Over the past few days myself and my team have been contacted by numerous news and media stations, friends, and others wanting to know our perspective on Simone Biles pulling out of the Olympics after some mental health concerns.
For me in this moment as an Athlete Therapist I would like to first address the fear and anger people have expressed about her decision. The fear that we are raising and promoting weak minded athletes. That her choice and other athletes’ choice to take care of themselves is selfish and soft. That she is a quitter and choked under pressure. Simone has 36 medals, 27 of them gold. She spends 7 hours a day 6 days a week training.
Nothing about Simone’s journey of greatness is weak or soft. Her training would cripple most, the trauma she has experienced in her sport and in her life would cripple most and yet she has shown nothing but strength. She had a small moment in her incredible career where she didn’t feel right and did what she thought was best for her and her team.
Every day I sit with athletes some as young as 9 who come in for mental health concerns or just in need of support while they devote their life to a sport that can be incredibly harsh. Riddled with anxiety, pressures and injuries. Ashamed and angered that they feel the way they do.
Yet, most continue to show up, break their bodies and be ridiculed by armchair experts over every little thing. Everyday I am amazed by athletes’ struggles and their ability to still be successful and hold it all together.
Our own fears and uncomfortability with seeing athletes struggle or what happens if we address it has only caused more fear and harm. People’s anger only promotes that medals, perfection, and physical output is all that is important.
Simone has not been the first nor will she be the last to put her health and safety first over winning a medal.
I am extremely grateful to be in a career that allows athletes to be human, to be broken, to be strong and to be empowered to step back out there or walk away.
An estimated 6.1 million American children ages 2-17 years old had ever received a diagnosis of ADHD. This representing 9.4% of this total age-group nationwide as reported by the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 2016.
Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent psychology 2018
ADHD in sports is something that I think should be talked about more. There are very significant things about an ADHD brain that needs attention on the playing field just as much as in the classroom or other areas.
Most people understand ADHD’s main challenges as difficulty focusing, unable to pay attention, organizational issues, and is extremely hyperactive. However, many children (and adults) also struggle to regulate their emotions. This can be both bouts of anger/frustration or being extremely happy and excited. This tends to be concerning when big emotions do not match the situation or linger for extended amounts of time.
I want to highlight this specific area because emotional struggles are usually one of the main reasons any parent brings in their athletes to see me. It is very common to see athletes get mad, frustrated, or cry during games. Sports are emotional, they want to win, there are expectations and pressures that can affect anyone but the environment isn’t always so tolerant of big emotions or distracting behaviors. This can make it extremely challenging for an athlete that has ADHD. I often see parents and coaches overlook the diagnosis and just relate it to poor sportsmanship.
ADHD and Our Emotions.
ADHD impacts certain regions of the brain and their functions. One of those is the Limbic system that regulates our emotions and attention. When something like a small mistake happens they can be flooded with emotions due to the impaired ability to recognize their own feelings and adjust them to the situation. They have less ability to react to their own emotions using reasoning and processing. Non-ADHD athletes have a bigger window to look at the situation reason and respond accordingly. This is usually why we hear people say they go from 0 to 100 real quick!
Another notable thing about ADHD and the athlete is they tend to have trouble with working memory and needing instant gratification. This makes it hard to keep in mind the big picture of things when struggling. Since the ADHD brain has a dopamine deficiency, long-term goals of success, rewards, or one day mastering this tough skill are not enough to stop the emotional flood that overwhelms them.
This can also cause an athlete to:
Give up too quickly on a skill, drill, or sport.
Be reluctant or procrastinate on something they should be doing.
Throw things, say abrupt things in the moment, cry, or yell .
Have over aggressive playing styles, or fearlessness.
Some research indicates that 70-80% of children with ADHD have atypical emotion regulation. About 30% of kids had severe anger and tantrum problems, often along with elevated moodiness and anxiety. Another 40% were very active, energetic, risk-taking, and had a more positive mood, but were also prone to anger outbursts.
It is important for me to address this because sports are a wonderful place for those who have ADHD and children are more likely to join due to the positive activating effects. Sports can offer the ADHD athlete a place to excel and learn ways to regulate emotions and stimulate the brain’s needs. It is estimated that eight to ten percent of all professional athletes have the diagnosis. Some research presents that ADHD may be more common in elite athletes than in the general population.
