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LaKeitha Poole discusses how being competitive can affect mental health

The mental health director help athletes

Mental health among athletes is a conversation that has picked up over the years with several players opening up about their struggles. Many sports teams now have mental health directors. LaKeitha Poole, Ph.D., serves Louisiana State University’s Athletics’ Sport Psychology & Counseling unit as an assistant athletic director and she’s on the NFL mental health board.

Poole spoke with rolling out about athletes addressing their mental health struggles, how to navigate having a competitive nature, and national minority mental health month.

What are some of the practices that athletes should take to protect their mental health?

We all have our jobs and most of the time their sport is their job. So [figure] out where you fit in time to practice self-care and when you make time to do certain therapeutic activities like journaling or going to therapy. For some folks, that can be challenging. Obviously, the benefit for many of them being on the sports side is that many of the organizations, leagues or universities have in-house people like myself to help them. That’s nice because it can take the stress away of finding somebody or being able to figure out what day they can squeeze time in.

The real core element is making sure that they understand what self-care looks like for them because a lot of times we see something on social media or a movie and we think we need a journal day or we need to take a bubble bath. Those types of activities are helpful and they can be self-care, but unless there’s some sort of a consistent routine around you taking care of yourself or finding a way to practice, then you’re kind of doing self-indulgence.

What are some things you see that differ between college athletes and professionals that typically affect them mentally?

At the collegiate level, you have somebody who’s 17 or 18 years old living on their own for the first time while also navigating just paying bills and understanding what that looks like. At the pro level, they’re still relatively young when most folks get drafted, but in most cases, most have experienced or at least had the opportunity to experience someone who can prioritize their mental health.

How can having a competitive nature affect an athlete’s mental health?

When you’re having those conversations and somebody is gung-ho about being number one and they are “team no sleep,” but you need sleep. From my personal style of being a clinician, I’m always like, “Help me understand how that’s going to get you where you want to go. If you don’t sleep, how are you going to make it to the next level?” If you’re not eating properly and you just lost someone in your life, then you’re just going to hit the gym harder? A lot of times, you’ll start to see signs of other things that are other forms of dysfunction.

I think about other sports that I work with like gymnastics where you start to see body changes because people have chosen to be like, “I have to be the best. I need to lose 10 pounds in a week.” Things like that are not really healthy. Then when you start thinking about what this looks like specifically for Black folks and minority populations, our body types are different. We can be in some of these same sports and yet we’re not going to look like what has become a publicized norm of a body type. So we have to sleep, we have to eat, and we have to be able to have an outlet.

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