Athletes experience the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and everything else that comes between the highs and lows of competition. Sometimes, though, they need help managing the accompanying feelings, which is one reason sports counseling has become a growing specialty. Unlike sports psychology, which focuses primarily on game-time performance, sports counselors take a more holistic approach by also paying attention to the mental well-being and pyschoemotional needs of athletes.
If an athlete “has major depression or severe OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], all the mental training in the world isn’t going to accomplish much,” says Jim Afremow, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and sports psychology specialist who is also the author of the recently published book The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive. “I think it’s really exciting because in the last 20 years, both sports psychology and sports counseling have become more mainstream.”
A fair amount of overlap exists between sports psychology and sports counseling, in large part because performance is often the primary gateway to mental health treatment for athletes. “It’s really a good thing to have a person who works as a sports psychologist around performance to be licensed and versed in mental health counseling, because they do overlap and intersect in a lot of ways,” says Dwight Hollier, an LPC and nationally certified counselor who works as the director of transition and clinical services for the National Football League (NFL).
Athletes may seek out counselors with the goal of overcoming a specific obstacle, such as shutting out distractions when shooting free throws in basketball or playing without fear of reaggravating an old injury. But while the initial treatment goal may be to improve the athlete’s game-time performance, a sports counselor can provide coping techniques that are of use off the field as well.
Competencies for sports counseling, sometimes called athletic counseling, were first outlined in 1985 by the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision’s Counselors of Tomorrow project. The ACA Encyclopedia of Counseling includes the following definition for sports counseling: “A process which attempts to help individuals in maximizing their personal, academic and athletic potential. This is accomplished through a proactive, growth-oriented approach that incorporates the principles of counseling, career development, movement science, psychology and human development.”
Sports counseling has applications for clients from the professional ranks all the way down to amateur and youth athletes. That’s because sports can be an integral part of a person’s identity across the life span or at different points along the life span. Helping clients of all ages apply the lessons they have learned through athletics to life at large can be a hugely rewarding and productive type of treatment, according to professionals who work with this client population.
Of course, asking for help for anything other than sports-related goals may initially be outside the comfort zone of many athletes, especially those performing at higher levels. “There’s a stigma about seeking counseling — ‘Oh, I’m a high-profile athlete; I don’t need counseling’ — especially for men,” says Tauyna Tinsley, a counselor educator at California University of Pennsylvania, an LPC in private practice and one of the founders of the American Counseling Association’s Sports Counseling Interest Network. “Sometimes the player is trying to see whose ‘side’ you are on — ‘Coach’s side or my side? Is it going to impact my playing? I don’t want Coach to find out and it impacts my playing time.’ It’s about developing a therapeutic relationship and understanding the counseling process.”
The question of confidentiality often comes up in sports counseling, especially in situations when the counselor directly or indirectly works for the organization that sponsors the athlete or his team. Emphasizing the privacy of the counseling experience to athletes is key.
“We have to adhere to ethical codes [regarding client confidentiality],” Tinsley says. “You [an athlete] talking to me doesn’t mean I’ll tell your coach, but that’s always a question.”
The philosophy of “playing through the pain” has also been ingrained in many athletes, so they may regard the idea of unburdening themselves to a counselor as frivolous or weak. Sports counselors must find ways to overcome such hurdles and help athletes to feel strong about their choice to seek counseling.
When Afremow is trying to connect with an athlete, he quotes basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “Kareem put it right on the money when he said, ‘Your mind is what makes everything else work.’ In sports or in another career or as a student, let’s start with the mind,” Afremow says. “In our society, we want to start with the physical in terms of your muscles. Let’s work on your relationship with yourself and what you do.”
Adds Hollier, “The challenge in working with athletes is getting them to understand that everybody has emotional struggles and there are counselors who can help you to work through those challenges the same way a coach helps you learn plays.”
Building up an athlete’s healthy personal identity — one that isn’t measured by statistics or recognized by trophies — is an important part of sports counseling. Afremow takes an eclectic approach to treating athletes. He uses both Gestalt therapy and pyschodynamic approaches but mainly focuses on cognitive techniques because he says athletes are familiar with and tend to appreciate concrete goal setting.
Tinsley also favors cognitive behavior techniques and has found that approaching problems from an existential perspective works well with athletes.
On the plus side, many athletes are familiar with the process of working with health professionals such as trainers and physicians, so they may be more open than other client populations to the idea of creating and executing treatment plans. And once they buy into the concept of counseling, they tend to be very results-oriented.
“I like working with athletes and most counselors would [too],” Afremow says, “because they’re so driven and they’re really motivated to make positive changes.”
Fortunately, the tide slowly seems to be turning in favor of better mental health for athletes. This past September, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association outlined a broad set of guidelines calling for trainers and team physicians to increase their awareness of early signs of mental illness and to make referrals without compromising athletes’ confidentiality.
