What would drive an athlete like Junior Seau, a seemingly happy, successful, and very likeable professional athlete, to self-destruct? As a former athlete, former coach, and now as a sports psychologist I have been asked that question numerous times since the incident. Obviously, he was not the first, and, unfortunately, probably will not be the last. The real question to be asked and answered is how to less the likelihood of recurrence. There are many factors to consider, but here are some ideas.
It is important that we help change the culture of professional sports, particularly the NFL, so that it becomes a safe environment to seek mental health assistance. Just because someone is a larger-than-life athlete paid millions of dollars does not mean he / she is not human and subject to the ravages of emotions and frailties. Often times those in the public sector feel that by reaching the status the athletes hold they should just have to deal with pressure. Unfortunately, the athletes buy into this fallacy, feeling like they have to handle everything themselves. Even comic strips portray this concept. Not long ago the comic strip In the Bleachers shown a football huddle with one of the players proclaiming, “I do not like that play. It hurts my feelings.” The subliminal message driven into athletes is that they should shut up and play through pain, physical or emotional, or worse, they should take painkillers to numb the pain.
When athletes are in transition to civil status, whether because they are in the twilight of their career, because they are released, or because of an injury, they go through a loss of identity. Everything they have been known for and accredited for vanishes leaving them disoriented. They may have no other skills. They may feel they no longer have a purpose. They go through the stages of loss, commonly given the acronym of DABDA, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Regrettably, some never get to the Acceptance stage.
Many point out that there seemed to be no outward signs from the athlete that there are any serious problems. Let's not forget that athletes are entertainers, skilled at putting on a show. While they may not have had formal acting lessons, they know how to put on a crowd-pleasing performance. In many cases they have been able to fool everyone for a long period of time.
Athletes in transition need to know that there is hope and help and it's okay to reach out. A top athlete would never think of taping his or her own ankle. That would seem foolish and would leave them open to further injury. Psychological “injuries” are no different. The help is just temporary. They need to know they can rehab and work their way back.
Just like each of us should have our own personal “board of advisors” in the form of a doctor, and accountant, etc., athletes should begin to assemble their transition team. Those on the team must be familiar with the trials and tribulations of athletics.
Lastly, we need to educate those around the athlete to be aware of signs of distress. The comment usually made is that “there were no outward signs.” There are always signs, but if one does not understand what she / he is seeing, hearing, or sensing, the signals go unnoticed. The results can wind up disastrous.
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