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The Role of Athletic Trainers in Supporting the Mental Health of Athletes

More and more, we’ve seen mental health in sports becoming a topic of conversation.  Whether it is Simone Biles and her decision to withdraw from the Olympics, or Michael Phelps talking about his struggles with depression, our society is slowly realizing that depression and anxiety can be found everywhere, and that includes our top athletes.  What role do athletic trainers have in helping athletes with their mental health?  What can an athletic trainer do if they have a concern about a patient?  To find out, we sat down with Dr. Emma Grindley, a sport psychologist and faculty member who teaches several University of Idaho athletic training courses.

What do athletic trainers do?

Athletic trainers are medical professionals who work with physically active populations to prevent, recognize, diagnose, treat, and recover from injuries and illnesses.  Dr. Grindley emphasized that each person is made of body, mind, and spirit.  An athletic trainer cannot effectively treat a patient’s body without considering their mind and spirit.  The NATA (National Athletic Trainers Association) recognizes this and has always had a focus on complete patient care.

How does mental health affect athletic performance?

An athlete’s mental models and patterns of thinking can greatly affect their athletic performance.  There are many ways this can manifest.  Racing thoughts can impact an athlete’s sleep and ability to rest and recover.  The imagery an athlete uses can boost them to new heights or drag them into spirals of negative thinking.  Destructive thinking patterns can negatively impact an athlete’s relationships, confidence, and performance.

Why do we educate athletic trainers on mental health?

Athletic trainers are in a unique position to help athlete mental health.  Compared to other healthcare providers, they spend much more time with their patients.  They often develop rapport and even friendships with their athletes.  As Dr. Grindley pointed out, they are often in physical contact with their patients, whether it is performing manual therapy or testing the range of motion of a joint.  This physical contact can help a patient feel more comfortable and confident talking to an athletic trainer, than say a coach or teammate.

As I mentioned before, the NATA has always had a focus on whole-patient care.  As such, there are specific competencies related to mental health required in athletic trainer education and reflected in certification requirements such as the Board of Certification (BOC) exam.

What should an athletic trainer do if they have a concern about one of their patients?

Dr. Grindley suggested these tips for athletic trainers to improve athlete mental health:

1. Be observant.  You can tell a lot by keeping your eyes open and watching your patients. 

2.Be aware of what your body is saying.  Sometimes our subconscious picks up on cues that we consciously miss.  Recognizing what your body is saying in a situation can help you pin down what is going on.

3.Think like a traffic light.  When you are meeting with a patient and you feel some concern about their mental health, think like a traffic light.  Is this a green light situation, where they might need someone to talk to and a few tips, and then they’ll be on their way?  Is this a yellow light situation where you may need to refer them to a sport psychologist or other mental health professional?  Or is this a red light situation, where they are in immediate danger and you need to walk them immediately to a crisis center?

4.Consult with others.  If you are concerned about a patient, consider speaking with other members of the patient’s care team to see if your concerns are shared, and what others may already be doing.

5.Don’t be afraid to ask for more information.  If a patient has you concerned, ask them questions and let them tell you what they are going through.

6.Let the patient know that they are seen and heard.  Nobody wants to face a challenge alone.  Let the patient know that you are present in this situation with them, and you are there to help them work through it.

How can athletic trainers integrate mental health more into their practice?

Dr. Grindley reminds us that the body, mind, and spirit all combine to make a complete person.  For athletic trainers, this means remembering that patients aren’t just a collection of muscles and bones.  How the patient thinks and feels has an important role in injury prevention and recovery.  Integrate mental health into your conversations with patients.  Ask how they are doing.  Be ready to talk about goal setting, imagery, and relaxation skills.  Know who to refer to if needed.

Some other final tips:

·Be present for your patients.  Calm your mind and focus on each patient when you are with them.

·Pay attention to both your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and those exhibited by your patients.

·Let the patient be the teacher.

·If something isn’t working, encourage the patient to try something different, not simply try the same strategy harder.

·Be mindful of your own mental health.  It is hard to take care of others if you haven’t first taken care of yourself.

Final thoughts

While mental health in sports is becoming a topic of conversation, there are still many challenges.  For example, with the strong social stigma against mental health issues, an athlete may feel ashamed for what they are going through and be unwilling to bring it forward.  Availability and access to resources are also huge challenges.  However, athletic trainers have a great opportunity to step in and help.  If you’d like to know more about mental health in athletes or how we educate athletic trainers in mental health issues here at the University of Idaho, drop us a line.  We’d love to talk to you.



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Priority application deadline: Nov. 15
Secondary deadline: Jan. 25
DAT Application Deadlines:

Only one for Summer admissions: April 15 each year


First day of classes and Summer semester dates:
MSAT: June 3- August 2nd 2024
DAT: July 1st through July 26th 2024

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