Tag Archives: Sports

Game, set, mental health

By Lindsey Phillips July 13, 2021

Naomi Osaka in 2015. Mai Groves/Shutterstock.com

Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka joined the growing list of athletes who are putting their mental health first when she decided to withdraw from the French Open in May, a few days after being fined for refusing to participate in post-match news conferences with the media. She shared on social media that her decision was made to protect her mental well-being, noting that she has suffered with depression since 2018 and experiences anxiety over speaking with the media.

In a recent New York Times article, Alan Blinder says that Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open was “a potent example of a movement among elite athletes to challenge the age-old notion that they are, and must be, as peerless in mind as they are in body, untroubled by the scourge of mental illness.”

Osaka also decided not to participate in Wimbledon and will instead focus on representing Japan at the Tokyo Olympics later this summer.

Athletes are often held up to unobtainable standards and viewed as superhuman because of their amazing physical talents, says Michele Kerulis, who is a licensed clinical professional counselor with a private practice in Illinois and holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. People expect them to be “perfect, excellent, exquisite and all those unbreakable things,” she explains. “But athletes are people who have the same spectrum of feelings that we all have. They feel anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, embarrassment, and so on, and … they are put under a microscope when they have any kind of a feeling that the media or the public doesn’t perceive as fitting within that sport.”

Overcoming the stigma

The stigma attached to depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions often prevents athletes from discussing their mental health needs out of fear they will be seen as weak. And for some college and professional athletes, there’s an added worry that their mental health may cost them their scholarship or contract, points out Kerulis, a professor of counseling at Northwestern University who specializes in sports, exercise and the impact of media on sport psychology.

This fear is not unfounded. Taunya M. Tinsley, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Transitions Counseling Services in Paoli, Pennsylvania, has heard coaches refer to players’ struggles with mental health in a critical or belittling way by making comments such as, “What’s wrong with you? Are you not on your medications?” This attitude further discourages athletes from being open about their mental health.

“Just because somebody has strong athletic skills does not mean they’re not going to suffer from mental health challenges, so [counselors] have to help put the humanistic aspect back in,” stresses Tinsley, a member of the American Counseling Association who specializes in sports counseling, multicultural and social justice issues, and spiritual and Christian interventions. Clinicians must help “athletes and those who work with athletes understand that … we can’t separate the mental and emotional wellness from the physical wellness.”

Mental training

Athletes often ask Kerulis, an ACA member and an Association for Applied Sport Psychology fellow, to help them “get in the zone” a few days before a big game or event, and she lets them know that mental training takes time.

Coaches help athletes with the physical and strategic techniques, Kerulis notes, and trainers ensure athletes’ muscles are strong and prepared for the movement required in their sport. “The next piece is practicing those physical techniques [and] developing the muscle memory. When they are learning new skills or techniques, part of it is understanding they’re not going to ace this the first time they try it, and that’s part of what practice is — repetition and trying over and over,” she says. “And it’s the same thing with any psychological skills that athletes are learning. You integrate that into their practice setting.”

Like a strength trainer, Kerulis slowly works with clients using therapeutic approaches such as mindfulness, cognitive behavior therapy, imagery, relaxation and arousal control to help them improve their mental focus.

A basketball player, Kerulis explains, spends most of the game sprinting up and down the court, sweating and elevating their heart rate. But when the player gets fouled, they must quickly transition from this accelerated state to a calm one to successfully hit the free throw. That process requires mindfulness and body awareness, Kerulis notes. She might work with the basketball player for a few weeks to develop a progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) script (slowly tensing and relaxing muscles throughout the body) and help them learn how to scan their body and notice bodily sensations. Then, when they are at the free-throw line, they can do a quick body scan, release any tension and shoot.

“What you might see in a split second could takes weeks of preparation,” she points out.

Anxiety and interpersonal skills 

It’s common for athletes to suffer from performance anxiety. Kerulis, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD) Midwest Region representative and outgoing chair of the Midwest Region of ACA, once worked with a teenager who was a runner. Before every meet, he felt nauseated and dizzy, and no matter how he did, he felt distraught after it was over. He had already been medically cleared to participate and wanted help overcoming these physiological responses to his anxiety.

In session, they used the cognitive behavior therapy technique of thought stopping to help the client disrupt the negative thoughts he often had a few days before each meet and replace them with positive mantras or statements.

