Physically strong athletes aren’t immune to mental health challenges
Steamboat Springs athletes are a different breed. This little city has produced more Olympians than any other in the U.S., and that history of elite athletics encourages cyclists, runners, snowboarders and more to push their boundaries and achieve great things with their physical abilities.
If any town has mastered physical health, it’s probably this one, but the same can’t be said about mental health, yet.
Athletes report mental health issues at the same rate as nonathletes, according to Dr. Kristin Orlowski, a licensed psychologist with UCHealth Family Medicine in Littleton. So there isn’t evidence of athletes having a deeper stigma. On the other hand, athletes might be more aware of their mental state since physical activities are very much mental. Yet athletes don’t address mental health issues more often, either.
Fortunately, there are organizations and individuals working to make talking about mental health as normal as discussing fitness regimens.
Steamboat Springs resident Ben Glassmeyer was at a bike race in Breckenridge and was neck and neck with a man wearing a Go4Graham jersey. He learned a little bit about the organization from his competitor and was immediately drawn to it. Afterwards, he went over to the Go4Graham tent and learned more.
Almost eight years ago, Glassmeyer’s brother Pete Glassmeyer died by suicide at the age of 27. For years, Ben didn’t talk about his struggle.
“It was just hard to break that shell and have those unwanted emotions come out,” he said. “No one likes to start talking about something they know is going to make them sad or upset. It’s just easy, at least me personally speaking, it’s easy just to not talk about it and just go on with daily life. I quickly could tell that keeping it inside and not doing anything about it wasn’t going to be good for the long term.”
He started getting more active, knowing that’s what he needed to cope with his heavy loss. He got outside — running, biking and skiing. Signing up for races and completing them gave him a sense of purpose. For a while, that was enough. Until he encountered Go4Graham.
The Go4Graham Foundation works to “shred the stigma surrounding mental health and to promote mental wellness through exercise, community and education,” according to its website.
“That truly spoke to me,” Glassmeyer said. “There’s other ways. People can do anything (to cope), but I truly felt like that was my calling — exercising, being in the community and educating people of what I did in the athletic world.”
Glassmeyer took a 90-minute webinar with Go4Graham and is now an ambassador. He shares his story and spreads the foundation’s message.
At first, talking about his struggle after his brother’s death was hard, but Glassmeyer is getting better at it and is opening up more as he realizes his story can help others.
“I’m hoping the people I talk to, what I think or what worked for me hopefully works for them,” he said. “The shredding of that stigma is getting bigger, and I hope at the end of the day I might have helped in a little way.”
Mental strength is not mental wellness
Movement can be used to combat some mental health issues and spark conversation about tough topics, but exercise is not a replacement for therapy. Exercise is good for the body but doesn’t cure emotional issues. Only therapy or medication can do that.
If exercise were the only thing needed to address anxiety, depression or deeper trauma, Amy Charity wouldn’t have to alter her clients’ training schedule based on their day. Charity is a professional cyclist, teaches classes at Old Town Hot Springs, is a personal trainer and helps run SBT GRVL. She’s deeply involved in the cycling community.
“I have one athlete who’s a surgeon, and he has a very high stress job,” she said. “When he reports back to me that he didn’t sleep well last night or had a really stressful case, I will cut down his training because I think that helps with the overall mental wellness picture. There’s a stress factor that’s playing a part in his overall job, and that’s going to impact how he feels on the bike. If I give him a cycling session that’s really hard and demanding, I might put him over the edge. Having that physical stress, that mental stress, that adds up.”
She’s a believer that mental wellness and mental strength are completely different things. Her client might have the mental strength to grind through a ride despite being drained and tired, but that would throw his mental wellness off balance.
Unlike mental health, mental strength is commonly discussed among athletes. The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club even has a mental strength coach in Luke Brosterhous, who was hired in late 2019.
