Asking for help is not a weakness. In fact, as athletes, asking for help is one of the hardest things we can do and exemplifies incredible strength.
In sports, we’re often applauded for “toughing it out.” However, repeatedly draining yourself physically and mentally without seeking support can lead to dissatisfaction and mental health challenges. We must realize that asking for help is a great way to ensure we are able to move, think and feel our best in every aspect of our lives.
We spoke with Cynthia Clarke, EdD, CMPC, a sport and performance psychologist and VIS Expert™, about the benefits of asking for help and fighting the stigma around seeking mental health support.
What problems are athletes facing?
Dr. Clarke says that strength is often associated with compartmentalizing athletes’ off-the-field challenges from their on-the-field performance, which falsely assumes that the two can be cleanly separated.
In reality, school stress, performance anxiety, family situations or other pressures can lead to anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges that impact both athletic performance and overall quality of life. This makes asking for help even more important. “The reality is, you do need to acknowledge [your struggles],” Dr. Clarke says. “Talking is part of that acknowledgement.”
What are the benefits of asking for help?
Deciding to reach out for help is the first step to relieving pressure from a stressful situation. Next steps will vary depending on your situation, but may include modifying training, seeking professional counseling, or receiving medication. “If you don't release some of what you're carrying, at any point, it becomes overwhelming,” Dr. Clarke says.
“If you don't release some of what you're carrying, at any point, it becomes overwhelming.”
What are some tips for athletes seeking help?
Dr. Clarke provides several tangible tips for athletes.
1. The first try isn’t always the charm.
The first counselor or sport psychologist you talk to may not be one that you “click” with. Don’t be afraid to seek out other options if the first person does not meet your needs. Find someone you feel comfortable being vulnerable with.
2. Check in with yourself by reflecting on your “why.”
Routine weekly or monthly self-reflection sessions can help you keep track of your baseline attitude towards your sport, and allow you to assess if any changes occur that need to be addressed. Ask yourself: "Why am I motivated to show up to practice? To be on the team? To give 100%?" What factors create these attitudes?
If you're feeling unmotivated, check into your why. Ask yourself: "Why do I feel like this? Am I physically drained? Am I mentally tired? Have I lost enjoyment in my sport?" If you find that your answers to these questions are changing, consider external pressures that could be contributing.
3. Know what resources you have access to.
You may not need help right now, but keep note of coaches, parents, teammates and friends you’d feel comfortable turning to in times when you do need support. Dr. Clarke also reminds us not to be afraid to advocate for ourselves and seek out resources. Know what sports psychology resources your team or organization offers, or “look at what’s offered on campus.” Consider things like mental health counselors, success counselors, or life-skills programs.
So, how can we break the stigma around seeking mental health support?
Historically, many women athletes have shied away from asking for help—both physically and mentally—in fear of being seen as sensitive or weak, Dr. Clarke notes. “Let me keep it to myself” has been the mentality, she says, “So the coach doesn't see me in any different type of light, and my teammates don't see me in a different light.”
However, as larger cultural conversations have highlighted the importance of self care, prominent athletes like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps have spoken out about their mental health struggles in recent years.
“We're getting to a point where these people who are exceptional athletes said, ‘Hey, I have a problem,’ so it's allowing other people to say, ‘Well, if they had a problem, and they spoke about it, now I can actually come out too,” Dr. Clarke says. Highlighting these athletes’ honesty while respecting their desire for help is encouraging others to prioritize their mental health.
Dr. Clarke also highlights the importance of coaches and administrators supporting counseling and sports psychology resources within their teams. She says that she has seen an increased investment in sports psychology at the collegiate and professional levels, and it’s key that athletes know how to utilize these resources.
“Just like there's a registered dietitian for the sport, like there’s an athletic trainer for the sport, there should be a sports psychologist for the sports team as well,” Dr. Clarke says.