Kerulis’ client was scared to tell his coach about his anxiety because he thought the coach might not let him race. Kerulis asked if the coach had noticed his anxiety and the change in his behavior, and the client said, “Yes, absolutely.” So, they discussed how the coach was probably already wondering why the teenage runner was behaving differently.

This conversation helped the client realize that asking for help was a sign of strength, not weakness, and would show his desire to improve, Kerulis says. With her help, the client prepared talking points to lessen his anxiety around having that conversation with his coach.

The teenager also improved his communication with his parents by explaining that he wanted to have more positive thoughts going into his races. His parents were supportive and checked in with him before each meet, asking, “How are you feeling today? How’s your mantra?”

Identity development

It’s important for counselors to assess where athletes are in terms of their identity development and tailor treatment plans to help them explore identities outside of their sport, says Tinsley, the clinical director of the Mount Ararat Baptist Church Counseling Center in Pittsburgh.

Some individuals may have a foreclosed identity and only see themselves as an athlete without exploring other aspects of their identity, she says. Then a career-ending injury or retirement will cause them to question their identity: Who am I without this sport?

Kerulis finds that if someone’s sole perspective of themselves is being an athlete, they tend to have a more detrimental response when something upsetting happens in the sport. Whereas an athlete with a foreclosed identity may feel extreme disappointment after losing a game, for example, another athlete who has a more open identity would not be as devastated because they have other interests in life and feel more balanced.

In other cases, athletes may have discovered additional interests outside of their sport, but their primary identity as an athlete prevents them from pursuing those interests, says Tinsley, a past president of AMCD. For example, an athlete might want to major in health sciences in college, but their sport schedule hinders them from taking the required classes or putting in the necessary work.

Tinsley begins her sessions by asking questions unrelated to the client’s sport so she can get to know the person, not the athlete. She may ask, “What are your interests when you aren’t playing the sport? Who do you have a good relationship with in your family?”

Kerulis also encourages athletes to maintain diverse interests unrelated to sports. “That’s not to decrease the importance of preparing mentally for [their] sport,” she says. “It’s to help create a more well-rounded individual so if and when they experience difficulties, tough times or roadblocks in their sport, they have this balance … and [can] reset.”

Prevention

Counselors should focus on the prevention of mental health problems with the athlete population, Tinsley stresses. Part of that involves creating life-skills programs that help athletes plan for retirement before it happens so the transition is not a shocking, traumatic event.

Tinsley has worked with the National Football League (NFL) and the Pittsburgh Steelers to provide mental health services to athletes and to train former NFL players to serve as transition coaches between current athletes and mental health professionals. This work introduced her to LaMarr Woodley, a former linebacker for the Steelers who had already started thinking about his transition from the NFL by launching a Sack Attack Program in 2009. Through pledges, every sack Woodley made raised money for youth charities in Pittsburgh and his hometown of Saginaw, Michigan.

Woodley explains in a recent interview with Tinsley how despite some people’s insistence that he focus solely on football, he knew he needed to start preparing for life after his NFL career. He notes how parents and coaches are pushing kids to become professional athletes at younger ages, and this pressure can lead to burnout, stress, anxiety, substance use and other mental health concerns.

Counselors can help prepare athletes for these transitions, Tinsley says. She worked with Woodley to consider his next career options, and eventually, he decided to earn his master’s in sport management studies with a sports counseling concentration and continue to help athletes as they navigate the internal and external pressures that can affect their mental health.

In a Time magazine essay, Osaka stresses the importance of athletes (like other career professionals) being able to take mental health days without scrutiny or explanation, and she reminds us that “it’s OK not to be OK.” Going forward, perhaps more athletes will follow Osaka’s example of putting her well-being above her sport.

Kerulis applauds Osaka’s choice to prioritize her mental health. “It’s so hard for people to admit difficulties,” Kerulis says. “Some people are calling [her decision] a failure, but … it may be one of the biggest successes of an athlete’s career to be able to put themselves first and say, ‘I understand the importance of this competition, and at the same time I know that I need to take care of myself or else I cannot be the outstanding athlete that I know I am.’”

 

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American Counseling Association members: Interested in exploring connections between sports and mental health? Join ACA’s Sports Counseling Interest Network.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@counseling.org.

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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.

Team sports vs. solo exercise: Which is better for your mental health?

By Bethany Bray December 3, 2018

Professional counselors often recommend exercise to clients as a way to improve mood and overall wellness. In addition to boosting serotonin, a neurotransmitter connected to feelings of well-being, exercise offers the chance to unplug from the busyness of daily life and process one’s thoughts.

