How Sports Psychology Can Help Athlete's Beat Mental Health Challenges

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For the average young adult in high school or college, life is filled with many pressures — academics, social success, financial concerns, family issues, health challenges — the list goes on and on. When you factor in the pressure to excel in a chosen sport, it’s little wonder some student athletes feel like they’re at their breaking point. 

Anxiety and burnout is common. 

Dr. Ron Chamberlain, director of counseling and sports psychology for Intermountain Healthcare and Dixie Regional Medical Center has seen a growing need for mental health and performance counseling since his time as an embedded sports psychologist at Brigham Young University and University of Washington. During his office hours at Dixie State University and Southern Utah University, as well as at the Health & Performance Center at Dixie Regional, mental health is a constant concern.  

“I see athletes getting burned out,” he Chamberlain. “They’re over-scheduling and under recovering. That feeds into some of the mental health issues we see.” 

How big is the problem?

When you look at young adults, not just student athletes, research shows that 40 to 60 percent of young people are experiencing high levels of anxiety. “These levels are right at the clinical threshold of being diagnosable as anxiety disorders,” says Dr. Chamberlain. 

Depression levels among young adults are only slightly lower, with 25 to 30 percent being diagnosed with clinical depression. 

“These numbers are really high,” he says, adding that this is one of the reasons more and more colleges and universities have been incorporating sports psychologists into their athletic programs since he first entered the field in 1996.  

Ted Hugunin, director of rehab services for Intermountain Healthcare’s River Road Clinic agrees.  

“Mental health issues are just as frequent as orthopedic issues among athletes, but there’s a societal sensitivity and stigma not to talk about the mental health part,” Ted says. “Unfortunately, people are embarrassed.”  

Overcoming sports psychology challenges.

The services available to athletes through the program at the Health & Performance Center at Dixie Regional in St. George are two-fold:  

  1. Helping healthy athletes perform at higher levels through mental skills training.
  2. Helping athletes who are underperforming because of mental health challenges overcome those challenges.   

“It’s really an umbrella program with a lot of different services including physicians, sports medicine, athletic trainers, sports nutritionists, physical therapists, and a sports psychologist,” Ted says.  

Within that umbrella, the scope of Dr. Chamberlain’s work varies from teaching coping skills to athletes struggling with anxiety and depression, to assisting others through the psychological aspects of having a season-ending injury, as well as offering mental training to help high-performing athletes reach even greater heights.  

All athletes are welcome.

“Anyone who wants to perform better would benefit from the program,” Dr. Chamberlain says of the kinds of athletes he trains. “Some people need help during the transition from being a younger athlete to an older, recreational athlete. Others need to understand the difference between being a highly committed athlete versus one who is obsessed.” 

Dr. Chamberlain trains coaches and student athletes at area high schools and the two universities about managing expectations and being mentally prepared for games. Sometimes it is just a matter of managing your priorities and learning new coping skills so that mental health does not become a barrier to athletic performance. He also talks to athletes about the psychological aspects of a season-ending injury for those who need surgery.  

As a parent of athletes of his own, Dr. Chamberlain says he knows sometimes the last thing parents want to think about is one more expense related to their child’s sport. But dealing with the mental side of things can be extremely helpful and impact an athlete’s entire life.