to training his body for the high-stress scenarios of NBA play, but he had neglected the proper time and resources needed to care for his mind as well.
“It’s kind of strange when you think about it,” Love wrote. “In the NBA, you have trained professionals to fine-tune your life in so many areas. Coaches, trainers, and nutritionists have had a presence in my life for years. But none of those people could help me in the way I needed when I was lying on the floor struggling to breathe.”
The lack of attention and training that most Americans receive regarding mental health is why Love has recently helped launch a new company called Coa, the world’s first gym for mental health. It is a therapist-led, emotional fitness class platform that includes therapist matchmaking, group classes, and one-on-one therapy. The idea is to make mental health a proactive and daily practice, just like physical fitness. Love could not be more excited about this new company.
“Coa really aligns with everything I’m about,” Love said. “It’s a proactive approach to mental fitness. We’re creating a safe place to talk about these tough subjects around mental health and mental wellness, in a group setting. There is nothing like this out there. This has never existed before. It’s the first gym for mental health, which makes it super exciting to be a part of.”
Nationally, additional mental health awareness initiatives have been developed in this ongoing battle. Since 2010, the demand for sports psychologists has skyrocketed within NCAA institutions while athletes such as Dak Prescott and Hayden Hurst have created non-profit organizations dedicated to the matter. With it being clear that mental health issues will never fully disappear, these prominent athletes have served as inspirations to the millions of Americans who struggle with depression, anxiety, and more. They have sparked a national conversation and demonstrated the value in making yourself vulnerable while also working tirelessly to provide the resources necessary to improve people’s lives across the world.
According to Love, the more awareness and serious attention that mental health gets, the healthier and happier everybody can be. And since this is an unavoidable part of life, everybody needs to understand how and have the resources available to navigate it.
“We just have to keep chipping away at the stigma,” Love said. “We have to keep talking about it. You’re far less likely to detect it if you’re not talking about it if you’re living in the shadows. Everyone is going through something that we can’t see. The thing is, because we can’t see it, we don’t know who’s going through what and we don’t know when and we don’t always know why. Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another. It’s part of life.”