Have you got game?
Some sports counselors are former athletes themselves. Tinsley went to Augsburg College in Minnesota on a basketball scholarship. Hollier played linebacker in the NFL for nine years, primarily with the Miami Dolphins. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, he initially majored in speech communication with an eye toward pursuing a broadcasting career, but he found himself feeling anxious on the microphone in front of crowds. After enjoying a psychology class, he decided to double major instead. He went on to earn his master’s degree in counseling the year before playing his final NFL season.
“Sometimes we athletes can take that mental toughness” — seen as an advantage on the playing field — “to mean we can’t have or show emotions. Suck it up, no matter what’s going on,” Hollier says. “That’s where we can get confused and miss opportunities to get assistance and recognize that there are different kinds of strength.”
Afremow, a member of ACA, grew up in an outdoorsy family that enjoyed playing sports. As a professional, he was drawn to learning what makes people tick. “Put those together and [sports psychology is] a perfect marriage to me. I’m helping people to be more vitally engaged in their lives and to overcome obstacles, personal and interpersonal, and the demands of their careers. I really enjoy everything about the field,” says Afremow, the founder of Good to Gold Medal PLLC, a sports and performance psychology coaching and consulting practice.
That said, counselors don’t need to be jocks (or ex-jocks) to treat one. It’s an axiom of the sports world that great players don’t always make great coaches. Similarly, great sports counselors are made in the classroom and through professional training, not on the field of play. Aspiring sports counselors should seek sports counseling classes within their programs and attend workshops or conferences on the subject. They should also read scientific literature on sports counseling and applied sports psychology.
California University of Pennsylvania, where Tinsley is an associate professor, offers a graduate certificate program in sports counseling. The program provides counselor training competencies in three core areas of study: foundations of sports counseling, contextual dimensions of sports counseling, and knowledge and skills for the practice of sports counseling.
Although it’s not necessary to know the difference between a shotgun formation and a shot put ring to be a good sports counselor, practitioners do need a profound understanding of the culture that surrounds a particular game or team. Each sport’s culture may have specific values, traditions and language, and a proficient counselor will be aware of them.
“You have to be genuine but nonjudgmental,” says Hollier of effective sports counseling. “Anybody, but especially young people, can smell the fake from a mile away. You’re not trying to fit in and be like them, just understand their challenges. If you don’t understand that culture, you may take it for granted. Sometimes you only get one shot at these men [NFL players] because of the stereotypes and things that have been preached to them as kids.”
Tinsley, who focuses on multicultural issues, looks at athletes as a distinct cultural group. Sports counselors will need to check any preconceived notions about “dumb jocks” or “pampered superstars” at the door, she says, and try to genuinely understand the problems their clients face.
“The athlete population can be discriminated against,” Tinsley explains. “Many people who’ve come through a sports counseling program never realize what athletes go through, aside from the glory of the media or getting into trouble. We’ve got to be knowledgeable about the history and meaning of sports or the culture of sports. [For instance], football is a very different culture from women’s field hockey.”
Tinsley got a crash course in athletic culture during a trip to Botswana. She had planned to model her experience working with high school academic support groups for student athletes to teach life skills to Botswanans dealing with HIV and AIDS. When she arrived, she discovered an entirely different view of sports than what she knew in the United States.
Botswanans used the word motshameko, loosely translated as “play,” to describe their games, which were engaged in only after all meaningful business was accomplished. Motshameko generally was not integrated into the country’s education system or its national development, so Tinsley had to adjust her expectations and approach to the project accordingly.
But even in the comparatively sports-mad culture of the United States, assumptions shouldn’t be made with clients. “If you sit down with five athletes and ask them what sports means to them, you’ll get five different answers,” Tinsley says.
Afremow’s learning curve involved arriving at a true understanding of the physical dedication of elite athletes and the demands they placed on their bodies. Early during his stint working with the Arizona State University football team, he asked a player who later played professionally if he had any major injuries. “At this level,” the player responded, “we’re all injured. It’s just usually how bad.”
Where to work
The sports community can be small and insular, so securing a start in the field or immediately expecting to make a living exclusively as a sports counselor can be difficult. Over time, though, athletes and programs tend to reward longevity and loyalty. For sports counselors working with a particular team, it’s worthwhile to show up at practices and games even when there is no specific counseling goal to be met. Face time is important for integrating yourself into the culture of a team, which is by nature exclusive. “It’s hard to get in, but once you get in, you’re really accepted,” Afremow says.
Sports counselors also have to exercise some flexibility in the way they treat their clients. Elite athletes, in particular, have multiple demands on their time and can’t always break away to visit a counselor’s office. Multitasking — such as having a counseling session while an athlete is on the training table or in an ice bath — is not uncommon in the field of sports counseling.
