May is mental health awareness month, and thanks to the coronavirus, the spotlight on mental wellness is brighter than ever. The Sport Science Institute believes that mental health is “part of, not apart from, athlete health. Mental health exists on a continuum, with resilience and thriving on one end of the spectrum and mental health disorders that disrupt an athlete’s functioning and performance at the other.” There are many ways you can improve your overall mental wellness; and in this time of uncertainty, one of the most important things we can do is tune in to our inner thoughts and emotions and learn new ways to be our best advocate.
What does mental wellness look like for athletes in a season of cancelled competitive sport?
If missing the game and community has thrown off your team spirit, you’re not alone. So many in our community are struggling to navigate this new normal.
One area that seems particularly challenging is knowing how to care for your inner wellness during a season of social distancing can feel isolating. We all know exercise sharpens your physical body’s physical abilities, but what about those days when you just can’t shake the heaviness of our current reality?
We’re here to help you cut the noise of worry, stress, and overwhelm with our top 5 ways to boost mental wellness, even during a global pandemic.
We recently chatted with licensed professional counselor, Megan Moir LPC-MHSP. Megan comes from a family of coaches, played golf, basketball, softball during high school and went on to compete at the college level playing golf at the University of Kentucky for five years, where she studied business and marketing. With a love of sports so deeply ingrained into her life, after graduating from college she took an internship with Nike in Portland, Oregon. “I worked mostly with the NBA shoe department. It was nothing for me to look out the window and see LeBron James riding a bike.” While Moir loved the experience working with Nike, she said there was something inside her that said she wanted to have a career that felt more relational. That tug on her heart brought her to return to school, this time as a golf coach at Trevecca Nazarene University, a Division 2 school, while she worked toward obtaining her Masters degree in clinical and mental health counseling, with a focus on sports leadership.
“Most of the work I do now is focused on speaking engagements and group work with teams and coaches across the country. I also have a private practice here in Nashville where I see clients one-on-one. I see a lot of athletes, coaches, entrepreneurs, musicians, and people who are high performers and high functioning that are really looking to go to the next level in their careers while they also develop better relationships, work on anxiety, depression issues and so on.”
Tackling mental toughness within a global pandemic can pose its own set of challenges, but Megan has a few ideas on how you can connect your emotional and physical wellness.
1. Use this time to reflect
This season has forced all competitive sport athletes to sit on the bench until it’s safe to come together again, and Moir says that many athletes she works with are now grappling with questions about their identity and self-worth pre-virus. That only seemed to impact athletes who were forced to the sidelines with injuries, or those who were graduating and wouldn’t have the chance to continue their sports careers competitively.
“Almost every athlete I work with wonders ‘Who would I be without my sport?’ and this season of social distance is really highlighting this question for so many,” she remarked. “While sport brings so much goodness to the life of an athlete, unfortunately, it can also bring with it performance anxieties such as the false belief that ‘I need to perform to be loved and belong,’ or ‘I need to perform to get attention, and I need to do everything perfectly.’ That’s a lot of pressure on people’s continued performance,” Megan added.
“I love goal setting, and I think that working toward your next win, accomplishing your best time on a race, your latest basketball statistics or winning championship games, what happens after you reach this goal? That’s what I encourage my clients to think about. Now that you have the championship title or you’ve achieved your fitness goals, what else do you want to be true about you? This time of quarantine is a prime opportunity to look at yourself with a more holistic perspective and give your whole self time to unfold.” She says to dive deep into this question of what is true about who you are beyond your athletic abilities. “With the pressure of performing perfectly in the game, athletes have the opportunity to do some deeper work. I ask, ‘Do you want to be known for your kindness? For your integrity? For your generosity?’ Answering those questions will help you find meaning and purpose as you navigate this season where competitive sport is not an option.”
2. Think about what you’ve lost and what you’ve gained
It’s helpful to think about life’s challenges and things that happen that are out of our control in terms of creating space to grieve what was lost, and to embrace what was gained.
“Specifically now, athletes have lost a big part of their communities and team culture, but they’ve also gained things they may not have had without this forced time out,” Megan said.
