Wednesday, May 10, 2017

“13 Reasons Why” An Athlete Should See a Mental Health Sports Therapist

Even in today’s age of self-help, there is still a lot of stigma around going to therapy. This is especially true in the sports community.

Therapy or counseling (whatever word you are comfortable with) helps millions of people deal with all sorts of things that happens in everyday life. Therapy is a very practical way to address problems, issues, and concerns.

The process of therapy has many benefits. You can make discoveries about yourself, identify feelings, gain confidence and learn new ways of functioning. However, when it comes to athletes they are less likely to seek this kind of help or even report that something is wrong.

Since I am a therapist that works with athletes and being that the month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month I want to give some reasons why athletes SHOULD see a mental health sports therapist. I have 
13 Reasons Why” in fact…and yes, the pun was intended. It is time for the culture of sports to stop avoiding mental health and mental illness issues. We must treat mental illness just like a physical illness, they both need to get treated. I hope to normalize the topic of mental health in the sports community as well as bring awareness to the risk that athletes face every day. I want to encourage athletes that seeing a therapist when challenges arise is always a smart move to make.
  1.  Mental Toughness. I know as an athlete you have been told to “just shake it off” and “get over it” play through the pain because of this, asking for help can seem to be weak. You need to know seeking help is ALWAYS a sign of strength, not weakness. In fact, a therapist can help improve your functioning on and off the field.
  2. Improve Your Performance. In sports, it is 90% mental and 10% physical. To take your performance to the next level you must put in the work on the mental side just as you do on the physical side. This is another reason why working with a therapist that will understand you is a great idea.
  3. Self-Care. As an athlete, you have a very busy and demanding schedule. You must manage competing, family, friends, classes, getting a scholarship, getting an offer, going to the next level and much more, all the while having to be almost perfect all the time. It is important that you take care of your inner self. Seeing a therapist can help you to maintain your best self.
  4. Stress Reliever.  Being an athlete on any playing level can be very stressful. Dealing with school, the league, practice, coaches, family, friends, a demanding schedule, losing your position, getting a new position, expectations, performing at your best all the time, getting a scholarship, getting an offer, whew…That’s a lot and I could still go on and on. It can all feel impossible at times. Talking to a therapist can assist you with placing things in the proper perspective. Exploring your thoughts and feelings will relieve your stress level tremendously. Less stress better focus!
  5. Learn Coping StrategiesA therapist can introduce techniques and skills to assist with focusing, anxiety, depression and anger management. Learning new skills will enhance your abilities on and off the field.
  6. Get SupportOften athletes feel that “no one understands them” or no one knows what they are “going through”. These feelings can lead to frustration, anger, and depression. A therapist can be that one person for you that is supportive and validates you. In therapy, the meetings are confidential with no judgments or criticisms.
  7. Improved Relationships.  You may find you are having some difficulties with coaches, parents, friends or even a significant other. Discussing this with your therapist can give some insight and problem-solving solutions.
  8. Addressing Sleep, Eating, and Headaches. Our bodies respond to what is happening in our minds. Changes in sleep or eating can be direct reactions to emotional distress. Other symptoms are body aches and headaches. Working with a therapist can help recognize the emotional triggers and help ease the pain.
  9.  Dealing with Trauma.  Distressing events like being the victim of a crime, experiencing a death, or having an illness can be a life altering event that is traumatic. Getting injured and no longer being able to play can be a deeply disturbing trauma as well. Working through issues with a therapist can significantly aid in the healing process.
  10. Anxiety Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Feelings of worry, stress, and fear can happen to anyone, including athletes. Some studies show that athletes are at more risk for mental disorders. Working with a sports mental health therapist can help you identify and manage your feelings.
  11. DepressionLike anxiety, depression (major depressive disorder) is a very comment aliment that millions of people suffer with. Depression affects how ones feel, thinks, and behave. Some symptoms make you lose interest in the activities you use to like, can cause feelings of sadness or changes in sleep and eating patterns, loss of energy, feeling of shame or guilt and thoughts of death or suicide. Symptoms are felt for at least two weeks. Talking to mental health sports therapist can help you manage these feelings and thoughts.
  12. Substance AbuseSometimes, when you don’t know how to deal with a stress, pressure or a problem, misusing or abusing alcohol and drugs becomes the thing to do. This is called self-medicating and is destructive to your athletic career and life. Meeting with a therapist can offer treatment that provides options other than abusing substances.
  13. Suicide PreventionThe most important reason to see a therapist is to get help and support when having feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of wanting to hurt yourself. Some studies suggest that athletes are at more risk for mental illness due to the pressure of playing a sport than non-athletes. Athletes can be susceptible to depression and thoughts of suicide. Suicide is NOT a normal reaction to chronic stress or problems. If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can text The Crisis Text Line at 741741 or call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).  