However, many quit or have bad experiences due to the lack of knowledge surrounding what is happening inside the athlete’s brain and what they need in order to succeed. I have heard too many stories of athletes being kicked off teams or told their behaviors will not be tolerated. Some still dismiss the disorder and relate symptoms to poor parenting or an athlete being too emotional or uncoachable.
These athletes tend to struggle in many areas and can be seen as disruptions at home, in school, and now in their sport. Research indicates that those with the diagnosis feel intense remorse more than others and up to 99% of teens and adults are more sensitive than usual to rejection. Nearly 1 in 3 say it’s the hardest part of living with ADHD. Playing sports can be an escape from the challenges they face at school and home, it can also teach them to manage the things they battle with. Without the proper tools and support their love of the game is just another area, they feel rejected, dismissed, and not good enough.
As teachers, coaches are on the front lines of these behaviors sometimes more than parents and can have a huge impact on supporting the struggles they may have. These athletes are not “uncoachable” they just need a different type of coaching.
Working with a sports therapist not only allows the athlete to learn critical skills in life and sport but is also a great tool for communication within the athlete’s support system. ADHD is still very misunderstood and I am so happy to be able to help parents and coaches navigate this and support the gifts of the ADHD athlete.
The demands of playing at an elite level, staying on top of course work, and managing personal life can be a heavy load to carry.
Becoming a college athlete is the ultimate dream come true. It is a huge milestone that signifies your talent, dedication, and advancement into a career or continued athletic career. It is truly a great experience but being a college athlete is always bigger than the sport itself. Young adults step into a new world both exciting and frightening. This transition demands athletes to be their best in the game, in the classroom, and in this new world. Not to mention the added changes and disruption Covid has caused. Stress in situations like this can become more prevalent and harder to manage.
What is Stress?
Stress is defined by how the brain and body respond to any demand. The demands of practice, competition, school, work, or travel. We can experience both good and bad stress. Some stress powers athletes to perform better and hold them accountable for being on time. Stress goes away as we complete tasks or finish challenging events. However, when an athlete experiences extended periods of stress, or feels that the demands of competition, injuries, school, or life are never ending it can impair functioning beyond their ability to play well.
The Stress You Carry
I like to explain stress to college athletes as the weight they carry around in their backpacks or athletic bags. I sure remember taking multiple bags with me everywhere on campus. In those bags, we have things we put in and take out as needed. Other things stay in there, we never seem to be able to take it out, or maybe we even overlook a few things that don’t seem significant. We take those things with us everywhere, to the gym, stadium, classroom, and home. We can even continue to cram the bag, trying to pile more things and hold it together. At some point, that bag cannot hold anymore and starts to break. Like that bag, we are only able to hold so much for so long. If we don’t unpack the stress, or have the means to cope with it, our body and mind suffer.
When college athletes come to see me it is initially because of a performance decline. Something just doesn’t feel right. Most athletes believe that they must shut out all outside problems, stressors, or worries and step into practice or game mode and perform like nothing is going on. Some may be able to do that for lengthy periods of time without any significant signs but for most the stress shows up.
Stress can affect people and athletes in many different ways but, there are always commonalities.
How Stress Shows Up.
Worrying or negative thoughts. (What if I don’t play well, or I don’t even care anymore).
Trouble making decisions or concentrating. (Coach may say you are making a lot of mental errors).
Difficulty remembering or recalling information. (Remembering plays, or forgetting normally easy information ).
Easily agitated, or angered.
Feeling anxious, sad, or depressed.
Lower self-esteem, confidence, or motivation. (May feel like you want to quit, or can’t keep up with school).
Quicker to respond emotionally to errors or mistakes. (Crying easily or people might say they’ve never seen you react like that).
Feeling exhausted and fatigued beyond workouts and schoolwork.
Increased muscle tension, tightness.
Stomach pain, cramping, or sick/nausea feeling.
Headaches or tension in or around the head.
Unable to eat as much or over-eating.
Sick more often than normal or injured/in pain more.
Decline in performance (Doing uncharacteristic things in game/practice).
Decline in other areas of performance like school or work.
Sleep disturbance. (Unable to sleep or sleeping more than usual).
Increased conflicts with teammates, coaches and/or officials.
Withdrawal from normal activities, or poor engagement in practice/games.
Behavioral outbursts like throwing equipment, clenching hands, teeth or other.
As athletes venture into their college careers, the demand and loads tend to rise beyond their sport. In my work with college athletes, I always look for specific demands that have changed, increased, and accumulated. Their sport and schoolwork has probably always been a stressor, but what does that look like now? I check in on their nutrition, sleep, and travel schedules. How are they adapting to living on their own, their relationships with people, teammates, and coaches? Are they injured?
