More athletes should come forward and destigmatize mental illness – Sports psychologist Jarrod Spencer

Over the last few years, an increasing number of athletes have come forward and spoken about mental illnesses like depression and anxiety such as Naomi Osaka, Michel Phelps, Ronda Rousey, Jesse Lingard, Kevin Love and the list goes on. Mental illness is not taken very seriously by many, and the invisible injury has a stigma attached to it with those speaking out being called ‘weak’, ‘delicate’ and on some occasions much worse. When some of the most influential names in the sporting industry use their platforms to speak about such issues, it sends the message of ‘It’s okay not to be okay’ to others, who can also seek timely help.

In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, sports psychologist Jarrod Spencer speaks about the role of mental health in coping up with the demands of sports, overcoming the negativity of social media, improving player performance with a clearer mind, emotional intelligence, destigmatizing mental illness and much more!

Q 1) Sports psychology has been brought to the forefront in the industry now more than ever before. How important of a role does it play in coping up with the demands of the game?

Right now more than ever, sports psychology is the single most important part in all sports. We've all known for a long time that yes, it is important to take care of your body but especially now due to the pandemic , everybody now has realised that it's okay to not be okay and that none of us is immune to the psychological impact of the pandemic. All of us are struggling and therefore if we really want to perform well physically, it first starts from the six inches between our ears and therefore sports psychology and mental health is more important now than ever before in sports.

Q 2) In an era of social media where athletes are exposed to so much hate and pressure, how do you help sportspersons overcome the negativity and focus on the sports?

We have got to put tools in our mental tool box, that's an expression I use all the time and books behind are an example of great tools. As you read different books, watch videos, podcasts, things that we are doing right now at this moment, each time you can take one idea, one concept or one technique. Little by little a person's mental toolbox can be built up so that they can feel they can really manage the emonality, the pressure cooker that they are often experiencing. One example of things I do is I help people understand how important sleep is and one thing I often say to them is if you can get three nights of consistent sleep – going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time, after three days you generally feel really good again and that means emotionally and mentally too. Therefore, three nights of consistent sleep is needed to get back on track. Sleep is the number one factor for performance, as I teach people information and skills like that, little by little their mental toolbox grows and they can manage the emotionality of sports better.

jarrod More athletes should come forward and destigmatize mental illness - Sports psychologist Jarrod Spencer

Q 3) According to you, how much of an impact does a clearer mind of the athlete help in improving performance? What are the various practices they can employ to have the right mindset before a sporting event?

I would say it's everything! Not just for athletes, you, me, anyone of us, if we go on a nice vacation, we get a chance to relax and stop the influx of information in the to-do list of items in our mind. We are gradually cleared out by walking on a beach or getting better sleep or by slowing down the pace of life and having the time to think. The best part is when anyone comes out of a vacation or a holiday they feel a little lighter, their emotional tolerance is a little greater, they feel like they can think a little bit faster and all of those things are essentially what leads to the essence of a clearer mind. When we can clear out our mind it's amazing that we become a really emotionally healthy version of ourselves. Whatever things we do in our lives, we can always do it so much better when we are at an emotionally healthier version of ourselves and we get that by clearing the preconscious mind.

Q 4) Athletes require intelligence to make in game decisions and quickly adapt to the dynamic nature of the sport. How important is emotional intelligence to deal with the nature of the game, dealing with colleagues and competitors?

If you start thinking about it, that is the essence of sports – two people or more compete against each other, we wear each other down physically and then what begins to happen is we begin to make some mental mistakes which happens in sports, it's more of the IQ or intellectual. Then, there is an emotional fatigue and an emotional breakdown and in every sporting event you can always feel that moment where one team or an individual feels that okay we got them now they won't be able to come back from that situation because there is an emotional collapse. What I'm saying is that the EQ, the emotional intelligence, is absolutely vital to cultivate and develop not only for success in athletics but it's also the single biggest predictor of leadership success. You might have an individual who is very smart intellectually, but how is their emotional capacity to manage stress and complex interpersonal dynamics and tension that arise from the multiple situations. If a person has a greater emotional intelligence, their capacity to manage all of that is going to make them a far more effective leader in sports or beyond. Hence the emotional intelligence aspect is absolutely a vital part of sports today.

Q 5) Tennis player Naomi Osaka recently spoke about her battles with depression. How important is it for renowned athletes to speak out and bring these issues to the forefront?

It is a great question and while I don’t know Naomi Osaka directly, I have never met her, but what I do know is that I have got a lot of respect for what she has done in coming forward. I had the good pleasure of talking about mental health on CNN and the BBC as it was related to the situation with Naomi Osaka and what I said was that I believe that so many athletes struggle with the invisible injury, mental health. Now, whether or not they want to disclose that is really up to the individual. That is a really case by case situation where they have got to weigh out the risk of risk and reward; the return on the investment if they do share they are struggling. For some athletes it might not be wise but for others it might be an absolutely wonderful thing if they shared their struggle in their triumphs and in the work that they are doing.

I do believe that in the Naomi situation, it was a spark that lit the fire around the world for athletes everywhere to say ‘it's okay that we are not okay and I can share that.’ The stigma has fallen and I can find support for my colleagues, my teammates and my friends because of the time and place we are in history right now. I would like to see more athletes come forward, destigmatize mental illness and really advocate for people suffering from the invisible injury.

screenshot-2021-07-01-at-60123-pm More athletes should come forward and destigmatize mental illness - Sports psychologist Jarrod Spencer

Q 6) What is your advice to aspiring athletes to ensure they can prioritize their mental wellbeing throughout their careers?

Well, obviously I’m a little bit biased. I think that reading books is a great way and I am obviously biased to my book: Mind of the Athlete: Clearer Mind, Better Performance. I think if we can put resources like that into the hands of an athlete and be able to say read this, study this, develop this, or watch these YouTube videos or listen to this podcast. Every athlete should be spending a little bit of time, maybe a few hours a week minimally where they work on the outside in their head knowledge.

That is really going to give them the skills to manage the pressure cooker they find themselves in. It's okay if an athlete doesn't want to do that work but I do think that in this time in history it's almost a disadvantage if an athlete is not doing it because more and more people are literally working on their mind.

Q 7) What would you like sporting organizations to do in the future so that mental health is a bigger area of focus?

It's really simple. Everybody knows that it's a big deal and everybody tends to give lip – service to it, meaning that they say all the right things about how important it is to develop and take care of the athlete’s mental health. However, it's seldom important enough to allocate the funding to actually make that happen.

Now, I know funding is tough in so many aspects of sports but when something becomes important enough then we really see the benefit of it. For the individuals leading sporting organisations, what I’d actually love for them to do is take action step by step and not just give lip-service about being important. They should actually do something that would put funding behind it so a person could stand in front of their team, maybe do zoom workshops for the team, maybe everyone is reading a book on sports psychology together or they are literally having teammates make presentations each week on a different sport psychology topic whatever it may be. We’ve got to give the financial support as well as the time allocations to make mental health a very real, practical, engageable activity that every sporting organisation is doing each and every week for their athletes.


Share The Article:

Leave A Reply