You Are Not Alone
The discourse surrounding mental illness is overwhelmed with stigmas and stereotypes that impede people from seeking or fully participating in mental health services. "Mental illnesses are associated with weakness; to appear weak is the last thing an athlete wants,"1 says Victoria Garrick, a professional volleyball player from the University of Southern California. "The culture we live in as athletes does not make it easy to honor [taking a break], if you think about it, the culture of athletics preaches: ‘where there is a will there is a way,’ and ‘the best don't rest, unless you puke, faint or die, keep going,’"2 she explains.
"During water breaks I would run to the bathroom and sob, because for five seconds I just wanted my day to stop!... I told myself I was weak for wanting a break,"3 explains Garrick. "I can remember a few times that I was biking, and I was thinking if this car would accidently hit me, that would stop my week, that would give me the break that I so badly need,"4 she says. This is the reality among most athletes, because the stigma surrounding mental health issues makes it difficult for them to come forward.
During competition, one mistake can cause devastating consequences. For that reason, athletes often suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges that go unnoticed. This stigma has created a culture for athletes where social acceptance takes precedence over mental health. As a result, athletes suffer from the fear of the consequences that may result from seeking help. They fear that seeking help may affect their career, or be reported to management. Thus, they choose to suffer alone with the pressure and constant scrutiny. Due to this stigma, athletes lack knowledge of mental illnesses, programs, and other forms of assistance, nor do they have the time to seek and receive treatment.5
The Struggles of a Professional Baseball Player
A professional baseball player, who asked to remain anonymous, explained in an interview the effects playing at the professional level has on an athlete's self-esteem. He explained, "Prior to being drafted, I was the man, best on every team, looked up to everywhere I went. Making it to the professional level tested how mentally strong I am."
"It is difficult to cope when others are constantly competing to steal your place, and it is tough when you have to constantly prove your worth," he said. "Sometimes I would doubt whether I am valuable, worth it, or even good enough. I would have to remind myself that I am," he said. "You can be dropped just like that and nobody will question the decision. The team chemistry is different than it was in high school," he explained.
When asked how he coped, he said: "I learned that baseball is a game of failure; you must continuously develop and learn to accept it. Practice is key. Practicing mentally is just as important as practicing physically, if not more important." He explained: "I sometimes imagine myself in a different setting, off the field, in a happy place.” His teammates use other methods including yoga, meditation, phone applications, and talking to field coaches. "2021 is the first year that the MLB has a mental coach, and it has changed many lives. The players now have an outlet to go to, someone to talk to, confidentially, without the fear of being exposed," he added.
Mindfulness Is Training Not Meditation
There must be a new approach towards mental health in the athletic world. It is insufficient to merely suggest an ending to this stigma. We must go further towards reeducating athletes, coaches, and other such contributors on the imperatives of incorporating mindfulness into athletic training. In revealing the complementary nature of mindfulness and training, coaches may adopt practices that benefit athletes and their teams as a whole. The National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and other organizations are now mandating that every team has a psychologist on staff. This is a huge step forward for mental health, and for athletic performances.
In addition, however, athletes at all levels should be consistently evaluated, and receive medicine and therapy through their schools and organizations. Coaches must include mental health practice in daily or at least weekly practices to educate athletes about mental health in order for them to overcome any struggles that they may be facing alone.
The feeling of failure is not foreign to lawyers, especially young ones. The constant worrying about being prepared, forgetting due dates or a trial date, or forgetting to admit a piece of evidence that may have cost the entire case, the list goes on. Attorneys, just like athletes, fear making a mistake, because even a little mistake is tremendously costly.
How Do We Cope When Mistakes Are Costly?