Top Stressors Reported by College Athletes.
Higher level of competition! The need to perform higher and more consistently than ever before. More demand on their body and mind.
Schoolwork! Heavy class loads, time needed to complete work, and difficulty increased. Many feel they like they are constantly drowning in homework.
Time in general! Athletes wake up workout, go to class, go to athletic trainers, find time to eat, go back to practice, do homework, and travel most weekends. They give up sleep to make more time. Terrible for functioning and recovery they need.
What about our personal life!? These athletes miss home, have relationships, possibly are not on full scholarships, need to work or are surviving on very little .
Every athlete is different, has different circumstances and tolerances to how they respond to stress. Athletes are resilient, and can absolutely thrive at the collegiate level but, they are human, they are still developing and learning. It is important to be aware of the signs of stress both physically and mentally. To take some time to open up the backpack and manage the things we continue to lug around.
Parents: How can I approach my athlete about what you do?
Athletes from a very young age are faced with unique challenges and pressures. Then you pair that with pubescence..yeah, things are complicated. My biggest population is around the adolescent age. Whether these athletes are just coming in for sport specific help or more mental health reasons there is usually some hesitation. Something I get asked on regular basis from parents is “How do I approach my athlete about what you do?
For some context, I am a therapist who works in sports. So, I offer counseling for athletes struggling with anxiety, stress, and family or team conflicts. I also help athletes with performance-enhancing mental skills. It can be confusing for parents, coaches, and the athlete to know how to talk about this and what it will even look like. “Am I going to counseling or a mental coach?” “Is there something wrong with me or my skills in sports?”
I go by many names like mental performance specialist, mental strength coach, sports counselor, athlete therapist, and so on. While there is a pretty big difference between a therapist and a mental skills coach, I can be both. I don’t want to mask or hide who or what I really do but using other terms can be helpful in getting your athlete some help. I hope I can make Athlete Therapist sound cool and exciting one day but for now I’m open to changes. I am a mixture of a sport psychology, therapy, and athlete.
A few examples of what that means.
I use counseling skills like listening, validating feelings, and positive regard.
I use therapy techniques like CBT which means I believe the way we think has a direct affect on our mood and performance. So, my therapy looks like “what was the thought you had right before you stepped up to the plate?”
I use sport psychology techniques for goal setting, focus and concentration.
I use my athlete knowledge and love for sports to connect and understand the culture.
I am licensed, I am supervised, I am trained for the athletes who are maybe struggling on a deeper level that reaches beyond the sport. That licenses and training does wonders for those who just need a little bit of help too.
Parents, this is for you.
Parents, I know you are still trying to understand what this is too. I am an expert in the field of helping athletes heal, grow, communicate, set goals, get to know themselves as people and athletes, build confidence, and manage the pressures that come with being elite. I am a safe non-judgmental space for your athlete to step away from competition, from perfection, from expectation, and have an hour of conversation, exploration, and hopefully relief. A bonus is I can help in all areas of performance like school, sport, job, and relationships. For the athlete I am much like their coach in that I help them learn new strategies, learn new skills, and work with them in their athletic journey. I am an athlete who helps athletes with the things we cant fix physically.
Here are some of my tips on talking about it.
Everyone knows this can be an uncomfortable topic to present and teens can smell fear a mile away. If you’re uncomfortable and unsure they probably will be too. Explore it together!
2. Express your concerns while focusing on specific mood or behavior changes. “I’ve noticed you’ve been coming home from practices looking upset” or “We know you have been struggling with your performance and feeling worried about it” Empathize with them about what you have been noticing. For example: “It can be so frustrating and upsetting to be struggling and not know how to fix it.
3. Express your limitations and the coaches limitations for helping. Most of the time the athlete has been struggling for a while and parents and coaches just don’t know how else to help. It’s okay to tell your teen this is out of your scope BUT that you know someone who can help! “I wonder if talking to someone that is an expert would help you?”
4. Presenting the expert of athletes! You do not have to say therapy or counseling at all. Here’s an example “Miss or coach White helps only athletes including professional ones (that always helps) with things like slumps, mental blocks and even those pre-game jitters. She was an athlete and coach so that’s pretty cool. She could probably really understand and help all of us out.
5. Teens want to be respected, included and feel like they have some control. Give them options on someone they might like to meet with or maybe even have them do their own research and ask questions.
