As a mental health expert specializing in working with elite and professional athletes, playing a sport won't "solve" or "cure" issues related to mental health.
What I generally observe is a disconnect occurring between the mind and body, affecting performance, and ultimately affecting emotional safety and health. This cycle circulates in one big loop, or what I love to phrase as a "pattern".
At the same time, it is also important to recognize that an athlete is still a human being under the helmet or uniform he or she wears.
Just because a person can compartmentalize and carry pain well does not mean it is not heavy for that person.
Athletes face various challenges in their career on and off the sports field. I feel that a greater knowledge of the conceptualization of mindfulness and its impact on psychological skills could truly shift the way athletes maintain and even improve performance before, during, and after game time. In the unforgiving environment of professional sports, dysfunctional thinking can impact and interfere with performance.
When working with professional athletes, I love collaborating with my clients to develop specific strategies to address dysfunctional thinking patterns and other challenges. Coping strategies offer athletes additional psychological opportunities to enhance his or her chances of performing at his or her highest level under very demanding, stressful, and sometimes even hostile conditions.
Before going any further in this blog post, I believe it is important to give credit to where credit it is due. Mindfulness is popular and used generously among mental health professionals as treatment for a variety of mental health disorders, including most notably, anxiety and trauma-related disorders. My two personal favorite types of Mindfulness interventions are Mindfulness Based- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). I was first introduced to Dr. Kabat-Zinn and MBSR in graduate school. Although I attended Stony Brook University, I was offered the opportunity to enroll in a research-based elective, dually offered by Columbia University and it's Advanced Consortium on "Evidence Based Practices", and in reflection, I am so happy I accepted the opportunity!
High performance athletes can experience a variety of performance-inhibiting stressors. Most frequently, my clients come to session and process topics that induce stress such as: unrealistic expectations because of perfectionism, competition anxiety, anger and other negative emotions, fear of failure, perceived pressure, and avoidance behavior. Additionally, other factors that can negatively impact performance include: having an avoidant coping style, interpersonal problems, or life-balance difficulties.
However, similar to the most successful surgeons, athletes have the distinct superpower to transform stressors automatically into fuel in order to meet the specific demands of the game. In other words, athletes use this automatic process, similar to autopilot as a way to use stress as energy, resulting in enhanced performance. Most frequently this superpower is an alternative label for more well-known defense mechanisms such as "compartmentalization" and "sublimation".
So if athletes have metaphorical black belts in compartmentalizing and channeling emotional and psychological stress into elite performance fuel, why are we focusing on Mindfulness? Mindfulness focuses on changing the function, not the form of behavior, emotion, thinking, or how we experience things. Mindfulness aims to change the relationship of thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness has no desire to change the content of those thoughts and emotions. How can this be integrated into elite sports? Perhaps breathing exercises can be introduced in a non-sport setting. Athletes can integrate mindfulness exercises directly during a big play when they focus on the breath or letting go of thoughts of pain or discomfort. One of my favorite techniques is using a body scan exercise. Again, thinking of how this can be woven into the tapestry of sport, a body scan exercise can be easily completed during the cool-down at the end of practice or training.
I don’t want to suggest that using mindfulness will automatically lead to major shifts in performance overnight. But down the road with further inclusion of mental health support in professional sports, I think we will start to see a happier and overall healthier group of professional athletes and role models.
Connection between client and therapist is so important, if not the MOST important factor in any type of helping relationship. And like meeting new friends or dating, you aren't going to click with everyone and that is okay!
I feel that one of the best things about therapy is the abundance of therapists out there, and if you decide a therapist isn't a good match for you, then you don't need to go back! Of course, if you make the decision to find a new therapist, I encourage letting the existing therapist know. He or she may offer a session at no cost to you where he or she can offer a termination session. Termination is a gradual and completely NORMAL process of therapy and technically begins the first session of therapy. Your therapist should support this concept in treatment.
So where to begin? Please keep these things in mind when searching for a therapist you will vibe with:
I recently came across an article on the NBA's official website from March 12, 2019, describing a league-wide mental health initiative taking aim at addressing mental health and wellness issues for players.
This is wonderful news for athletes, the NBA, and families and loved ones of athletes as well! The battles professional athletes have with mental health issues shows that money nor fame can solve everything. More importantly, it shows mental illness does not discriminate. It can affect anyone.
Whether you are struggling with a mental health illness, or you simply want to perform better mentally, the first step to working on your mental-emotional health is to be unapologetically open with yourself and recognize the emotions you are feeling. Above all, don't feel scared to reach out if you need someone to talk to. I am here to support you in all areas of your health.
Mental health matters to everyone and I think this is an amazing step in the right direction for our athletes! You can read the original article by clicking here.
What kind of space are you holding for others? Ask yourself this: am I listening to really hear what someone has to say? Or am I listening to respond?
If you listen to respond you will communicate with defensiveness. If you listen with curiosity you will communicate validation.
When your child, partner, friend, and so forth wants to share something with you, he or she wants to be heard. Listen with curiosity, reflect what you heard, and offer validation even if you don't agree. Often times I am approached by parents who are seeking guidance to better understand and "get through" to his or her child. My response is usually simple and to the effect of: "Your child is telling you what they want and how they feel, the solution is to hear what he or she is saying". Seriously. Communicating with children and adolescents is easy when barriers to understanding are removed and words are genuinely heard. I always say, "healing begins the moment we feel heard". If or when you find yourself in a dialogue with your child, spouse, friend, and so forth, I invite you to really take a moment to listen and hear what is being said.
