Recently, there has been a lot of attention on sports. This past summer saw the Olympic games take place in Tokyo, football is going strong, and the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament wrapped up earlier this month. After the anomaly of 2020, you could say that sports are having a moment. With a great deal of attention on sports, there is concurrent discussion about athletes and mental health.
Olympians and professional athletes have reached the pinnacle of their respective games but competing at that level can come with psychological hardship. In addition, current circumstances have created new challenges for athletes that include the pandemic, being the target of online bullying, and standing on the global stage as the world reckons with social injustices of the past and present. Dr. Judy L. Van Raalte is a Professor of Psychology and former collegiate tennis coach. Mental Health Missions speaks with Dr. Van Raalte about some of the emotional pressures that athletes are facing during these unique times:
Mental Health Missions: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you came to work in sport psychology?
Dr. Van Raalte: I grew up in a rural area and had access to a tennis court that some neighbors had built for their kids. According to my family, my first words were, “do it myself,” so I was glad to walk by myself to the court and practice hitting at the backboard. As I got older, I noticed that the best player wasn’t always the one who won the game or match. The incongruity caught my attention; something that seemed black and white really wasn’t.
At Tufts University, I studied psychology and also played on the varsity tennis team. During my time at Tufts, I was the only student-athlete within Dr. B. J. Fehr’s psychology research group. Dr. Fehr shared scientific journal articles and findings related to sport with me, which provided a scientific foundation for my interest in the interaction between sport and psychology. I went on to earn Master’s and Doctoral degrees in psychology at Arizona State University. I came to Springfield College in 1990 and have been working in the psychology department ever since, focused on sport, exercise, and performance psychology.
Mental Health Missions: Oftentimes people look at elite athletes and may have the perception that they have great lives with few problems. Can you explain why it is important to pay attention to the mental health and well-being of this group?
Dr. Van Raalte: In a social media world, research shows that other people’s lives often look more beautiful, fun, and exciting than our own. Like all people, elite athletes have special and wonderful moments and also have challenges and struggles. Many athletes struggle with stress, money and relationship issues just like everyone else.
Mental Health Missions: The Olympic games this past summer were delayed for a year due to Covid-19. As spectators we watch the performance, which is sometimes over in a matter of minutes. However, these athletes have been working years for this opportunity. Can you talk about some of the key stressors that come with training at this level?
Dr. Van Raalte: Stressors related to high level sport include the amount of time it takes to train, which often takes away from engaging in activities that other people tend to enjoy. Social activities such as parties and late nights out may be off limits due to the physical demands of training that require proper nutrition and rest. Elite athletes may also have to forgo higher education, career and internship opportunities, and romantic relationships due to the demands of training, competition, and travel.
Although preforming well can be fantastic, the pressure and high expectations of elite sport can be stressful and exhausting. If you have a bad day and you work in business, your performance is not usually widely reported, and you rarely have to talk to the press immediately after a failure like elite athletes are expected to do. In addition, athletes have to deal with other peoples’ responses to their poor performances. This can include alarming racist, sexist, personal comments, and even death threats for some athletes and their families. Social media makes it easy for trolling to occur.
Mental Health Missions: How do you see the pandemic impacting and compounding some of the stressors that athletes are already facing?
Dr. Van Raalte: There is no “one size fits all” answer because all athletes are individuals. Some may have thrived having extra time to train [due the pandemic] and for others it may have been an impediment, preventing them from getting the workouts they need. Some athletes were isolated and lonely, struggling with loss personally and professionally and others were able to recover from injuries and spend time with people they enjoy. Overall, the pandemic created obstacles for many athletes including social isolation and limited opportunity to participate in sport. The uncertainty that has been very pervasive throughout the pandemic has also been a challenge. There’s an anxiety that comes from being on edge, always worrying about things getting cancelled and having a mindset of, “my hopes are up and now they’re crushed.”
Mental Health Missions: You recently wrote an article about mental health obstacles that professional athletes may face, particularly when it comes to engaging with the press. Can you describe why engagement with the press can be so challenging? Why are some individuals better able to handle that type of pressure than others?
Dr. Van Raalte: Athletes and the press share a common goal in promoting sport and telling interesting stories. Some athletes enjoy the banter and visibility that interacting with the press brings. Athletes who have training and experience working with the press are well equipped to reap the benefits of press interactions. For some athletes, learning how to interact with the media in a way that promotes themselves and can further engage the press can be of mutual benefit [to both the press and the athlete]. This might take some practice or be a learning experience for athletes, especially for those who aren’t familiar engaging with the press.
