Mental Health Series:
An Athletic Trainer’s Perspective
As we’ve launched SAFE Roster over the past few months, we’ve heard from sports medicine professionals across the country about the importance of addressing mental health with student-athletes. We asked one of our athletic trainers to tell us about his experiences working with athletes struggling with their mental health. Here is Nathan’s story:
Sports fans can follow their favorite athletes rise to stardom from little league to the pros in several platforms from the stands, television and even smartphones. We watch them grow into strong and sturdy men and women from boney youth and often envy them for their assured pathway towards perfection. However, we often do not witness the stress associated with their ascension and are dumbfounded to learn their mental state does not correlate with their physical achievements. For many athletes, help in both mental and physical support comes in the form of an athletic trainer.
No matter the level of competition I have been supplied to provide my services, I have seen stressors eat away at an athlete’s mind like rust on metal: still sturdy enough to hold strong but slowly becoming weaker and leads to a potential snap. That final stage is oft the only piece of the puzzle that communities and sports fans’ witness. As an athletic trainer, it is a calling to support athletes who may be struggling with their stress and provide support in the form of encouragement and perspective.
Early in my career I was stationed at a high school that had never had an athletic trainer. My first Friday night football game, I saw my textbook come to life: two ACL injuries, one rotator cuff tear, one meniscal tear, three concussions, one spinal cord injury (that resulted in a 45 minute ambulance wait time), one sickle cell attack and a chipped tooth. I wasn’t sure I was cut out for the job. Luckily the acute injuries slowed down as the season went on, but it was my responsibility to return some of these players to the field as quickly as I possibly could. One of the kids whom injured their ACL was scheduled to return to play week 6. We began rehab a few weeks out and worked our way up to sprints. This kid was tall, lean and expected to play at the next level. I had returned on a Thursday before his week 6 return when I learned he had torn his ACL running in gym class.
A tidal wave of emotions overcame this young man. Here he was wanting to get good grades, play good football and leave his small town behind for Saturday gridiron contests. Instead, in an instant, he was forced to reconsider. For a week he was silent in practice, and I was concerned to the point of reaching out to mom and dad learning he was not eating or socializing as normal. In a week’s time, I have no doubt he lost ten pounds. During practices, he was recluse and often stayed behind in the locker room. One day I managed to sit down with him to discuss how he was feeling. Our conversation went from low to high, tears to laughter. Our conversation ended on a positive note that he would still have the chance to play football if he returned to full health after surgery, and if not, his 3.8 GPA was enough to set up a solid life for himself. Needing to attend to some other injuries, I quickly remembered his parents saying he wasn’t eating. I went into my bookbag and pulled out a granola bar and asked him if he was hungry. “I’m starving,” he replied.
In this early stage of an injury, I was able to create a supportive base for this individual. I cannot say that I have always been successful in changing the tide on an athlete’s mental state, but in more desperate times, as a healthcare professional, I know when good personality and good habits turn bad, that I must rely on my supporting psychologists and team physicians to support the athlete and their family in a time of grief.
Athletic trainers cannot prevent mental illness, but they can identify, support and refer for help without the intent that the athlete must be actively playing to receive their care. Scoreboards and statistics are not indicative of a healthy mental state, and with athletic trainers in support, the athlete can be supported toward their ascent in life - not just sport.