Think of your mind as real estate property. Each time the wheels in your mind begin turning (e.g. thinking of a response, forming a judgment) the valuable property in your mind is being sold to ownership by judgment, emotion, and/or defensive thought. Using this metaphorical mental space example, giving the real estate to listening just to hear, sets the conditions for the development of mental property that is free from judgment and can gain equity through mutual understanding and connection. Remember, you can decide at any moment to designate the real estate in your mind to become open to limitless possibilities, including the possibility of holding a space for someone else to heal and feel safe.
With all this big said, there is a beautiful quote I am so excited to share with you today and it is right below these final sentences. I hope you have a great start to your week!
"The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention...A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words" - Rachel Naomi Remen
I came across this AWESOME picture by Michelle Rial the other day. Without hesitation I printed it, framed it, and now get to have this in my office to share with my clients.
I always find a way to incorporate The Beatles into my practice as a therapist and I am delighted to share this with you as well!
Enjoy your Friday and welcome to the month of March!
Hope you are having a great week so far! I want to share one of my most beloved quotes with you. This one is by Alan Cohen:
"Personal growth is not a matter of learning new information but of unlearning old limits"
Re-read it, let it marinate, and give yourself permission to notice where or how the quote "hits" you. Maybe the quote does nothing for you. Maybe it does something for you. Whatever your experience, become an observer just for this moment. What do you notice? Share your thoughts below!
Take a moment to scroll through these photos I took at the Jacksonville Zoo last weekend. And as you scroll through the photos, take just one moment to find one thing you notice about the tiger. Yes, just ONE thing...
Maybe your attention goes to the color of his fur, the detail in his stripes, or maybe you notice your own feelings about the tiger surfacing...
Perhaps by the time you get to the third image and you see the tiger practicing some mindfulness of his own, you will notice that this exercise took less than three swipes and a total of five minutes to do.
Therapy isn't meant to be a life sentence. Learning skills and techniques that you can apply to the real world is what I feel makes therapy a powerful investment.
So excited to announce that after two years of intensive training, I have been approved for certification as a Certified EMDR therapist!
What is the difference between EMDR trained and Certified? Clients will ask me, "what does it mean if I read that a therapist says he or she is Level 1 or Level 2 trained?". Generally speaking, EMDR basic trainings require a minimum of six days and a majority of EMDR trainings will break up the six day requirement by hosting two-three day weekend training events held on different assigned weekends of a specific month. When a clinician will state that he or she is "LEVEL 1 EMDR Trained", he or she has technically only completed the first three days of basic training. Subsequently, when a clinician states he or she is "LEVEL 2 EMDR Trained", he or she has completed the six days of basic training. Some therapists may find the basic training to be sufficient for what he or she is looking to add to his or her own practice. Once I completed basic training I immediately began applying the skills I learned and provided EMDR therapy in my sessions. I began to notice that my clients symptoms began to resolve almost immediately. How cool is that? People feeling better? I was hooked!
After completing basic training I was presented the opportunity to invest in furthering my knowledge of EMDR treatment even more and I went for it! I dedicated the next two years of my life utilizing EMDR and somatic processing in my sessions, attending monthly meetings with an EMDRIA approved consultant for case consultation, and learning even more about the history, mechanism of action, and function of EMDR. In my down time I spent hours studying the limbic system, neurobiology of trauma, and human anatomy so that I could truly understand the biology of stress on a cellular level. My training and certification was unique in that the founder of the Somatic Attachment Focused EMDR protocol (S.A.F.E) interweaved a concept of noticing and understanding how the body will tell us what the client needs and how a feeling, movement, or overall posture may be linked to the emotion(s) associated with a disturbing memory. Being an EMDR provider requires a great depth of understanding and dedication to understanding how the human body reacts to stress, perceived danger, and how to work with a client when he or she may be beyond a window of tolerance to keep him or her safe. As a Certified EMDR therapist, part of my intensive training focused primarily on safety. This type of treatment necessitates a high level of competency and should not be used as a treatment unless the clinician has the qualifications, experience, and training to do so. I understand the necessity of keeping my clients safe and closely monitor each session, ensuring a person does not leave the session until he or she feels grounded enough to do so.
So what's next? I look forward to continuing to utilize EMDR in my practice and would like to become an EMDRIA approved consultant. As a consultant, I would have the privilege of working with mental health professionals in the field who are interested in deepening his or her understanding of EMDR treatment. Regardless, the journey is far from over! If you have any questions regarding EMDR, Certification in EMDR, or would like to make an appointment, please feel free to give me a call: 904-280-8006
Hope you are having a great week so far. Regardless if you are struggling or like Lil' Duval says, "living your best life", use this moment to take a step back, pause, and try to view your situation the way you would look at a painting in a museum.
Sometimes we can get so involved and caught up in our own story that we can forget to take a step back and see the bigger picture.
If you are at an art museum and come across a painting, you might go over to the canvas and inspect the painting from a close up angle. However, I doubt you could truly appreciate the piece of art just by studying it nose to canvas. In that case, you would be likely to take a step back and look at the painting as a whole and allowing whatever thought or emotion to surface as you stand and look at it from a distance. Why not do the same for your own story?
Taking a moment to pause, reflect, and appreciate just how far you have come isn't selfish. Gratitude is a nutrient that helps nourish the soul. *Ezekiel Elliot feed me motion*
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a clinical psychotherapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.