Media appearances often take place immediately after a sporting event, which means that sometimes athletes have little time to gather themselves following a painful loss before having to give a big interview. And, press isn’t just difficult after a loss. Winning athletes may make comments in the heat of the moment that later come back to haunt them, possibly becoming locker room inspiration for opponents and fodder for social media trolls.
Mental Health Missions: You are part of a team that has created Support for Sport, which offers positive interventions for athletes competing at professional and collegiate levels. Can you talk about the program and some key elements that can lead to success? Are such methods able to be utilized by others who are not elite athletes?
Dr. Van Raalte: Support For Sport is a free program designed to support people around issues related to sport, health, and life. The goal of SupportForSport.org is to reach a broad audience, not just collegiate and elite athletes. SupportForSport.org provides free, high quality, evidence-based sport psychology information. People can visit the site and try some of the resources offered. For instance, there’s a mental warmup in the sports section that can help athletes prepare mentally for training and competition.
Mental Health Missions: You have a breadth of experiences, working simultaneously in sport psychology and as a college tennis coach. You have also worked in many countries throughout the world. Is there a place, a sport, or a particular culture that you think is getting it right when it comes to addressing the mental health of athletes? In your opinion, what can be done to better support athletes?
Dr. Van Raalte: My experiences have shown that the best support programs are ones that change over time to meet the needs of athletes, coaches, families, and sporting organizations. I strongly believe there is no one set of approaches that works for every team, nor is there one “secret approach.” Each time a team comes back for a new season, even if all the players are the same, it’s a new team.
Conducting a needs assessment can be a good way to understand what a team wants. There are usually a number of stakeholders involved in sport, so beyond the players and the coach, it’s important to understand the needs of those stakeholders as well as to build rapport and relationships. Sport psychology programs that meet participants’ needs and have buy-in tend to be sustainable and effective for athletes in many sports and countries.
Mental Health Missions: In recent years there have been several collective reckonings about social justice issues, equality, and gender parity. What are your thoughts about athletes and other public figures getting behind some of these causes and how might it affect mental well-being? How does advocacy and messaging from these figures resonate with the public at large?
Athletes who choose to advocate for social issues have a platform and visibility that can help them to reach a broad audience. Athletes who act as advocates may experience support and increased professional opportunities as well as pushback and a decrease in sponsorship and other deals. Advocacy is not for the faint of heart but public figures who use their platforms to bring attention to larger issues can contribute significantly to important conversations. In the past year, athletes have been at the forefront of calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their efforts are increasing awareness and making it more likely that change will occur and that we will all live in a more equitable and inclusive world.
Mental Health Missions: Recently, we have seen athletes take a stand about mental health. Michael Phelps has been vocal about his mental health struggles and more recently, both Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have spoken about their own mental well-being. What can we learn from elite athletes who are tending to their mental health?
Dr. Van Raalte: When athletes share their experiences with mental health issues, they bring attention to the topic showing [others] that they are not alone, and that mental health help is available. Learning how to manage stress, finding support, and using counseling services are all steps that people can take to manage challenges in their own lives. Those who seek help for mental health concerns tend to get better faster and stay better longer. By speaking out and sharing their struggles, these athletes are likely to reduce some of the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.
This interview is the result of several conversations and has been edited for clarity.
Judy L. Van Raalte, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology, Distinguished Professor of Humanics, and Director of the Athletic Counseling program at Springfield College. She is also a Visiting Scholar at Wuhan Sports University in Wuhan, China, Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC), and listed in the United States Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry. Dr. Van Raalte has presented at conferences in 18 countries, published over 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals on topics such as self-talk, transitions, and professional issues in sport and exercise psychology, and produced more than 20 sport psychology videos. The National Institutes of Mental Health funded her research developing and evaluating the effectiveness of a multimedia CD-ROM for college student eating disorder education. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) funded her work developing and evaluating a multimedia website for student-athlete mental health and on student-athlete career development (www.SupportForSport.org). Dr. Van Raalte served as President of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Exercise and Sport Psychology (Division 47) and as the Vice President of the International Society of Sport Psychology. She is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, and the International Society of Sport Psychology.