A recent journal study in The Lancet Psychiatry takes that recommendation one step further, connecting team sports to improved mental health. A cohort of researchers studied four years of recent survey data from more than 1 million American adults.

They found that individuals who exercised experienced 43 percent fewer days of poor mental health in a one-month period than did people who didn’t exercise at all. Individuals who experienced the greatest mental health benefits, however, were those who participated in team sports, followed by those who rode bicycles or did aerobic and gym activities (in durations of 45 minutes, three to five times weekly).

Jude and Julius Austin, American Counseling Association members who played soccer both in college and at the professional level, stress that the study’s correlational findings do not mean causation.

“We think further research needs to be done regarding the lived experience of athletes in team sports who struggle with mental health issues,” said the brothers in a co-written statement to Counseling Today on the Lancet findings.

Although mental health improvements are not caused by exercise, physical activity does, when done appropriately, have biological, cognitive and social benefits — which Jude, an assistant professor in the counseling program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, and Julius, an assistant professor in the marriage and family therapy and counseling studies program at the University of Louisiana Monroe, say they experienced as soccer players.

“It is exciting to see [researchers] investigating things we believe most athletes can collectively, albeit anecdotally, agree on,” wrote Jude, a licensed professional counselor in residency and Julius, a provisionally licensed professional counselor. “In our experience playing team sports, it feels great to survive a particularly tough practice. Pushing ourselves through seemingly impossible physical tasks with others reinforced that we have everything we need to handle life’s challenges. There is something healing about being swept away by the team’s mentality during a game; pressing or absorbing pressure, counterattacking or keeping possession, the ebb and flow of defense to offense, being in the zone. Even if it’s only for a moment, those sweeping moments were where we received social support, affirmation, genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard. These are all therapists’ offered conditions in an effective therapeutic relationship. We could not say this with empirical certainty, but we would imagine that receiving these conditions from a team can cause lessening of mental health issues.”

ACA member Sarah Fichtner, a former Division I women’s soccer player for the University of Maryland (UMD), has mixed feelings about the Lancet study. While there is little doubt that exercise in general benefits both mental and physical health, it can be taken to the extreme when sports are played at a high level, she says.

“I am a firm believer that exercise improves an individual’s mental health, as it produces feel-good endorphins and releases chemicals such as norepinephrine which alleviate stress and anxiety,” Fichtner says. “As an exercise and health enthusiast myself, there is not a doubt in my mind that exercise has many positive implications. However, I am a bit skeptical of the [Lancet] findings pertaining to team sports. I do see the benefits of exercise groups [in] that they provide accountability, comradery and support, but in terms of competitive team sports — particularly at the collegiate level — the environment is extremely different.”

Fichtner is a counselor intern at Hackensack Meridian Behavioral Health and is working on completing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Kean University in New Jersey. After her experience as a DI athlete, she calls for balance when it comes to competition and team sports.

“During my time as a student-athlete and captain at the University of Maryland, I saw firsthand the detrimental consequences of the collegiate world. When a player is recruited to play at the DI level, he or she is expected to perform. Coaches have one goal in mind, and that is to win,” she explains. “Practices are intense, to say the least, and the idea of healthy competition goes out the window. A player is competing against his or her teammates every day to secure a starting position. They are competing to be the fastest, fittest, slimmest and most technical or tactical player. And every day, their coaches are telling them, ‘You are not good enough,’ ‘You need to lose five more pounds to be in the running for a starting position,’ ‘Your teammates are working harder than you’ and ‘Ask your teammate so-and-so for help. She is outperforming you. She has great skills.’ This high-intensity environment can lead to many mental health challenges such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, which I witnessed during my four years at UMD. Thus, when I think about team sports, specifically at the collegiate level, the word balance comes to mind.”

“Aside from the intense environment, there were many positives takeaways from my time as a student-athlete,” Fichtner adds. “I made lifelong friendships, competed at the highest level of collegiate sports, was privileged to visit many states, had top-notch gear, learned important life lessons and would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Nevertheless, now as a mental health counselor, I see the collegiate world through a different lens. Many of the challenges we athletes faced on a daily basis seemed both normal and absolute. But now as I grow both personally and professionally, I realize that colleges need to establish a balance between a healthy competitive environment, where athletes are pushed and held accountable, and a debilitating, harmful environment, in which athletes are placed in harm’s way [of] mental health challenges. Balance is key to any exercise regimen, especially in the collegiate world.”