“So many coaches and athletes I work with have shared the biggest thing that they’ve gained has been an open schedule that allows them to pursue other hobbies or simply be at home in the evenings for family dinners.” Moir noted that one high level collegiate coach she works with shared that their coaching staff is making sure not to have meetings and Zoom team workouts during family dinner times because so many of their players have never been able to be present for their family dinners before due to game travel schedules while competing at such a high level. “They’ve not had that time with their family before, and their coaching staff is really making an effort to allow the evenings for their players to be with their families,” Megan added.
3. Set attainable goals
While keeping on a regular fitness and workout routine is imperative to boosting your endorphins and elevating your mental state, Moir reminds us to be realistic about the fact that nothing we do right now will replace the benefits of practicing and competing together with other athletes, and that’s ok. “Workouts look different now, the community looks different now, too. We have to work to stay connected, even if it’s just virtually screen to screen, instead of face to face,” she said. “It’s going to be frustrating, and you might feel lonely or angry. Make space for all those feelings and let them arise without judgement. Stay flexible and set smaller goals that you can easily manage to help encourage you to stay motivated each day.”
4. Know what true strength looks like
Megan says that while today’s world is definitely more open for discussing mental health. The public dialog from athletes like Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, professional women’s basketball player Imani Boyette, NBA coach and legend Jerry West, to tennis great Serena Williams have made a huge impact on the stigma attached to athletes who struggle with depression and mental illness. Moir says, “Today, the bigger problem athletes face than the stigma around mental health is their belief that if they seek help, even if nobody else knows about it, somehow that means that they are weak.” She says the mindset of “I’m in therapy because there is something wrong with me” needs to change. “It’s easy for athletes to accept someone else receiving therapy but suddenly when it comes to their own mental journey they have this idea that they’re supposed to just tough it out. It takes so much courage to seek out help. When this topic comes up with new clients, I often ask them who they view as ‘more crazy’–a person with an injury like a broken leg that walks around denying that their leg is broken, or the individual who goes to the doctor. In the same way, whether it’s depression, anxiety or just simple relationship conflicts, the person who faces their problems and bravely asks for help is the one who has the opportunity to heal and grow.”
5. Make your mental health as important as your strength and speed conditioning
Megan says that as human beings, athletes and coaches cannot give what they do not have. “Most of the high-level athletes I’m working with have a coach who is encouraging them, sharing their own vulnerabilities and talking to them about going to therapy. That prompts their athletes to seek their own therapy.” She notes the powerful influence that coaches have on the lives of their players. “My personal experience with my own coach in college who appropriately shared part of her mental health journey and challenges with me, helped to normalize the struggles I was facing and I really felt seen and understood.” Moir says that coaches can be an amazing agent for change in the world of athletics and mental health, especially if they’ve done some of their own therapeutic work and after finding their own healing, summon the courage to share that in relevant ways with their team. Moir leads therapeutic groups specifically for coaches who are working through their own personal struggles and learning how to apply it to their coaching career and better support their athletes in their own struggles. “I always think about how lucky the athletes are who compete under these coaches–people who are willing to show up, embrace the painful parts of life, and learn how to use it and grow as a result of their struggles. Every coach says the same thing, ‘I can’t ask my athletes to do something I’m not willing to do.’”
Megan’s coaching groups focus on a foundation of connection. “We have to be able to connect with ourselves to be able to connect with our players. And ultimately that’s what we’re looking for. The therapy groups help people improve their relationships, but then really it gives them the space to reflect on their own lives in ways that they can connect with other coaches to talk about challenges that they have, and topics that come up within the group. There’s so much power coming from coaches being able to connect with other coaches. Coaching can be so isolating because everybody feels this pressure to have it all together and just keep knocking out wins. I love that my therapy groups give an opportunity for more camaraderie and connection.”
Moir says that coaches who make mental wellness as much of a priority as other training give their entire team a leg up on the competition because athletic performance increases when we know how to cope with the outside factors and challenges of life.
For more on cultivating mental wellness in your own life, or to connect with Megan, you can visit her website.
Do you know a coach or athlete who is doing amazing work around mental health for their team? Nominate them today for a chance to be featured right here on our blog!