This week I am at AASP Conference. AASP is the Association of Applied Sport Psychologists. There are about 2500 members in 55 countries and about 50% of those members have turned up at conference. That is how good it usually is.
One of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending was on how practitioners support good mental health when they are trying to promote high levels of mental performance. The panellists had experience from youth elites (Valerie Valle at IMG Academy), Olympians (Sean McCann, US Olympic Committee), NCAA students (Vanessa Shannon, Uni of Louisville) and Pro Baseball (Angus Mugford, Toronto Blue Jays). It was pulled together and hosted by Duncan Simpson who is also at IMG Academy and is one of my ‘go to’ guys when I write features as he explains complex research findings in a way that is instantly usable by athletes.
The elements I thought would be helpful for me if I work in a team environment in future and maybe helpful for other Sports Psychs to reflect on:
How the panel deal with tricky or clinical issues when athletes are off at competitions or camps:
- Realise there is an urgency
- Have your phones switched on all the time when working with a team
- Train the sports medicine staff in Mental Health First Aid so they can triage the situation if you are not there
- Expect tricky things to happen but remember every situation is different so slow down to make decisions
- Have communication processes in place
- Be proactive in relationship building with other staff so support can be collaborative.
Stressors and risk factors for poor mental health in athlete populations:
- Age – around 14 is the time when many mental health issues start to appear – especially if young people are away from home so have more freedom but also more pressure – so we really need to understand what happens to the brain during adolescence.
- Time travelling – thinking ahead about what might happen if… In competition athletes should be in the moment.
- The biggest occasions – i.e. Olympics can become a magnifying glass of emotion as it is often a once in a lifetime opportunity.
- After big events – athletes may struggle even if they did well and if they are not prepared can suffer with depression or substance abuse.
Working in Multi-Disciplinary teams
- It can be really hard to collaborate across a large number of teams so you will need to identify communication systems which keep you all updated but don’t risk the athletes privacy.
- Can split mental health and mental performance so there are fewer issues for athletes on what is shared.
- Collaboration is rarely efficient but it can be very effective.
- Think about informal connections and discussions which can be had
- Develop an athlete management system so each athlete feels like they have 1 unified programme.
- On a team know who your ‘high awareness’ players are who will need more support and attention.
Transition of athletes into a programme
- Provide coach education so they know and understand what athletes are going through
- Provide lots of support in an athlete’s first few weeks on a programme
- Get seen a lot so it is easy for anyone struggling to come and see you.
- Run an induction session with new athletes – and maybe with their parents too.
- Do some screening to see who is likely to need support; Anxiety, Patient Health Questionnaire and Eating Disorders.
Transition of athletes out of a programme
- Be clear everything is on the table for discussion.
- Most athletes (and often their coaches) will not want to consider what comes next but those who do enjoy performance benefits and an easier time after retirement.
- We need to prepare them for the ‘after’.
Stigma for athletes of seeing a Psych
- Coaches and other athletes who have had support can be the best people to spread the word the sports psych can be trusted
- There will always be discomfort when we don’t have experience of something but most athletes will not have learnt mental skills before so will not know their value- you may need to sell them what you can offer – sell this as ways to maximise potential.
Ways for Sport Psychologists’ to maintain mental health
- Share our vulnerability
- Admit we are not perfect but that we are trying
- Get good colleagues we can consult with
- Practice what you preach when it comes to self-care: Lots of sleep, good nutrition, other self-identities, lots of support
- Have boundaries
- Accept you probably won’t get balance if you are embedded in a travelling team but find your blend and know your non-negotiables and set up routines.
- Find autonomy and meaning and value and create proactive systems.
Lessons to remember
- We need to manage our own expectations of what we can achieve (be realistic!)
- Remember that we are performers too
- Keep focused on it not being the outcome which matters. Think about what being a good sports psych looks like – it is usually about the process and never about the outcome.
- Value ourselves – but don’t over value ourselves!