 

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Read the Lancet study in full: thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(18)30227-X/fulltext#seccestitle10

 

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ACA members: Interested in exploring connections between sports and mental health? Join ACA’s Sports Counseling Interest Network.

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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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.

A counselor looks at football

By Kevin Doyle January 29, 2018

I have been a lifelong football fan. I remember playing outside in the snow, emulating the National Football League (NFL) stars of the 1960s and then going inside to watch some of the fabled rivalries of the time, like the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Oakland Raiders. I grew up on Joe Namath’s Super Bowl guarantee, Franco Harris’s “Immaculate Reception,” and the undefeated Miami Dolphins team of 1972. My beloved Washington football franchise (yes, that name is a problem — but that is for another story) owned the 1980s (along with the San Francisco 49ers), and my brother and I sported Charley Taylor (42) and Larry Brown (43) jerseys in the previous decade. My two sons played the game at the high school level, both excelling and taking much from the experience. In short, I was raised on football in many ways.

All of these things will stay with me, but recent events have conspired to lead me to question of whether the sport in its current form is morally defensible. Recently, coverage of the death by suicide of former New England Patriots player, and convicted murderer, Aaron Hernandez, noted that his brain had advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and a study published in 2017 in JAMA found evidence of CTE in 110 of 111 former NFL players.

Former NFL player Antwaan Randle El, a nine-year NFL veteran who is now in his late 30s, recently spoke out about his memory problems. He became the latest in a series of both high- and low-profile professional players known or alleged to have had serious brain issues possibly due to their football careers. This includes well-known players such as Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Mike Webster and Frank Gifford.

The national discourse has been stirred by Steve Almond’s searing Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto; the film Concussion, based on the work of forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu and the work of Jeanne Marie Laskas in her article for GQ titled Game Brain; as well as pro football works such as Gregg Easterbrook’s The Game’s Not Over: In Defense of Football and Mark Edmundson’s Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.

What, then, is the role of the professional counselor in this debate — or is there one? I submit that counselors in a variety of settings have a responsibility to be aware of this issue that is currently facing our culture, and there are several reasons why.

First, this appears to be a significant safety issue for a segment of our population, namely those individuals who have either played football in the past or are currently playing. No less an authority than the Mayo Clinic has reported that symptoms such as aggression, motor impairment, tremor, memory loss, irritability and focusing problems are associated with CTE.

If an adult male were to report symptoms such as these in counseling, it could be prudent to check to see if the client was once a football player. Referral for additional medical assessment could be an appropriate course of action, although currently, no effective treatments for CTE-related symptoms seem to be available. In fact, a definitive diagnosis cannot be made until tests of the brain can be conducted after an individual’s death.

For players currently involved in football, repeated concussions could be placing those individuals at increased risk and should be monitored. Most levels of play, including the NFL and NCAA, have put so-called “concussion protocols” in place to prevent players from continuing to play until they have received medical clearance. Although counselors would likely not play a leading role in these determinations, it would be advisable for counselors working on college campuses, with professional football players or even at lower levels (high school, middle school, youth football) to be aware of them and to support efforts to protect player safety.

Second, the question of whether to allow children to play football has become an emotional and sometimes conflict-ridden debate within families. Participation rates in both high school and youth football have widely been reported to be declining and show no signs of changing in the near future, according to numerous sources.

Counselors routinely work with children and families, and reaching a decision about whether a child should play football can be difficult. An informed decision must balance the potential safety concerns associated with the sport and the potential benefits of playing the sport, including physical activity and learning about teamwork and discipline. In some families, football is seen as a rite of passage — something that adolescent males (and, in some cases, females) engage in as part of the maturation process. In some cases, it may be the child who desperately wants to play, while the parents are warier. In other cases, parental pressure on a child to participate may be the driving issue. In either instance, a counselor, whether school-based or community-based, may be in a position to help the family make this decision. Knowledge of some of the relevant issues is essential to any effort to be of assistance.

Third is the reality that any societal issue can make its way into a counseling session. This is not to imply that we as counselors need to be experts on any and all social and societal issues. However, we do have a responsibility to be aware of burgeoning issues facing our culture and to be ready to discuss or address them —or at least to listen to our clients do so.

