How Athletic Trainers Can Support Athletes’ Mental Health

It’s becoming more and more common to talk about mental health in sports.  The world is slowly realizing that depression and anxiety can affect anybody, including our top athletes, whether it’s Simone Biles withdrawing from the Olympics or Michael Phelps talking about his depression.  What role do athletic trainers play in mental health?  When an athletic trainer has a concern about a patient, what can they do?  

Everyone has a body, mind, and spirit.  Athletic trainers can’t treat their patients’ bodies without considering their minds and spirits.  This is why NATA (National Athletic Trainers Association) has always been focused on complete patient care.

What role does mental health play in athletic performance?

Sports performance is greatly influenced by mental models and patterns of thinking.  This can manifest in many ways.  An athlete’s racing thoughts can affect their sleep, rest, and recovery.  Images can inspire athletes or drag them down into negative spirals.  An athlete’s relationships, confidence, and performance can be negatively affected by destructive thinking patterns.

Athletic trainers need mental health education, right?

The athletic trainer is in a unique position to help athletes with mental health.  We spend much more time with our patients than almost anyone else in the healthcare field.  It’s not uncommon to form friendships with our athletes.  When it comes to manual therapy or testing a joint’s range of motion, athletic trainers are often in physical contact with their patients.  A patient might feel more comfortable talking to an athletic trainer than a coach or teammate because of this physical contact.

It’s always been NATA’s goal to take care of the whole patient.  The Board of Certification (BOC) exam even requires specific competencies related to mental health in athletic trainer education.

If an athletic trainer has a concern about a patient, what should they do?

Athletic trainers can follow these tips to improve athlete mental health:

Be observant.  Watching your patients can tell you a lot.

What is your body telling you? Often our subconscious picks up on cues we don’t even notice. Recognizing what your body is saying in a situation can help you figure it out.

Think like a traffic light. Think like a traffic light when you’re meeting with a patient and you’re concerned about his or her mental health.  Does this situation have a green light, where they’ll just need someone to talk to and a few tips, and then they’ll be fine?  Can you refer them to a sport psychologist or other mental health professional if this is a yellow-light situation?  Is this a red light situation, where they’re in immediate danger and you need to take them to a crisis center right away?

Talk to others. Talk to other members of a patient’s care team if you are worried about them, and see if they share your concerns.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more information.  Don’t be afraid to ask a patient questions, and listen to what they say.

Let the patient know that they are seen and heard. No one wants to face a challenge alone.  Make sure the patient knows that you’re there for them in this situation.

How can athletic trainers incorporate mental health more?

Having a healthy body, mind, and spirit makes a person whole.  Athletic trainers have to remember that patients aren’t just muscles and bones.  Injury prevention and recovery depend a lot on how the patient thinks and feels.  Talk to your patients about mental health.  Ask them how they’re doing.  Be prepared to talk about setting goals, imagery, and relaxation.  Know who to call if you need help. Being present with your patients is so important. If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to work with the patient and try something different – don’t just keep trying the same strategy harder. 

Also – be mindful of your own mental health! Pay attention to your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It’s hard to care for others if you first haven’t cared for yourself. 

It’s getting more and more popular to talk about mental health in sports, but there’s still a lot to do.  An athlete might feel ashamed of what they’re going through because of the strong social stigma against mental health issues.  Access to resources is also a big challenge.  There’s a great opportunity for athletic trainers to help and play a role in improving the mental health of their patients. 

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