Working with a professional sports franchise or college team may be the most readily apparent type of employment for sports counselors, and certainly those opportunities can be exciting. Afremow has worked with Olympic teams, including the Greek national softball team and the Indian men’s field hockey team (field hockey is the national sport of India). He also worked with individual athletes at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Hollier, in his current position with the NFL, provides resources and educational training for players throughout their careers through the NFL Player Engagement Department. Under its Total Wellness initiative, all current and former players and their families are offered eight free confidential counseling sessions. In addition, using a peer-to-peer model, some former players have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, suicide intervention, relationships and transitions. These “transition coaches” assist current and former players facing any number of challenges, Hollier says.
“We also provide professional development and life skills sessions that include character, leadership, financial literacy, post-experience career and relationship management,” he says. “We also assist with degree completion and continuing education as well as job shadows, internships and career boot camps, among other things.”
Generally, an NFL player’s athletic life cycle is divided into three parts, called the Prep-Life-Next platform. “It’s about providing the right resources to help our men to be successful, not only on the field but beyond,” Hollier says. “It looks at pillars of strength — physical strength, personal strength derived from family and relationships, financial strength. We all know the physical strength — that’s stuff we can see in the locker room and weight room and on the field. The one that tends to get overlooked is emotional strength and spiritual strength.”
Outside the rarified realms of elite athletics, there are plentiful professional opportunities that make excellent use of sports counseling skills. School counselors can expect to work with athletes and can benefit from being knowledgeable about how sports might inform a student’s life in both positive and negative ways.
Tinsley is a champion of intervention and prevention programs, including a high school program called Academics in Motion that places a youth development counselor with athletes to help them improve their grade point averages and prepare for life after high school.
Community counselors also deal with current and former athletes, sometimes in unexpected ways. Tinsley had a former student who went to work in a drug and alcohol treatment facility. He was surprised to discover that many of his clients still identified as athletes years after their playing careers had ended.
“They were still wearing letterman jackets into middle adulthood,” Tinsley says. “Some research has shown that athletes who retire from sports, unless they developed a healthy identity, may engage in negative behavior.”
Hanging up the cleats
One of the most common issues sports counselors address is the end of an athlete’s career. Career development is mentioned as part of the definition of sports counseling specifically because retirement can be such a traumatic and confusing time for athletes. That’s true both for star athletes who must deal with a steep drop in income and attention, and for amateur athletes who are losing an activity that provided them with a significant measure of personal pleasure and identity.
“The postcareer blues is a very real phenomenon,” Afremow says. “It’s a death or a loss of a part of themselves and what they spent a lot of their time doing.”
Sometimes, the end of a playing career is visible from a long way off — for instance, the scholastic athlete who won’t play competitively after graduation or the pro athlete planning to retire at the conclusion of a specific season or event. Other times, the end arrives more suddenly, in the form of a career-ending injury or the athlete getting cut from a team. Either way, it is a major transition for the athlete to handle. Sports counselors can help these individuals envision the next phase of their lives and find new ways to use the skills they learned on the field or on the court.
“I had a great nine-year career in the NFL, but by about my sixth year, guys in the locker room started calling me the ‘old dude.’ I had to think about what to do next,” Hollier says. He went on to earn his master’s degree in counseling and then began working as a psychotherapist in an intensive outpatient program for adolescents three months after he retired from the NFL.
During their playing days, athletes make use of important traits such as creativity, the ability to react to change, perseverance, resilience and team-oriented thinking. Sports counselors can point out to athletes that these characteristics are also huge assets in postsports careers and interpersonal relationships. Channeling an athlete’s passion into a new pursuit can help that client transition to a new phase of life in a positive way.
“Just knowing that you’re going to have some feelings about [the end of a playing career] helps,” Hollier says. “I can provide assistance understanding how that skill set translates into that next passion or job.”
Clare Lochary, a writer and editor based in Baltimore, is a columnist for Lacrosse Magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ACA Sports Counseling Interest Network
The ACA Sports Counseling Interest Network would be a good match for those counselors desiring to make a career out of this specialty, as well as for those who want to make sports counseling one aspect of their career. For example, advisers for athletes are those whose responsibilities include academic advising, life skills development, performance enhancement and psychosocial development at both the collegiate and high school levels. Professional counselors may hold positions as academic advisers for athletes, may be in private practice for clinical and mental health issues or may hold full-time positions within professional sporting organizations, colleges/universities, school settings or community agencies.
There is no cost to join the ACA Sports Counseling Interest Network, whose members share ideas via an online forum through the ACA Connect Community. For information on joining the interest network, go to counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks.
In addition, the Sports Counseling Interest Network will be holding an open meeting at the ACA Conference & Expo in Honolulu on Friday, March 28, from 7-8 a.m. at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort. All individuals interested in the network are invited to attend.