Many of us no doubt had clients with opinions about the most recent presidential election. Their thoughts naturally made their way into counseling sessions. Our own personal feelings aside, we had a responsibility as counselors to listen, to consider our clients feelings and opinions, and to ponder what role, if any, these thoughts contributed to the stressors they were facing. Likewise, we must strive as counselors to stay informed about myriad issues of relevance to our clients. Societal question such as same-sex marriage, health care, immigration and employment barriers for those with criminal convictions, to name a few, play out in our clients’ lives on a daily basis.

Granted, the issue of football may pale in comparison to some of these, but we have a responsibility nonetheless to pay attention, to inform ourselves and to monitor the debate, because it may well come up in a counseling session with an individual or family. If we are unaware of this issue (or another one), we may need to do further research in between sessions or, in extreme cases, even consider referring our client to another provider with more knowledge of the issue he or she is facing.

Finally, there are social justice issues to be considered, consistent with the counseling profession’s recent emphasis in this area. One would have to have been living under the proverbial rock not to have noticed the emotional national dialogue around NFL players sitting or kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. Started by former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, this protest has spread to other players and teams and led to an increasingly hostile “conversation” about the form of the protest itself, overshadowing the issue of police brutality that Kaepernick sought to highlight.

The various authors I noted earlier identified numerous concerns more specifically related to football that are of a social justice nature. Approximately 68 percent of NFL players are African American, and the treatment of players has been criticized by some as evoking memories of slavery by the so-called “owners” of the franchises. Anyone who has ever watched the “meat market” known as the NFL Combine, which consists partly of athletes’ bodies being examined by prospective employers (owners), and which is now nationally televised, cannot help but notice this parallel. With the average NFL career lasting less than four years and contracts, even when lucrative, not being guaranteed in case of injury, discerning individuals can easily raise legitimate social justice questions.

In summary, a growing national conversation about football, its viability, its safety and its future is becoming difficult to ignore. Counselors at various levels and in various settings have a responsibility not only to be aware of this conversation, but also to consider its significance in relation to the clients with whom we work. Engaging in this conversation is consistent with current calls within the profession for social justice.

 

 

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Kevin Doyle is a licensed professional counselor in Virginia and an associate professor in the counselor education program at Longwood University. He has also coached youth, high school and adult sports for the past 30 years. Contact him at doyleks@longwood.edu.

 

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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.

 

Laumann: Finding the courage to be authentic

By Bethany Bray April 2, 2016

Silken Laumann is a world-class rower and three-time Olympic medalist. But she says that isn’t the hardest and most important work she has done in her life.

“The most incredible journey I’ve been on is the internal one – the journey of the soul,” says Laumann, a Canadian author, speaker and advocate. “It takes courage to become who you really

Silken Laumann speaks at ACA's 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal. Photo by Paul Sakuma

Silken Laumann speaks at ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal. Photo by Paul Sakuma

are. … We are given the opportunity to go deep within ourselves. It’s the greatest opportunity we can ever take.”

Laumann shared her story with approximately 2,500 professional counselors in a heartfelt keynote address this morning at the American Counseling Association Conference & Expo in Montréal.

Laumann became a household name in Canada — and, for many Canadians, the very embodiment of courage — when she overcame a severe injury to win a bronze medal in single sculls at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Ten weeks before the Olympics, Laumann’s leg was shattered when another sculling boat collided with hers during a warm-up run.

In addition to her comeback win in 1992, Laumann had previously won a bronze medal in double sculls at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and would go on to win a silver medal in single sculls at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She was also chosen to carry Canada’s flag during the closing ceremonies of the 1992 games.

In this morning’s keynote, Laumann was open about her struggles with anxiety and depression, which she treats with a combination of medication and counseling.

After her Olympic days were over, she led a life that, from the outside, looked like she had it all together as a mother and public persona, Laumann says.

However, “there were some signs that all was not well in my little perfect world,” she says. “In my life, at that time, help was for people with bigger problems – weaker people. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.”

It was a counselor, Laumann says, who pulled her from rock bottom — a crisis moment years ago when she was harboring so much internal rage that she had thoughts about lashing out and harming her children during a moment of uncontrolled anger.

Laumann says counseling gave her the confidence to eventually be (and show compassion for) her authentic self rather than trying to guard and live up to her polished public persona. Counseling also helped her come to terms with her story, including her troubled childhood, and learn to heal, she says.

