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When 'Practicing What You Preach' Doesn't Help Your Depression


I love sports psychology — it’s my passion. If any career was made for me, working as a sport psychologist is that career. If you have never heard of sport psychology, basically I help coaches and athletes be mentally prepared in sport. Think about setting goals, self-talk, motivation, confidence, team building, relaxation and team building.

I found my passion my senior year of college thanks to an amazing professor who we will call Dr. B. I went straight to get my masters and now I’m going into my third year of my PhD. I have goals to open my own practice on the West Coast. On the outside, one would think I have it all together. I have no reason to be depressed or have anxiety. You see, I have been told that exact phrase before. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Then what came next stopped me in my tracks and sent me into a panic attack. “You teach mental skills to athletes daily, why don’t you just practice what you preach?”

I couldn’t move, but my mind was moving a million miles a minute.

Maybe what I teach doesn’t work.

Fraud. That’s what you are.

I’ve tried self-talk and relaxation.

They don’t work.

Fraud. 

Why am I even doing this?

Stop.

Stop.

Just stop.

I know the research on the importance of mental skills for athletes. They help increase performance and recover faster from injury. I have worked with athletes and they saw an increase in their performance and attributed it to their practice of mental skills. I have used mental skills as an athlete as well. Every time I go to the gym, I follow my mental skill plan just like I do my physical plan. But when it comes to my depression and anxiety, using thought-stoppage or taking time to use relaxation has not helped me. I have spent countless hours trying to find the right mental skills to use that will help slow my unproductive thoughts or help me get out of bed in the morning. But the truth is, while these mental skills have helped me perform athletically, they are not the tools I need to work through depression and anxiety. This is not to say they don’t help other people. I have friends who have found mental skills helped them manage their depression and anxiety. It does work, just not for me.

However, I do think it is important to continue my work in sports psychology. I do see value in the use of mental skills. I even see the value in athletes having the opportunity to learn mental skills that can help them beyond sport. When I meet with a new athlete, I explain to them I am not trained to treat mental illness. However, I do say I will be a support if they are concerned about their mental health. I always provide links and pamphlets to the counseling services on campus. I remind them these mental skills might help with mental illness, but it is always best to see someone trained in the field of psychology. I want them to understand I care, because often that’s all they need as a collegiate athlete.

Often times the pressures of a collegiate athlete can lead to depression and it is important for everyone to know it’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to ask for help. ESPN writer Kate Fagan wrote a piece called “Split Image,” about a young woman named Madison Holleran, a Penn State student athlete who died by suicide in 2014. She expanded “Split Image” into a book, “What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen,” which was released in August.

It’s been two years since I had that panic attack. I found a therapist who has worked with me on the depression and anxiety. I have bad days. I have good days. I have bad weeks. I have good weeks. I have days where my mind won’t shut off and my body can’t even move. But I know there is value in my work in sports psychology. I love learning about new ways to teach mental skills and I love integrating fun into every activity I conduct with teams. I love what I do, because even in the darkest days sports psychology is my light.

When people tell me to practice what I preach, I say I do. I practice mental skills in the athletic and even academic space. But when it comes to my depression and anxiety, there is so much more than the eye can see.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via Ingram Publishing


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