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Engaging mental health: a conflict analysis guide for professional athletes

March 31, 2018

Soolmaz Abooali, PhD candidate, Iranian refugee, and world medalist in Traditional Karate.

By Soolmaz Aboaali

Several athletes are sharing their personal struggles with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and suicide. The decision to do so is significant because these athletes are generating dialogue that highlights the pervasiveness of mental health issues irrespective of one’s financial and social status in society. More so, their voice establishes once again that athletes possess a unique potential to create change.

Several prominent athletes including decorated Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, and Allison Schmitt, Major League Baseball pitcher Zack Greinke, as well as all-star NBA athletes DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, among others have become outspoken about the realities of mental health for professional athletes. In his powerful article, Everyone is going through something, Love described that he had previously viewed mental health as a “form of weakness that could derail my success,” and as “someone else’s problem.” It was not until Love experienced a panic attack on November 5, 2017 which left him unable to finish a game and in the emergency room that he started to question his beliefs.

Phelps, celebrated as the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 23 gold and 28 medals in total, has battled with several spells of depression and alcohol abuse that have put his life in danger. Fellow swimmer, Schmitt, also fell into depression after winning three gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics. According to Schmitt, she would sleep away “whole days rather than confront the outside world.” In an interview, she shared that it had not occurred to her to ask for help because as an athlete she was used to relying on herself to pull through pain.

While mental health continues to be a hot topic these days, largely due to the spike in school shootings and gun debates, it is not a new phenomenon. The National Institute of Mental Health defines any mental illness (AMI) as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder…that can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment.” Statistics show that AMI effects 18.3% of American adults, is more prevalent among women than men, and 22.1% of young adults between the ages of 18-25 have the highest percentage of AMI. These numbers are steadily increasing each year.

Sport institutions have been criticized for not taking more responsibility toward an athletes’ well-being. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has most recently been singled out, particularly after Larry Nassar, the national team doctor for USA Gymnastics, was exposed for sexually abusing 265 athletes. The NBA, while it does offer mental health services for its players and guidance on issues such as work-life balance and stress and anger management, still has more to do in terms of offering programs that address its players’ mental well-being.

As sport governing bodies figure out how to address the mental health of athletes, athletes themselves have figured out that they have a unique position to address the AMI conflict. Several athletes recently gathered in Atlanta at the Total Health Forum, an event organized by the NBA and Kaiser Permanente, where they addressed mental health and how best to reduce the stigma. Such activities are important for fostering dialogue and awareness, but much more is necessary in order to create real change. Knowledge about how conflict can be resolved, for example, is a fundamental piece for any athlete who is inclined to use his/her platform to inspire and influence the public at large.

Below is a basic guideline that bridges insights from the sport and conflict resolution fields. This guideline can be used by socially-inclined athletes to think through their approach for creating positive change.

First understand the game you are playing/Perform a ‘conflict analysis’

Any athlete understands the ins and outs of his/her sport before going into a game. It is the same deal for addressing a conflict. Conflict resolvers begin their work by performing a ‘conflict analysis’ which is conducted by asking questions that analyze the attitudes, behaviors, and context involved. For example, what are the underlying attitudes of AMI? What behaviors can be identified that have led to the prevalence of AMI? What is the context that drives AMI and that is doing harm?

Success does not come overnight, it takes time/Resolution is a process, not a transaction

Success is not built overnight and it takes a disciplined approach to shedding sweat, tears, and sometimes blood. Even with such preparation, each game has its own highs and lows. Conflict resolution is the same; it is process-based which means that resolution takes time as well as transformation of factors such as underlying attitudes, power differences, or resource allocation, and more. These factors may shift or change throughout the lifeline of the conflict, so it is important to be agile and respond accordingly to each phase in the process. In the case of AMI, the factors that lead to certain conditions may, for example, vary within and across gender, age, or economic status. This means there is no ‘one-size’ fits all solution at any point in time.

Involve a comprehensive team of experts to ensure success/Resolution requires a multi-faceted approach

To be successful in any sport, a team of experts is necessary to help guide and streamline efforts. The same goes for addressing conflict, which is most always a complex phenomenon. A multi-faceted approach means involving several segments of society such as government officials, academia, media/public opinion, businesses, and private citizens. The combined efforts of several parties will create a more comprehensive approach to addressing the complexities of conflict and achieving resolution(s). Because AMI has proven to be widespread and destructive, a multi-faceted approach is necessary.

Give your mind and body a day of rest/Self-reflection is critical to resolving conflict

Similar to how rest and recovery is critical to an athlete’s training routine, self-reflection is just as important in the work of a conflict resolver. Self-reflection is the practice of becoming aware of one’s own attitudes, behaviors, and surrounding situation. It can be done through journaling, engaging a trusted circle of individuals, and setting aside personal time to relax. Self-reflection can be thought of as the oxygen mask; care for yourself first so that you can be present and able to care for others in meaningful ways.

By using this basic guide, athletes can begin to maximize their efforts as conflict resolvers. Taking on the pervasiveness of mental health may seem like a difficult and even impossible task but that is exactly what athletes are trained to do – achieve the impossible.

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