Laumann always understood that what happened in her childhood – growing up with a mother who

Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

was unpredictable and threatening at times – “wasn’t right,” she says. But it didn’t fully click until her counselor asked her how she would feel if her own daughter, Kate, was in that situation.

Finding self-compassion and love for her authentic self “transformed everything,” including her relationship with her children, Laumann says.

“My kids have an authentic person [for a mother] now,” she says. “I felt like I was putting on the mask of a mother [before].”

Laumann credited counseling with breaking the cycle of abuse that runs in her family. What if a counselor had not been there at her rock-bottom moment, she asked the audience of counselors.

“I am deeply grateful for this profession,” Laumann told the crowd. “We need to make counseling available to everyone who needs it.”

Laumann represented Canada for 13 years in international competitions and was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

She is married with four children, including a stepdaughter, Kilee, who is profoundly autistic. In addition to participating in author events and speaking engagements, Laumann engages in a significant amount of advocacy work, including fundraising for autism causes with her husband, David Patchell-Evans.

After her keynote, Laumann met with counselors and signed copies of her 2014 memoir, Unsinkable.

 

 

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Learn more about Silken Laumann and her advocacy work at silkenlaumann.com

 

Related reading: See Counseling Today’s profile of Laumann: wp.me/p2BxKN-491

 

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ACA’s 2016 conference, held in partnership with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, runs through April 3.

See more photos of ACA’s 2016 Conference and Expo at flickr.com/photos/23682700@N04/

 

Interested in Live Streaming the 2016 Conference to earn 15 CEs? Go to counseling.org/conference/montreal-aca-2016/livestreaming

 

Silken Laumann receives a gift from Natasha Caverley, president of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA), after her keynote on April 2. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

Silken Laumann receives a thank you gift from Natasha Caverley, president of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA), after her keynote on April 2. Photo by Bethany Bray/Counseling Today

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

From NFL linebacker to licensed professional counselor

By Bethany Bray June 22, 2015

Playing football in the National Football League (NFL) is not a career, it’s an experience, said Dwight Hollier, a former NFL linebacker who became a licensed professional counselor (LPC) after his playing days were over.

This lesson – one that took Hollier years to learn – is part of the message that he is working to spread throughout the NFL as part of the league’s new total wellness initiative.

The average player spends three and a half years in the NFL, according to Hollier. For players who

Dwight Hollier, a licensed professional counselor and the NFL's director of transition and clinical services, speaks at Mental Health America's annual conference this month in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by B. Bray/Counseling Today

Dwight Hollier, a licensed professional counselor and the NFL’s director of transition and clinical services, speaks at Mental Health America’s annual conference this month in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo by B. Bray/Counseling Today)

are drafted out of college, that average jumps to six years. Either way, it’s not a long time, said Hollier, who returned to the NFL in 2012 as director of transition and clinical services.

Hollier, speaking earlier this month at Mental Health America’s annual conference in Alexandria, Virginia, said he became depressed after retiring from playing in 2000. For a couple of years, he even stopped watching the sport he had loved since childhood.

“I didn’t know who I was without what I did,” said Hollier, who played eight years with the Miami Dolphins and one year with the Indianapolis Colts after starring in college at the University of North Carolina. “I would go cut the grass on Sundays [when NFL games were televised]. We had a very nice lawn at that time,” he said with a chuckle.

Today, Hollier is part of the NFL’s effort to support current and former players and their families off the field with everything from mental health issues and family relationships to adjusting to life after leaving the league.

“If you’ve been the best in the world at whatever you do, and then someone says you can’t do it anymore [because of injury, age or other reasons], that will affect you,” said Hollier, who previously worked as a licensed counselor in private practice before going to work for the NFL.

The NFL’s total wellness initiative includes everything from an employee assistance program that offers a series of free counseling sessions for current and former players and their families to financial literacy classes for young players who suddenly find themselves with money to spare. In 2012, the NFL established a 24/7 crisis line tailored to the needs of current and former players and their families.

Last year, Hollier was part of league-wide trainings on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

“‘No, we don’t talk about that’ – that’s they way a lot of us were raised,” said Hollier. “This [total wellness program] gives us a platform to have important discussions. … These guys are more likely to listen to someone who has worn the boots [played football professionally].”

Part of the challenge is changing the “play through the pain” mentality that can permeate football, from professional players all the way down through the youth leagues. As a child, Hollier says he remembers being told to “suck it up” to keep others from seeing weakness or pain.

“If you hear that all the time, it becomes your modus operandi,” he said. “You internalize it, and it makes it more difficult to reach out for help.”