More athletes are working with mental health professionals to improve their game, as well as obtaining the emotional support they require. However, there is still a stigma around athletes admitting they need help. You do not have to be ashamed or embarrassed about getting assistance. Add a mental health sports therapist to your team, you will be glad you did. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Concussion Treatment: Concussion 101

There has been a lot of discussion about concussions lately. Here is some information for athletes and those who love them.

What is a Concussion?
A concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a hit, blow or jolt to the head. This impact interrupts the functioning of the brain. In a given year there are reports of over a million brain injuries in the United States. Concussions can be mild or severe. Athletes can recover from concussions within weeks but there is a risk from symptoms that can be ongoing.

Who can diagnose a concussion or brain injury?
A neurologist or neuropsychologist can diagnose a concussion or brain injury?

What sports are at risk for concussions?
With any physical activity you can be at risk for a concussion. However, American football, soccer, hockey, wresting and other contact sports have more of a risk.

What are symptoms of concussion or brain injury?
It is important to understand that there are more than physical effects that can occur with multiple concussions or a brain injury.

Athletes can experience behavioral and emotional symptoms:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Loss of self-control
  • Anger
  • Aggression
  • Substance Abuse
  • Depression
  • Suicidal Thoughts
Is there HELP?

Concussion Treatment for Athletes -

All of these symptoms can be addressed through concussion treatment psychotherapy. If you or a love one is experiencing symptoms from a concussion or a brain injury, contact me for a free consultation today. 

You can get more information and register for my upcoming 2016 six-week concussion treatment group located in Chicago, IL.

Why should I come see you for concussion treatment?

  • This is my life’s work. In addition to working directly with athletes and coaches I research topics effecting athletes, speak publicly about mental health in sports, I work with organizations that advocate for student-athletes’ rights and I have developed the 1 in 4 PROJECT an organization to fight stigma around mental health in the sport’s community. 
  • The reason many athletes are drawn to me is because they feel relaxed to be themselves in a non-judgmental environment. They begin to feel that I am a part of their support system.
  • I have years of experience working with athletes. With that experience I understand the sport culture and I am able to relate to you.
  • I also am an expert in working with people who have never work with a therapist before. I am able to work with you as we begin to navigate what is going on and find solutions. My approach to working with athletes is very different than other therapists.
Visit my website at

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kids Not Pros: My Response to LaBron James' Son Being Recruited

Two stories in recent news about athletes and their potential sports future caught my attention. One highlighted football player Daron Byrden, a 6th grader, and the other basketball player LaBron James Jr., a 4th grader . There seemed to be quite a bit of excitement surrounding these young men as well as speculation on what they will do in their sport’s career. These boys may have a great future in professional sports, but it will be no time soon. So, why are they getting this notoriety now? Why are colleges knocking on their doors and they are not even close to being in high school?
Daron Byrden is already being called the “Future Tom Brady “ although Byrden is not being consider a college prospect as far as I know today (tomorrow who knows), his football development as well as his ranking is and now for all to see. Labron James Jr. at ten years old already gets attention just because of who his father is now he getting some added attention due to the fact he is playing good basketball, these days well, at least for a ten year old.
I began to think what is going on when kids are being recruited by colleges and getting national attention before they can barely crossed the street by themselves, but unfortunately this is nothing new. In 1986, Indiana coach Bobby Knight watched a basketball player twice and recruited a young boy by the name of Damon Bailey who was in 8th grade at the time. Do you remember Damon Bailey? I am not surprised if you do not. Damon Bailey was Mr. Basketball USA and Big Ten Freshman of the year in 1991. In 1994, Bailey was drafted to the Pacers, but he was cut after one season. In retrospect, many feel Damon Bailey fell victim to the pressures that had been mounting on him to perform.
The social worker in me began to think about the effects of young children being recruited before they are teenagers as well as children getting national attention. We make a mistake as a society treating children as adults; in the same way we are in error when we treat young athletes as if they are professional athletes. There is a reason why parents have to set limits and boundaries with their children. It is because children are not developmentally ready to navigate through the pressures of life. This is even more true when trying to place a 10 year old in an elite athlete’s world.
The pressures associated with professional sports are already high, and even more so if you happen to be the son of maybe one of the best players in basketball history. Putting kids in the spotlight for their potential achievements, places a lot of pressure on them and diminishes their ability to be stress free kids. This kind of pressure if suffered long term could lead to mental health problems. We already know that 51% of young athletes stop playing sports by the age of 15. One reason kids are leaving sports is because it stops being fun due to the stress, pressure and unfair expectations dumped on them. It is no longer about having fun and the team, instead it’s about the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), year round training camps, getting faster and stronger as all eyes are watching, and of course social media.
When Bob Knight set his sights on Damon Bailey, we did not have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For James and Byrden, every move they make may be watched and replayed over and over. Every missed free throw, inception thrown, even a bad decision with their behavior off the court, as young kids make all the time, could make the news. Many professional athletes fail terribly after being in the spotlight of the public’s eye 24/7. Is it fair to place kids in adult expectations? Are we putting them at risk when placing them in these situations? I think we could be.
It is also important to note, parents responsibilities to be the gate keepers for their children who are athletes. Even LaBron James says he does not want colleges trying to recruit his kid. There is no way to really know how children will develop physically and how their development will impact the sport they play in the future.
Many things can happen between now and when it is time to play in the pros; injury is a big one.  Are we preparing these children for plan B? It is very possible that things do not go as planned. Are the adults in the room looking at the consequences that could be waiting? Issues like low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression could be waiting. It may be time to do a double take because at the end of the day these athletes are just children and instead of pushing kids into sports we could be pushing them away in a just a few short years.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Parents Is It Time to Get Help Outside the Lines? (Athletic Stress)