I hope this brings some clarity or maybe more questions I can answer. In summary what I do can cover a lot of bases or just one base. Coming to see me does not mean you are crazy, broken, or weak. I hope you can line me up next to the position coach you see weekly, the nutrition coach you check in with monthly, or the strength coach you see every day. We all specialize in areas that the other one doesn’t, all working together to help an athlete stronger in skills, body, and mind.
Are you an athlete or a parent of an athlete that is struggling with performance declines, anxieties or mental blocks?
Sometimes we have to un-rack the weight e carry to become stronger.
Cortnee White, LPC-Associate
The fitness world is full of health, hard work, beautiful people and rock hard bodies. There’s a type of rush being in that environment, especially when you are willing to show it all off on a stage under the bright lights. Bodybuilding is an extreme sport that takes a whole other level of commitment, discipline, and strength. I am not talking about muscle strength.
I think bodybuilders have some of the strongest minds out there. Probably because I spent most of my life in fitness. My mom owned a few gyms growing up, we even lived in one for awhile. She trained, I trained, it was in my blood to work out. I eventually found my way into competing. What a rush to train so hard, walk on the stage under the lights and be judged. It was addicting and I got my first taste of the mental strength it took to do the sport.
I did it for a couple years and eventually the rush faded for me and maintaining that lifestyle was no longer fun. I still trained a little but you never forget the feeling, the way you looked and the way people were amazed by the way you looked. Stepping away from that lifestyle forces you to rework the way you train, the way you look at your body and your relationship with food.
Now that I work in sport psychology and therapy I train bodybuilders in a whole other way. I train their mental muscle, our mind needs a training plan too. No doubt bodybuilders can wake up, hit the gym, count their macros, and constantly push themselves to the limit. But, sometimes they hit a wall or sometimes the wall hits them when the stage lights go out. The sport is about perfection, the perfect symmetry, don’t be too muscular or too soft. Most of the time that perfection is only in the eyes of the judges or the politics behind the show. Food can become the enemy, the person in the mirror is under constant scrutiny, and outside life and pleasures are put on the back burner. This can take a complete toll on the mind and the body.
There are great and amazing things you gain out of bodybuilding other than a rock hard bod but if your running the perfection race you will never be satisfied. I work with athletes on managing expectations, stress, and self-image, we work on the relationship with food and the gym. I want bodybuilders to thrive in their sport under the lights but more so when they step off the stage. That’s where the real mental strength lies.
“Sometimes we have to un-rack the weight we carry to become stronger”
Practicing mindfulness as an athlete can actively relieve stress and anxiety. It can improve focus, attention and allow you to better regulate emotions before, during and after competitions.
Mindfulness simply means a person has achieved full awareness on the present moment. While being able to calmly acknowledge thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Whichever sport you play being able to stay in the moment, actively be in tune with your mind and body can be a powerful tool in performance and overall health.
TIP #1: MINDFUL EATING
We mindless eat all the time. We eat out of boredom, or for comfort, or for no other reason than the food is just there to eat. For athletes this is a great tool because nutrition is extremely important to your lifestyle. You eat to fuel your body and enhance your performance.
I would like you to take it a step further. Pay attention to not only what it will do for your body but what it can do for your mind. Engage your senses. Try to pick out flavors or spices as you chew. Are your senses saying you are hungry or is it something else. Set down the phone, turn off the TV and practice eating mindfully for it can bring you a sense of calmness and focus.
TIP #2: BE A NOW-IST
We spend majority of our time lost in thought. Some researchers say that roughly 50 percent of our day is spent thinking about something not in our immediate environment. Other research shows that we have thousands of daydreams every single day. That is a lot of time not being in the now. While being lost in thought can absolutely be a wonderful thing, it can also not be so great. Athletes being in the moment is critical for focus, reaction time, but most importantly for their well being.
Let’s say you are in a car on your way to practice. Thinking or imagining what that practice might be like. It started out positive then the what ifs come. You start feeling anxious about the conditioning you will have to do or the skill you have to try. Those thoughts turn to emotions and now you are dreading practice. Then before you can gather yourself you wake up and it’s time to get out. We have all had that moment where we wake up from being lost in thought and go oh wow.. how did I just get here. Kind of scary actually but, it’s a great example of how out of it we can be. So, practicing bringing that attention back to you sitting in that car and in the moment and allowing those thoughts to come and go. Being a now-ist takes conscious effort to say hey brain wake up and come back.