Dwight Hollier (Photo courtesy of the National Football League)

Dwight Hollier (Photo courtesy of the National Football League)

Hollier is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a dual degree in psychology and speech communication. He earned a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, while playing linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. Prior to joining the NFL, Hollier worked with athletes and other individuals at Mind Over Body at Southeast Psych, a private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

 

Q+A with the NFL’s Dwight Hollier

 

Counseling Today: What made you decide to become a counselor?

Dwight Hollier: I think I was always a good listener growing up. I also know that my parents were giving people. We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we always had room for others. I have three siblings, but there were times where we had three or four other family members living with us. That spirit of giving and helping has stuck with me even to this day. I have to give my parents a lot of credit for the counseling spirit.

 

CT: You worked on your master’s degree in counseling while you played for the Miami Dolphins. Talk about how you decided on your post-playing vocation while still playing in the NFL.

DH: My undergraduate degree was speech communications and psychology. Psychology connected with me in a way speech communications did not, but I didn’t initially make the connection. When I was in my sixth year in the league, my teammates started calling me the “old dude” in the locker room, which really made me think that I probably needed to figure out what I was going to do next. I was only 27 or 28, but I had already beaten the odds, and I knew I should start exploring my life after football.

Fortunately, the Miami Dolphins training camp is located next to the Nova Southeastern University campus, and they had a fantastic counseling psychology program. I initially took a couple of classes to see if I could handle the workload. My coach at the time, Jimmy Johnson, and the rest of the coaching staff were really supportive, which allowed me to confidently pursue this degree. The program spoke to me right away, and I poured myself into being successful in both and was able to graduate in April of 2000, before playing my last season with the Indianapolis Colts.

 

CT: Could you talk about the counseling work you did before working for the NFL? Do you have a specialty?

DH: My initial practicum work was at a family violence center, where I worked with perpetrators and victims of abuse. The majority of my experience has been working with older adolescents and young adults around a variety of mental health issues. In my last couple of years of private practice, I did a lot of work with athletes around transition and adjustment challenges. I have worked as a foster care program manager, group home adviser, school social worker and football coach. All of these experiences helped shape the person I am today.

 

CT: Can you elaborate on what you do as director of transition and clinical services with the NFL?

DH: In my current role, I work with a great team of individuals in the Player Engagement Department to develop and implement psychoeducational programs for our NFL family to assist with success on and beyond the field. I also collaborate with our clinical partners to make sure we have the right wellness resources in place to assist players and their families.

 

CT: What made you want to get involved in this way?

DH: Some would say that I did a lot of things right in preparing for my transition, and I would agree. But I also know how difficult my transition was, even though I [had] put a lot of pieces in place. I know that there are a lot of men and families who have had a much shorter NFL experience and some who haven’t finished their undergraduate degree. This role is an opportunity to serve those men and their families and assist in smoothing out their transition in and out of the NFL.

 

CT: How do you use your counselor training and skills in this role?

DH: One of the main tools any counseling professional needs is unconditional positive regard and listening skills. Part of my role is listening and working to identify the needs of our population and working collaboratively to find the right resources.

 

CT: Why do you think your position is needed in the NFL?

DH: I believe all industries could use a sharper focus on wellness and the potential clinical needs of their workforce. I am blessed to have this opportunity.

 

CT: As an NFL insider, what would you want counselors who work with clients for whom professional football plays a prominent part or influence in their lives — devotion to a team, spending many hours watching games, etc. — to know?

DH: I think it is important to leave their assumptions and biases at the door. Cultural competency will play a big role as well. Because of the high profile of the NFL, our men and their families are easily stereotyped. The reality is that our men and families come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and each should be treated as such. One bad experience with a counselor who doesn’t understand the culture could mean that this person never returns for the assistance he needs and potentially discourages others.

 

CT: Do you think there is more focus today on the mental health and wellness needs of professional athletes than when you were a player?

DH: In general, mental health awareness is much more prevalent than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s when I played. We have been much more intentional with addressing the stigma around mental health with our population. I also think that this generation is more aware and accepting of mental health issues and resources.

 

CT: What advice would you give to counselors who want to get involved with high-level athletes? Where or how could counselors be a help?

DH: I think it is important to learn as much as you can about athletes and the needs of athletes. There are great sports counseling and sports psychology programs out there that can help add a level of expertise to working with this population.

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

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