1 of 5 part series of identifying athletes’ needs off the field. 

Parents are getting their children involved in playing sports more than ever before. Increasingly, young people are playing organized sports not only in school but through park districts and sport camps. There are many options for organized sports. Parents love the many life lessons that can be taught through sport‘s participation. Learning team work, responsibility, and being physically active are a few of many benefits of playing sports. Yet 51% of youth athletes quit organized sport by the age of 15 years of age (Wolf, 1993).  Researches are finding that some sports environments are linked to mental health problems for athletes. These problems are pushing young people out of sports or it is making playing sports a less enjoyable experience.

When issues present themselves off the playing field parents may want to ask the question – Is it time to get help outside the lines?  Do we need professional help for our athlete?  Coming to this realization can be very scary for parents. The worry of not knowing what to do or how to help your child can be an uncomfortable place for parents to be in. I try to frame the answer in this way; we get treated for colds, flu, sprained knees and ankles why not take the same approach when needing treatment for anxiety, depression, and adjustment issues, etc. All of these ailments must be treated by professionals. Parents should not allow fear or stigma to hinder their willingness to get help for a love one who is hurting.

The first risk factor in this series five part series is ATHLETIC STRESS. With all stress there are both physical and mental health risks; symptoms to look for are headaches, lack of sleep, depressed mood, anger and irritability. Continued exposure to stressors can lead to other health problems such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Three Types of Stress:
·         Traumatic stress is when a major event occurs. An unexpected death or a major accident. In sports it could mean a loss of position on the team or a major injury interrupting playing.

·         Stress that is brought on by a sudden negative change. A divorce, job loss or a move. In sports it could be a change of position, losing a starting position or getting a starting position.

·         Routine Stress or Sports Stress is related to the pressure of daily responsibilities. Some stressors could be the balancing act of school and sport, high intense practices, game day situations, parents over involvement or coaches win at any cost attitude.

Athletic Stress Management Tips:
·         Seek a qualified mental health professional that understands athlete related issues.
·         Get treatment for physical health problems.
·         Recognize signs of stress in the body, such as changes in sleeping, low energy, mood changes, easily irritated or angry, behavior problems in school and use or increased use of alcohol and other substances.
·         Have some family time when you do not talk about sports. Being an athlete can encompass a lot of a young person’s time. Make an effort to have other conversations other than sports.
·         Focus on positives in the game not mistakes.
·         When mistakes happen during a game parents should to be supportive not critical.
·         Create a supportive environment on and off the field.
·         Parents must manage their own behavior and attitude before, during and after the game.
·         Remember to laugh and have fun.
·         Stay encouraging and positive.

Often times we overlook the effects athletics can have on athletes of all ages. Parents have a responsibility to make sure they are caring for both the physical and mental needs of their children who play sports.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Hey Dan Synder, REALLY?!?!

At some point we all have to evolve as individuals, communities, societies and yes professional football teams name and its’ owners. The owner of the NFL Washington Redskins football team Daniel Snyder was quoted by USA Today Sports saying "We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong R word fan, and I think that the R word fans understand the great tradition and what it's all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season. We'll never change the name, it's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."