TIP#3 LOOK AROUND
To prevent from drifting away in thought to help wake up the brain and gain some control, bring your attention to what you can see. On your way to practice look at the world around you. Notice the buildings, the colors of the cars passing by, look at a drive you’ve taken a million times in a new way. Look for that wow I never even noticed that was there moment. Take a look at your field, how green the grass is, how the gym floor was pieced together so tightly or notice how high the scoreboard stands.
Being mindful doesn’t mean we never have bad thoughts or anxious feelings, it means we have the ability to say hey thought or hey weird feeling i’d like to know more about you. We can become less caught up in worries about tomorrow or the regrets of yesterday.
“I talk mindfulness with all my athletes as it is a tool they can take with them into every situation in their life”
I started tumbling when I was pretty young and loved it! My tumbling quickly turned into hitting the vault and the bars and I was excelling quickly. Coaches took notice and were ready to start my Olympic training untill…
One day out of nowhere I was rounding off into a back handspring like every day before when I just froze and fell straight on my butt. With this weird feeling of confusion I got back up and tried again, but this time I didn’t fall I didn’t even move. I was frozen.
I had thrown back handsprings all the time without a thought and now I couldn’t. I tried and tried to just do it but, I was stopping every time. I now couldn’t even do it on my trampoline at home. This flip I had done a million times now became scary, frustrating, and frustrating for others. I could see and feel the look of disappointment on my coaches, parents, and peer’s face. I eventually got to the point of being able to do it but only on and off. At some point, I didn’t really care for gymnastics anymore and it became more of a hassle than fun and I moved on to the next sport. The saddest part is that this is the clearest memory of gymnastics I have. My mental block was what I remember.
What is a Mental Block?
Psychological blocking which is also normally called a mental block is the inability to perform a skill that an athlete previously performed with no problems. Athletes report feeling stuck, frozen, blank, or they feel like their brain is fogged.
It can spread! It generalizes backwards within a sequence of skills. So take my story for example, the blocking started on the back handspring, but can quickly spread to the round-off itself.
Why is it Happening?
Sports like gymnastics and diving are completely unnatural for our body to perform and our brain doesn’t like it either. Flying and twisting through the air puts our brain on high alert! Its job is to protect us and look for threats, and there can be a lot of threats. If we are under stress, fearful, worried, anxious, or injured our brain essentially shuts us down. Our brain is telling us, hey, you got a lot going on and I cannot allow you to do something dangerous right now.
A lot of times the athlete is just unable to perform the skill or has moved too fast into a higher-level skill. This can be fear, self-confidence issues, or mechanical issues. Those blocks can usually be resolved by slowing down and going back to basics.
The most common block that I usually see is surrounded by an injury or seeing others be injured. Injuries are trauma both to the body and the mind. I like to put it as we hold onto pain memories. With pain memories we don’t forget what happened when we fell, we over-rotated, or saw someone do the same. As I stated before our brain is now in full protective mode, it does not want you to be hurt again. From those injuries, we also produce stress and anxiety. Our thoughts become consumed with trying to never let it happen again, worrying about every little movement or placement. We might still feel pain and hesitate on going full out, causing the block to have a stronger hold on us. We start to block and freeze because there are a lot of unresolved fears.
The amygdala (emotional response center) is calling in all the stops to keep you safe.
I am scared but not scared of the skill.
Fear and being scared is a stressful and anxious emotion that ignites our blocks. Most gymnasts explain the fear they have with blocks as “I am scared but not scared of the skill”. We usually assume that if an athlete is blocking it is because they are doing a really hard and complicated skill that scares them. While this can be true it is not always the case. As stated above blocks occur on skills that have been done before, usually skills that were quite easy originally. The fear they feel can be stemming from the thought of injury because they are overthinking and putting too much attention on small mechanics causing disruptions. They can fear not being able to do the skill because of how easy it is and the embarrassment and shame that can happen. They can be scared due to dissociating from themselves and the movement and not having body awareness.
Whether it is stress from outside the gym, inside, or a combination of both, the longer it builds the more the athlete tends to make negative attributions about their ability and about themselves. This can drive avoidance of the movement or sport, shame, anger, and feelings of failure. Mental blocks happen, and they happen a lot. You or your athlete are not alone in the burden a mental block can place on you. With some knowledge and understanding, the block can be defeated!
It is very important not only physically but mentally that we address mental blocks early on and learn appropriate skills that can help ease the process.
Mental blocks can be defeated, with the right tools and some time we can get you back doing what you love.