Members of Team USA enter the stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 9, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and the United States Olympic Committee offers sports psychology services to its athletes not only to help them develop the mental skills necessary to compete at the highest level but also to make sure that an athlete’s mental health is as strong as their physical health.
As part of recognizing the importance of mental health, TeamUSA.org spoke to Karen Cogan, senior sports psychologist at the USOC, to talk about why athletes seek the services of sports psychologists, how they can help and why no one has to struggle alone.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Let’s start out talking about sports psychology in general. In case people aren’t familiar, can you describe what it’s all about?
In sports psychology in general there are sort of two prongs. One is a performance-based side, talking about how an athlete can best perform under pressure and deal with the distractions that go along with competition, or mental skills I can teach them to help them come up with a performance plan. The other piece is dealing with the athlete as a person, so it might be life stresses outside of sports, things like relationships, that could have an impact on performance and mental health concerns as well.
When we think about elite athletes, we think of physical health and strength, but why is it equally as important for athletes to focus on their mental health as well?
It goes back to the athlete as a person, and I’m most concerned with an athlete finding a quality of life where they can be satisfied with their life choices, how they can be happy and how they’re going to define that in their life. That, to me, is as important as anything. Obviously we’re in this business to have good performances and support our athletes to have good performances – just as they are, but that’s not everything. It can’t be everything for an athlete. They have to make sure they’re mentally healthy as well, and I think it’s really about finding that balance.
Are athletes — particularly elite athletes — at greater, lesser or about the same amount of risk for developing mental health issues as the general population?
That’s a good question and we don’t know exactly at this point. In terms of my personal observations and dealing with athletes, I deal with a lot of mental health issues. A lot of times it might come up because of performance issues, but as we talk and I ask questions we realize it’s not just their performance being impacted by other life issues and stressors, and maybe there is a level of depression or anxiety that is having an impact. I find that I often am looking for those things and asking questions to make sure I don’t miss something really important.
What are some of the unique situations that athletes find themselves in that may not come up in the lives of non-athletes that may lead to a negative impact on mental health?
For instance, because a lot of athletes struggle to find funding, sometimes they are barely making ends meet financially and maybe they don’t know where they’re going to find the money for the next qualifying event – and they need to go to out of the country, much less pay rent. Money is obviously a stressor for a lot of people, but for athletes, because they don’t have time to hold down a full-time job, they need sponsorship and funding.
Sometimes they get to the point where they wonder if they can continue their sport because they don’t know where money for rent is coming from. That’s a layer of stress on top of performance stress. Then they go to an event and they think they have to perform well because if they don’t they won’t hold onto that funding, and that pressure takes them out of the zone of being in the present moment and performing the way they can. Then they don’t perform well, then they don’t have funding, so it can be a vicious downward cycle. You can see where people can end up with high anxiety or depression.
What are the most common reasons athletes seek out sports psychologists? Is it most often related to performance concerns or is it all over the board?
It is a variety of different concerns. Sometimes they come on their own and sometimes a coach has suggested it. A common complaint is, “I’m not performing consistently in competition,” or, “I do really well in training but when it comes to competition my nerves get to me and I don’t perform well.” Or a coach says, “He or she is great in practice but falls apart in competition and is a totally different person. What’s going on, how can we help?” Those are often the things athletes start off with, but as we talk we find other things going on in their worlds. That’s my job – to uncover all factors involved. Sometimes it is more a straight performance issue where they need techniques to be more mindful or work with breathing patterns or have a pre-performance plan that helps them get past some of the difficult moments. Other times it could be a stressful situation in life such as a relationship with a parent or significant other or coach that’s been causing them stress. There are a variety of concerns that athletes bring to start with.
What is the USOC’s approach to mental health with its athletes?
Ultimately it’s always the athlete’s choice what kind of resources they seek. We try to provide everything to them — nutrition, physiology, strength training, sports psychology — and offer all the resources, then it’s up to the athlete to choose which ones they want to use. If an athlete is in some sort of crisis situation, there might be an expectation that they’ll seek help for that before continuing to compete, but that would be a case-by-case basis. For the most part, people respond better when they choose to come in for sports psychology services or mental health treatment and counseling. My preference is for people to choose it themselves, then we find the best fit in terms of resources available to them.
Do you find that even now there’s a stigma when it comes to mental health and perhaps acknowledging that someone may need help?
I think in general there is, although I also see that changing. There have been some high-profile athletes speaking publicly about mental health concerns and seeking treatment, and that can prove to be a good model for other athletes who might be struggling. They see that the best of the best struggled with these things and sought help and think maybe I can do the same thing. I think it’s improving but I still think (there’s a stigma) there.
What will help change that, besides more people speaking out about it?
I know we’re doing a lot of work here at the USOC to improve the discussions about mental health, improve the resources we have to offer, improve the process to help athletes get connected to help, and help our staff know what to do and where to turn if they’re talking to an athlete and issues start to emerge. I think it’s becoming something that’s talked about more, and not as if it’s a problem but just as if it’s something people deal with, like maybe how an athlete has an injury, then they have surgery then rehab and recover. It’s a similar process. So, I think just by talking about it and making everyone aware that we offer these resources and getting athletes hooked in as quickly as we can will help.
Is there anything else you’d want athletes to know about sports psychology services?
I’d want athletes to know they don’t have to do this alone. There are many ways to get help. Sometimes that’s support from friends or family and sometimes it’s reaching out to a professional sports psychologist, but it doesn’t need to be something you struggle with alone.