I say to that -  REALLY?!?! – I’m putting it in caps. Digging in heels and pretending the name is not offensive and a racial slur will not make this issue go away. When I first thought about writing this blog post I was going to provide the history around the r word and that information would serve as the underpinning of why the word should not be used. After careful thought I do not feel it is necessary to go into a history lesson on why we should not use of the word. Today, as we move into 2014 we know it is not okay use the r word… well most of us do anyway. Instead, I would like to examine the history of the Washington Football team as well as the feelings those who are being directly affected  by the team name and that is Native Americans. I feel that the people who the word is directed to have the authority on if it is derogatory and inappropriate for use.  I feel the same about the n word; no one can dictate what is and is not offensive to me about that word. It would not be acceptable for the team to be called the Washington Black N word football team. I see no difference with what is going on here; Native American should have the same say about the r word.I am not sure how many football fans know the “great tradition” from which the Redskins Organization comes from as Daniel Snyder suggest. It may surprise the fans and others that the Washington football team is rooted in intolerance and racism and these themes sadly are continuing today. With the insensitivity and unwillingness to realize times have changed, Mr. Snyder is following in the footsteps of the founder and first owner of his football team George Marshall Preston. 

In 1932, the Washington football team was established and bought by George Marshall Preston. The original name was the Braves and the team started in Boston. A year later the team name was changed to the R word, and moved to Washington, D.C. George Marshall Preston wanted his team to have the excitement and atmosphere similar to college football teams. He arranged for the team to have a band and a team fight song. The team’s fight song Hail to the R word was written in the mid 1930’s by George Marshall Preston’s wife, Corinne Griffith. The words have a very deliberate meaning, uplifting suppression and the celebration of violence. The original words to the Washington fight song were as follows:

Hail to the R word!
Hail Victory!
Braves on the Warpath!
Fight for old Dixie!
Run or pass and score -- we want a lot more!
Scalp 'em, swamp 'em -- We will take 'em big score
Read 'em, weep 'em, touchdown - we want heap more
Fight on, Fight on -- 'Till you have won
Sons of Wash-ing-ton. Rah!, Rah!, Rah!

To put the song in context, think about 1930s’ in the United States. The referencing  to “old Dixie” is significant; it is a reference to “the old south”, the old south of segregation.  The “scalp ‘em, swamp’ em”  line refers violence to Native Americans. In the last line “sons of Washington” is referring to the white sons of Washington.George Marshall Preston was a known racist in the NFL. He refused to draft African-American football players to the team. This changed only when people began to boycott the team and the federal government threatened legal action against his team in the 1960s’. During the team’s early development there were no southern football teams. In fact, George Marshall Preston targeted southerners for his fans base. So, it is not a coincidence that Mr. Preston was not open to drafting African American players.  

Now fast forward to today, as so many are speaking out about the need for Mr. Snyder to change the name of his football team, due to using the r word is derogatory and is indeed a racial slur. He remains on the wrong side of history, refusing to meet with Native American leaders to discuss the issue and to defend his stands to the very people he is disrespecting.  The National Congress of American Indians is opposed to the use of the name. Ray Halbritter the National Representative and CEO Oneida Nation Enterprise is one of many leaders that is taking the charge for change. Mr. Halbritter said on MSNBC referring to the r word “it’s a racist slur and an offensive name”. He went on to say for some Americans “the only contact with Native Americans is through this slur” and it has an impact on the self-esteem of his people. Mr. Halbritter is not alone; many other Native American leaders have spoken out against the name.

I have heard and read comments by many Non-Native Americans stating that the name is not meant to offend anyone. Well, I’m sorry but that response is just not acceptable when we know by Native Americans and their leaders the term is hurtful and demeaning. 

Another Native American leader taking action is Amanda Blackhorse, a Native American Advocate. She has filed a petition with the United States Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. She hopes to cancel the Washington NFL team trademark registrations.
There are many Americans who want to see the name changed. One in particular is President Obama.  When asked about the name change he stated, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” He also said, "I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”

As for me, I will no longer use the term again when watching the Washington NFL team play; I will refer to them as Washington. If they play my team, the Chicago Bears it will be the Bears vs. Washington.

I  REALLY hope for the day, a day very soon when Mr. Dan Snyder does the right thing and changes the slur he calls his football team to something more appropriate. 

Watch this video of Native American leaders speaking out on this issue.

Natalie Graves, AM, LCSW

Update - Since I Have Been Away

It has been quite a while since I wrote a blog post, but the time has come to begin posting again. I want to thank those who reached out to me and asked “when is the next post?” your interest in my blog and the topic of social work and sports was and still is very inspiring to me. I thought I would start my first blog post back with an update on what I have been doing and some highlights of my trip to London, England.

