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Brain versus Brawn

Having spent the better part of 2016 working with professional athletes- many of them being NFL players- I was pleased to read an article in this month’s Monitor on Psychology highlighting an initiative that was launched by the National Football League to improve the mental wellbeing of it’s players. Called the Total Wellness program*, NFL players are being provided with education about topics such as stress management and healthy relationships in order to minimize the possibility of psychological distress and reduce the incidence of domestic violence. Transition after football and suicide prevention have also become a focus, particularly as high-profile cases have led to sensationalism in the media and negative attention placed on both the players and professional sports organizations alike.

In an effort to look beyond the obvious, I’ve taken some time to contemplate both the similarities and differences between myself and the professional athletes with whom I’ve interacted over the past year. While I spent more years than most in pursuit of an advanced degree, these men quickly rose to celebrity status and became the best of the best in their line of work. And now as I’m finally settling into my career, theirs is coming to an end... All by the time they reach 40 years of age. What toll must this trajectory take on their sense of identity? These athletes have lived and breathed football (or hockey, mixed martial arts, etc.) since at least high school, only to find themselves facing retirement when the majority of their adulthood still remains ahead of them. And to further complicate matters, chronic pain induced by fractured bones and herniated discs are undermining the exceptional physical qualities that have been so critical to their success. Now I’m certainly no athlete, but I take pride in saying that I’m committed to exercising on a regular basis. Should I find myself unable to run due to bad knees or back problems, for example, you better believe that it would limit my active lifestyle and adversely affect my self-esteem. So I ask you again. How must these physical limitations affect a professional athlete- not only in regards to their occupation, but also to their sense of self?

Now let’s turn the table and address the brain component of this equation. Football players often get a bad rap for not being particularly intelligent… and I’ll be the first to admit that I once fed into this stereotype. However, I’m going to ask you to withhold judgment momentarily and consider otherwise. You might already be aware that professional athletes are required to maintain a satisfactory grade point average in both high school and college in order to play on the team. You may also know that some athletes receive special accommodations and assistance in school in order to make this possible. Yet, it has been my personal experience that those cases are the exception rather than the rule. Furthermore, how knowledgeable are you about the game of football specifically? As I’ve delved into the in’s and out’s of this sport, I’ve found myself repeatedly surprised by the complexity that this game entails. These athletes must be able to understand and formulate strategies, recall an endless number of plays, read nonverbal cues and signals, communicate effectively with their teammates, make rapid decisions while gauging their speed and distance, maintain mental flexibility so that they can adapt to constantly changing circumstances, and so on and so forth. Although professional athletes probably consider themselves to be intellectuals about as much as I consider myself to be an athlete (read: not much!), I’d wager that they value their brain like I value my physical fitness. So now imagine that their brain could be failing them too.

I’m not saying that this is a simple discussion because there’s always a flip side to the coin. Let’s face it. These guys aren’t the Average Joe. Professional athletes are bigger and stronger than most people, and they’re trained to ignore pain. They’re usually more prone to taking risks, and sometimes this risk-taking includes maladaptive behaviors such as alcohol and substance abuse. Issues such as these complicate medical findings and weaken the argument for a direct and causal relationship between head injuries and neurological conditions. But concussions aside, it’s difficult to deny the physical and emotional changes that inevitably take place after years of playing a high impact sport. While many people find themselves transitioning careers in mid-life, it’s less common to do so while concurrently making modifications to account for health problems, lost earning capacity, and media scrutiny. I address this topic today, not to impart any special knowledge or education, but to share my insights and experiences in an effort to further reduce stigma against those who could benefit from mental health services.

*If you are a current or former NFL player, coach, staff member, or family member, know that you are eligible to access resources through the Total Wellness program at Please note that I do not have any affiliation with the NFL nor am I a provider for this program.

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