Practicing mindfulness should not be seen as a weakness, but rather it should be incorporated in athletes' practices. In an interview, Dr. Stephanie Hernandez6 defined mindfulness as "the practice of being present." The goal is to be aware of what is going on around you rather than live in the past, she explained. "Practicing mindfulness can change the structure of your brain and neural chemistry,"7 says Dr. Michael Gervais,8 a high performance psychologist who works in high-stakes environments with some of the best in the world.9 It is important to practice mindfulness in order to cope with the never-ending distractions in life, including your own negative thoughts.
Dr. Gervais's method includes creating a personal philosophy that will guide you in times of stress. He emphasizes the importance of understanding yourself by identifying the guiding principal that sits beneath your thoughts, words, and actions. Write down 25 words or less to explain what it is you stand for, and that will allow you to avoid the loud noises that pull you away, says Dr. Gervais.10
Dr. Gervais also emphasizes the importance of having a conviction of those principals; he adds, "Train your mind to be calm, confident, and optimistic in any environment…just like training your body to be strong and flexible."11 Optimism is the fundamental belief that everything will work out, "so train your mind to stay in it, even when it's hard," he says. At the end of your day, Dr. Gervais recommends writing down three things that are amazing in your life. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that doing this will train your mind to become more optimistic, explained Dr. Gervais.12 Also, observe your own thoughts and emotions by doing single-point focus exercises like focusing on a candle or your breath, and when your mind wanders, refocus it, "just simply saying hello and goodbye to the distraction and then coming right back to the one thing," says Dr. Gervais, will sharpen your mind.13
"In times of stress, take a deep breath, think of a peaceful situation like being on the beach, and let go of all the bad thoughts and judgment," Dr. Hernandez adds. "Imagine stress being on something moving and watch it as it pushes away." These techniques will cause real changes in stress responses like reduced blood pressure, increased blood circulation, reduced anxiety, reduced stress, regulated sleep, regulated mood, decreased fatigue, improved memory recall, and improved attention. There is a whole list of benefits from practicing mindfulness.
"Practice coping and mindful techniques like you would practice for a game [or a trial]," emphasizes Dr. Hernandez. "Mental health isn't only for people with impairment, it is for everyone. It is important to treat your mind just as you treat your body," she adds.
When mistakes could cost limbs or lives and the consequences are immense, mental illnesses are inevitable. We must learn to cope in high-stakes environments by taking control of our mind when times get stressful. We must learn what mental perseverance looks and feels like, and understand that mental health struggles are universal. In turn, that will pave the way towards normalizing seeking help. We also must learn to cope on an individual level. To cope, we must have a philosophy to fall back on; we must be in control of our mind, and in order to do that we must train our mind by practicing mindfulness. We cannot be afraid to seek help. It does not make us weak or different. We all suffer, but only some of us are strong enough to do something about it.
Yasmine A. Owaynat is a Judicial Law Clerk, and E. Kenneth Wright is the presiding judge, First Municipal District, Circuit Court of Cook County.
1. Tedx Talks (2017, June 2). Athletes and Mental Health: The Hidden Opponent [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sdk7pLpbIls.
6. Dr. Stephanie Hernandez is a psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
7. GQ. (2019, November 19). How the Seahawks Sports Psychologist Trains the Team [Video]. YouTube. https://www.gq.com/video/watch/the-assist-how-the-seahawks-sports-psychologist-trains-the team#:~:text=Meet%20Mike%20Gervais%2C%20the%20sports%20psychologist%20for%20the,game%20is%20im portant.%20for%20the%20past%20eight%20years.
8. Dr. Michael Gervais has a master's degree in sports science and a PhD in psychology, and currently works with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.
9. Finding Mastery. (2020). About Dr. Michael Gervais. https://findingmastery.net/about-michael-gervais/
10. GQ. (2019, November 19). How the Seahawks Sports Psychologist Trains the Team [Video]. YouTube. https://www.gq.com/video/watch/the-assist-how-the-seahawks-sports-psychologist-trains-the team#:~:text=Meet%20Mike%20Gervais%2C%20the%20sports%20psychologist%20for%20the,game%20is%20im portant.%20for%20the%20past%20eight%20years.