As I stated in my last post, I would be traveling through a study abroad program. Taking part in a program abroad was undeniably one of the best experiences of my life, being in London, England when it was preparing to be an Olympic city was something I will never forget. The knowledge and friendship gained will last a lifetime. After my flight arrived, the mode of travel was by bus or train (“The Underground”) and the occasional cab when we went out at night. I must say the public transportation in London will rival any large city’s transportation system here in the United States. We also did a lot of walking I lost some pounds with our daily activities.  We stayed at Roehampton University in their dorms or as the Brits call them ‘flats”.  As far as the food, no notable places to mention sorry to say. I took a day trip to the All England Championships, Wimbledon. I took in the grounds and a tennis match. I can check off eating strawberries and cream from my bucket list. 

It was great to meet others from all over the world that have an interest in sport whether it was sociology, marketing, business, etc. I think we all learned from each other. I was the only social worker in the group as well as one of two African-Americans. Our day was spent with three hour lectures then two to three hour site visits that correlated to that day’s class. Some of the topics covered were Sport, Culture, and Globalization - Globalization Debriefing - Visa Europe and Sport - Sport, Race, & Britishness  and Funding the Olympics. After that day’s requirements were fulfilled we then explored and did sightseeing all over England.

We had quite a bit of assigned reading before we arrived to London. Much of the reading was on the globalization of sport, the business side of sport and on culture and the correlation of sport. This would prove to be the foundation of our learning during lectures.  We worked in small groups and teams of two for many presentations throughout our time in class. I am proud to report my partner and I were runners –up for best presentation! The voting was done by our fellow students. Taking part in this experience left me with memories I will always cherish. Being in the program pushed me in ways I did not think possible. I returned home even more committed to what has really become my life’s work, which is researching and working with athletes from my prospective as a Sports Social Worker. 

Returning home I had two semesters to complete in my Addictions Study Program. I also completed a full-time internship at a methadone clinic where I worked with people recovering from addictions which included heroin. I worked in the capacity as drug counselor. I worked with clients in groups as well as individually. I officially completed the program this past May. Making the decision to pursue education in substance abuse and addictions is a wonderful asset in helping my clients. Having specialized knowledge equips me to be a better clinician.

After I completed my Addictions Program I had the opportunity and privilege to speak at four conferences on the topic of social work and sport. My first speaking engagement was in June at the International Sport and Society Conference here in Chicago. My topic was on the Mental Health Risk Factors of Athletes. This past October I spoke twice at the National Association of Social Workers Illinois Chapter Conference. I was asked to speak at their very first ‘Rapid Confab’ format as well as a full length workshop. Out of seventy-five speakers the NASW choose eight speakers to take part in their two day Rapid Confab event, four speakers in day one and four speakers in day two. I was one of the eight and was the first speaker on day one. My topic was Student-Athletes: A Vulnerable Population. The way it works is the speaker is given 15 minutes to speak on their topic and then the speaker gives the group a question to discuss for 15 minutes, after that, the next speaker will speak for 15 minutes and then give a question until all are four speakers are done. It is a great way to learn about different topics very quickly. The next day of the conference I was scheduled to present my full length workshop on Social Workers’ Role with Student-Athletes. I received a great response from the attendees.  A day later I traveled to Lansing, Michigan to speak at the Michigan School Social Workers Association Conference; two days later I spoke at the Illinois School Social Worker Association Conference. Along with all of that I am working and growing in my private practice.

This past year and a half has been a very busy time for me with research, speaking, writing and building my practice; through these experiences and accomplishments I have grown more focused on achieving the goals I have set for myself. 

So that is what I have been doing.

More stuff to do…

Natalie Graves, AM, LCSW

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Social Worker in London

I have been given a wonderful opportunity to travel to London! (I leave this Friday) The University of Maryland has an Abroad Program where I was accepted as a visiting student. The program is called United Kingdom: Sport, Commerce, and Culture in the Global Marketplace. This program is designed for those who are interested in the relationship, between sport,culture and international business within today’s global economy.
While in London I will be fully immersed in the complexities of the British sport industry. Through meetings and discussions with sport executives, daily visits to prominent British sport enterprises in London, such as governing bodies, corporate sponsors, sport media corporations, major venues and professional teams. I will sit in lectures given by leading experts in the field of global sport culture, management and media. While in London I will also be able to be a part of the Olympic Games.
I find it ironic that I am writing this post on the 4th of July, Indenpenence Day. This is the day in 1776 that the United States adopted the Declaration of Independence. We declared independence from Great Britain and I am on my way there!
Upon my return I will share my thoughts, feelings and experiences on my blog, Sports, Athletes and the Social Worker. So stay tuned!