Athletes’ game-related stress is often compounded by struggles with mental health or interpersonal relationships, according to Michael Grinnell, a player wellness counselor for the National Basketball Players Association and assistant director for integrative wellbeing services at Williams College.
“Oftentimes, what I’ll say is that we are dealing with 18- to 30-year-olds and typically they come in with ‘I think I need to focus better’ or ‘I get anxious before the game,’” Grinnell said. “It’s really not about the game. It’s about something else going on in their life.”
The Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW) and the BC Alumni Association hosted Grinnell on Monday. Kimberly O’Brien, founder and director of Unlimited Resilience, LLC—a group mental health practice that specializes in treating athletes—and director of health and wellness research and services at NDUR For Athletes, spoke alongside Grinnell.
Both Grinnell and O’Brien received their master’s degrees in social work from the BCSSW.
According to Grinnell and O’Brien, athletes grapple with a wide range of mental health issues that non-athletes also face, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. But athletes also experience more difficulty adjusting to major life transitions than their non-athlete peers do, they said.
“I think the things that we see maybe a little bit more frequently are things like adjustments to transitions, whether that’s high school to college or college to pro,” Grinnell said. “[We see clients] ending athletic careers with injuries and coping a ton because if you’re getting injured as an athlete. It’s very different than getting an injury as a non-athlete. It takes you out.”
Grinnell said he works with athletes to encourage them to discover and build up other aspects of their identity outside of their sport, which helps them adjust to major transitional periods, such as injury or early retirement.
Both Grinnell and O’Brien added that athletes feel a tremendous pressure to succeed and often equate their athletic performance with their self-worth. They argue that athletes ought to separate their personal identities from their achievements and shortcomings in their sport.
“They’re more than just their sport,” O’Brien said. “Their self-worth is not dependent on their performance.”
To help visualize the concept of their self-identities, O’Brien said she often asks athletes to understand their identity as a pie chart. She takes note of the percentage that sports represents and seeks to help them expand the other aspects of their identity to control how much their performance affects their self-esteem.
“What happens a lot of times is that the sports section is really huge, which isn’t a good or bad thing, but it’s something to pay attention to because if your sport is going really well, your life’s great,” O’Brien said. “If you get an injury or if you’re getting benched or whatever is happening, you feel like—especially in teenage brains—your life’s over.”
Grinnell and O’Brien both played sports in college—an experience they said helps them relate to and connect with their clients.
“These kids want to work with someone who gets how hard it is to be an athlete and who isn’t a stereotypical therapist who’s just gonna say, ‘Well, I’m here to ask you just quit’ because we all know that’s not what we’re gonna do,” O’Brien said.
According to O’Brien, there is a stigma surrounding seeking treatment for mental health issues in society—especially among athletes—that she hopes to combat.
“I think there’s just so much lack of knowledge, especially about suicide and understanding,” O’Brien said. “And so if you can help our kids with a little bit of knowledge about it, and enable them with skills to be able to talk with each other about it and mental health in general, I think we will continue to see the stigma go away.”
Despite the potential risk factors associated with sports, Grinnell and O’Brien both said sports can offer many invaluable benefits for athletes, especially teenagers.
“Growing up playing sports, you know, so many of those skills are transferable—establishing routine, being consistent, being accountable, learning, collaboration, teamwork—all that is applicable to real life outside of sports,” Grinnell said.