While mental health concerns in sports may have once been described as a low tide, larger waves of recognition have poured over the sports world in recent years concerning the matter.
Mental health is not typically talked about the same way as physical health. Mental health challenges can impede performance, affect happiness and motivation, and can lead to more serious issues. With high-tolling cases of burnout, depression, anxiety and even suicide, organizations and individuals alike are stepping up to create the attention needed to promote and sustain vivid, real-world change.
Patrice Whitfield, an LCPC therapist with Nurture Therapy in Chicago, is working with the Chicago Sky as a Licensed Clinician and Mental Performance Consultant. She is aiding the Chicago Sky’s efforts to uplift women athletes and reinforce their value in and outside of sports.
When it comes to athletes’ mental health concerns, environmental factors are necessary for professionals like Whitfield to observe.
“We can think about the individual, but we also have to zoom out and think about the systems and structures and environments that are affecting the individuals as well,” Whitfield said.
The WNBA now requires every team to employ at least one mental health clinician.
She’s available in-person at least once a week — and often more than once — attends home games, and is always available for texts or FaceTime calls.
“I’m able to go to practice and be in those spaces that are maybe a little more closed off to the general person: the training room, the weight room, and film and practice,” Whitfield said. “So I’m able to see live how players are reacting to things or how their overall daily mood is, which has been really helpful.”
Whitfield, in her capacity working with the team, is able to better recognize mental health concerns versus mental performance concerns, and lend a helping hand in addressing and differentiating both.
“So a mental performance concern can just look like: every single time I step to the free throw line I stop breathing, and therefore I’m not as proficient at my free throws because I’m not breathing,” Whitfield said.
The Sky has partnered with Chicago agency O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul (OKRP) to launch an initiative called “The Net” (A Network of Mental Health Support in Sports) to show how teams can prioritize the mental health of athletes.
“Underneath the trash talk and 3-pointers, many of us struggle with the pressure to be perfect, to perform flawlessly and to do it all with a smile,” the Sky’s Azurá Stevens said in support of the launch of The Net. “We get injured and we face the mental challenges of getting better. Sharing these stories makes us human and helps people see how we cope with trauma, and hopefully it helps others dealing with the same issues.”
The campaign will include in-game messages on Wintrust Arena screens and scoreboards, social media, a website full of resources, t-shirts, player trading cards, and a panel discussion. But that will only be the launching point, as the Sky looks to create a network of support and mental health resources so that athletes of all ages and levels can be shown that they’re not alone.
The initiative stresses that “playing through the pain is unacceptable” and “the ball is never in your court alone” — a refreshing take on the livelihoods of professional athletes and their overall health.
Stevens, as well as Sky teammates Ruthy Hebard and Rebekah Gardner, will be featured in videos and trading cards showcasing their mental health journeys, as well as toolkits that walk through the grind of a WNBA player’s path.
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Kaleb Carter is a Chicago (Rogers Park) resident, originally from Jamestown, Ohio. An Ohio University E.W. Scripps School of Journalism graduate and formerly a full-time sports reporter, he now freelance writes on the side and is a special education professional in Highland Park High School District 113. He writes namely for Illinois-Basketball.com (focusing on girls varsity basketball), Journal & Topics Media Group and The Record North Shore.