“My work with the Winter Sports Club is really specific and narrow around performance coaching,” he said. “I work a lot with the coaches. I work with coaches and athletes on their environments and optimizing performance.”
When Steamboat Springs resident and Olympic silver medalist Johnny Spillane was on the U.S. National Team as a Nordic combined athlete, there was a mental strength coach who Spillane and his teammates could consult if they felt they had a block or were in a funk. They worked solely on performance, though, not stress or depression. Spillane doesn’t think the team needed anything along those lines.
“I’m sure having it available to you wouldn’t hurt anything,” he said. “But I don’t think we had a need for it.”
Now, the SSWSC has deeper discussions about mental health and what athletes need. Karl Denney, the Nordic combined U18 head coach, works with teenagers who are competing at the World Cup level and on the U.S. National Team.
Not only do they compete at the highest level of the sport, but they are balancing school and family and social lives. Ahead of the thick of the season, Denney and his athletes talk about what type of person they are and what their needs are. One girl is particularly social and needs to have interaction with her friends to stay happy. Denney said he and the Winter Sports Club validate that type of need and ensure each athlete’s needs are met.
“A lot of time coaches and athletic professionals can be very close minded and think, ‘What are their needs? Well they need to eat well and train well and recover well,'” Denney said. “Those are great for sport, but if you’re going to have a successful athlete, they need to be happy, and they need to feel they have the attention they need and the support that they need.”
Additionally, the club and the national team have access to sports psychologists who discuss managing stress and mental health.
“It’s become more of an open conversation,” Denney said. “I think we still have a long way to go for it to be a fully comfortable conversation with all athletes.”
‘Sports are supposed to be fun’
Growing up in Steamboat means growing up in air breathed by Olympians. Pressure to meet that standard exists whether it’s from others or themselves. Brosterhous is hoping he can play a role in dissipating that pressure among Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club kids.
He helps athletes stay focused on smaller goals and keeps them from specializing in one sport too soon.
“What I see that resulting in is there’s not enough value placed on long-term athletic development of our athletes,” Brosterhous said. “I think that when we can really drive home and emphasize the point that good athletes in the long run will always have more success in whatever they choose to specialize in. … Sports are supposed to be fun, and you’re supposed to do them your entire life. What happens between 9 and 13 is not going to define you at all as an athlete long term. Let’s back off the accelerator with the specialization stuff and just focus on fun and enjoyment and skill development.”
Spillane said he never felt pressure from his SSWSC or national team coaches to perform at a certain level, but his mother Nancy said he absolutely put pressure on himself, and she noticed it. She took solace in knowing there was a mental strength coach around to help him through some of his struggles.
“In general, overall, the U.S. Ski Team did a good job with helping him understand himself, his motivations, his goals and helping him attain achievable goals,” Nancy said.
Still, Nancy knows more is better when it comes to mental health work. She leads Healthcare Activists of Routt County, or HARC, and is working on a proposal to get a behavioral health center in Northwest Colorado.
Johnny now has kids of his own competing, and he and his wife work to keep them from feeling pressure.
“We only let them do it if it’s fun for them,” Johnny said. “If they’re not having fun, we’re not doing it. As long as they enjoy it, I’m all for it. If they don’t enjoy it, let’s do something else.”
Adults who compete at a high level can suffer from putting too much pressure on themselves or identifying too much as an athlete.
Orlowski said athletes are at risk of identifying too much with their sport and their achievements. That deepens stigma because they may perceive themselves as less valuable if they struggle with or speak up about a mental health disorder.
“We are multifaceted people,” Orlowski said. “There are so many things that comprise a person’s self identity and recognizing it’s not just the role you play on the field or an athlete in general. It’s not the role you play in your career or your family, but it’s about your belief system and your values and what’s meaningful to you. It’s your personality, your faith. All kinds of different aspects of who you are.”
Shelby Reardon is the assistant editor at the Steamboat Pilot & Today. To reach her, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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