Wendy Borlabi, the director of performance and mental health for the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls, quickly energized the crowded room at the opening keynote for the ACA 2023 Conference & Expo in Toronto by discussing how counselors can help clients and themselves be fit — mentally — for their future. She explained to the audience that in her line of work, “the future” can mean the next few seconds or the next hour because with athletes, the future can happen quickly.
Connecting performance and mental health
Borlabi, who also serves as an independent consultant for the NBA and is the founder of the performance psychology firm Borlabi Consulting, said she uses two lenses when working with athletes: a performance lens and a mental wellness lens. Blending these two approaches helps athletes better understand the connection between their behavior on and off the court and field, she told the audience.
Borlabi described three aspects that fall under the performance lens:
- Self-awareness: You need to know not only what you are feeling about a situation but also how you are going to address it.
- Strength/superpower: You want to know your strengths as well as your weaknesses; it’s important to understand that sometimes a person’s strength can also be their weakness.
- Obstacles/goals: Life can come at you fast, so you need to figure out what obstacles are approaching and what you are going to do about them to make sure you still achieve your goals.
For the other lens, Borlabi said she teaches athletes to think of their wellness using a mental wellness wheel that contains eight dimensions: emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social and spiritual.
“These eight aspects … are not all 100%. They all don’t need to be 100%. In fact, they’re rarely 100% all the time,” she stressed. “You’ve just got to be aware … of what you need at different times in your life.”
Borlabi shared a personal story to illustrate this point. For five years, she worked as a senior athletic consultant at James Madison University in Virginia, and she loved the job. Her occupational wellness was high, but it also meant she lived in a small town that lacked racial/ethnic diversity, so she said it negatively affected her social wellness, which in turn affected her emotional health. Because her mental health was affected, she decided to leave the job.
About 12 years later, after the birth of her twins, she again found her social wellness at zero, but this time it made sense given her current stage in her life. She didn’t expect or need to be social while caring for newborns, so it didn’t negatively affect her mental health.
“It’s important that you recognize what you need at different times, depending on what your values are, depending on where your life is, depending on what you want, what you need, where you want to grow, and then you shift,” said Borlabi, a former senior sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee. This process helps you move forward, she noted.
Preparing for challenges
It’s natural for life to knock us down from time to time, Borlabi reminded the audience. When this happens, she said, the important question people need to ask themselves is, “Now what?”
To help athletes put this concept into perspective, she asks her clients to consider the following analogy: Imagine that the coach said they will buy you any car you want. You name an expensive car. Now, what if this dream car that’s coming in a month is a stick shift, but you can’t drive a stick shift? You have a month to learn, but you put it off, and then the car arrives and you still don’t know how to drive it.
With careful planning, people can learn to prepare for and overcome life’s challenges, Borlabi emphasized. She pointed to the COVID-19 quarantine when she, like many others, found herself stuck at home and unsure of what to do next. She was trying to figure out how to work with athletes and coaches remotely and struggling to learn how to teach her kids the new math at their school. And on top of it all, she was struggling with the news about George Floyd being killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
“I fell down,” she said. “I had to get back up. Now what? My ‘now what’ was that I needed to remember what I needed to do for me.” So, she created a schedule for her family and made time for self-care by taking a shower, exercising, and craving out 10 minutes to sit and enjoy a cup of tea alone. She said that reincorporating these aspects into her life enabled her to get back up and find a way to move forward despite the challenges.
Keeping it simple
Borlabi ended her keynote by reminding attendees to keep it simple when explaining the importance of wellness and mental health to clients. To do this, she often reads and discusses children’s books related to mental health with athletes. She recommended three children’s books to the audience. How Full Is Your Bucket and The Energy Bus both highlight the importance of filling one’s bucket (as well as others’ buckets) with positive energy. The third book, The Coffee Bean for Kids, presents the reader with a choice between three options:
- Do they want to be an egg that is hard when boiled?
- Do they want to be a carrot that turns soft and mushy when boiled?
- Do they want to be coffee beans, which, when combined with boiling water, create coffee?
The answer, of course, is coffee beans because it allows you to work collaboratively and create something new and useful.
Borlabi’s message to the audience was also clear and simple: Mental wellness affects all aspects of our lives (on and off the court), and we must be prepared to handle whatever life will inevitably throw our way.
Lindsey Phillips is the editor-in-chief for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.