Money Smart Athlete Blog

Athletes’ Engagement and Wellbeing: Why we should care and what we should do

By Demetris Constantinou, Contributor

Throughout the years, athletes across all range of sports have been idolized by their fans, their organizations or sometimes the entire world, for being able to distinguish themselves in what they do. Few times though, have the masses or the fans considered the amount of pressure that these athletes undergo, to be able to keep up with the expectations. In fact, discussing athletes’ wellbeing, or even considering whether an athlete has the mental capacity to continue performing, has long been a taboo in our society. To better understand the issue at hand, it’s important to take a look at the findings of several studies that aimed at understanding the mental state of college and professional athletes. In the 2016 ACHA/NCHA survey[1], over 30% of the questioned athletes reported to “feel so depressed at least once in the past year that it was hard to function”. Furthermore, in a 2015 study about athletes’ depression[2], it was found that “as many as one in five athletes may be depressed”. With that in mind, in this article we will try to lay out why we believe athletes’ wellbeing and engagement are crucial to their performance and how organizations and leagues should act to ensure that athletes are properly supported in this matter.  

An athlete’s wellbeing is primarily concentrated on the following factors: physical, mental and financial wellbeing. All these factors are interrelated given that one affects the other and altogether affect the athlete’s ability to perform in the field. In short, wellbeing focuses on the athletes’ ability to understand their potential and be able to cope with the stress that comes with life’s everyday challenges. In an ideal situation, the athlete should be able to understand that while competition and striving for success are important, there’s life beyond sports and being an athlete is not what defines them as a person. The ability to be physically capable, financially independent and mentally stable allows an athlete to feel more secure, be happier and perform better on and off the court. Nevertheless, an athlete cannot achieve wellbeing without being engaged with the broader society and that’s where athletes’ engagement comes into play. It’s important for athletes to be connected to their communities, share experiences and contribute in a meaningful manner in an attempt to “take off” their athlete hat and be treated as a regular human being. This allows athletes to connect with society not only professionally but also at a personal level, showing the world that there’s an individual that goes beyond the athlete. By being engaged, athletes improve their wellbeing which consequently makes them feel more comfortable with their body and better performers both on the court and in their everyday lives.

One may ask, why should teams care about what an athlete feels or thinks? After all, isn’t it up to the athletes to figure everything out by themselves? While this mentality has been prevalent for many decades, the tables have turned, and leagues, clubs and individuals have become more proactive towards the matter. The speaking out of high-profile athletes such as Kevin Love and Michael Phelps has started to make society more curious about the issue of athletes’ wellbeing and has led to some real hands-on action that’s nevertheless, far from achieving the desirable outcome. Having said that, teams and leagues now understand the need for action because they realize that if players take care of distractions outside the game, they can focus on their performance and benefit all the interested parties. The need for action has brought to life programs such as the NFL’s “Total Wellness Program” and the NBA’s “Mental health and wellness program” which are definitely a step forward in the fight for athletes’ wellbeing. So far, the issue of athlete wellbeing has been tackled mainly at the League level by following a model where individual athletes are able to seek for help outside the framework of their individual teams. While this model might be practically working, it’s important that Leagues and teams examine alternative models that might have better outcomes towards tackling the issue at hand.

The first and most aggressive model that organizations can adopt is the creation of in-house engagement and well-being departments run by qualified individuals whose sole responsibility is to ensure that athletes are supported through their personal, mental and financial issues. Setting up such a department would certainly be a bold and expensive move by any sports club, but it would in fact solve a big issue that directly affects athletes’ performance. Simply put, if you leave the experts to ensure that athletes are engaged and remain healthy, you have more confident athletes which in turn carry better results, creating the case for why sports clubs should create in-house engagement and well-being departments. On a different note, moving to a less aggressive but still effective model, sports club could hire external consultants who are given a certain number of hours every week to work with the athletes. Such consultants would work on empowering athletes and ensuring that they remain mentally resilient without sacrificing their individuality and private needs. While this model does not create a permanent department within a team, it directly tackles the issues of engagement and wellbeing discussed above and can be highly effective at a lower price tag. Finally, a model that can be seen as less effective compared to the ones already mentioned, is what’s known as the “intervention” model where teams only hire experts when a problem is observed with regards to an athlete’s wellbeing. While it’s always better to tackle an issue than turning a blind eye, it’s important to lay the foundation that will prevent the issue of surfacing in the first place, which is what makes this model rather weak compared to the ones already mentioned. Having said that, it’s always important for sports clubs to acknowledge when their players need help and bring in qualified individuals that will support the athletes and carry them through times of discontent and hardship.

It’s no lie that while some models are better than others, the most important factors that come into play when dealing with athletes’ wellbeing are acknowledgement and willingness. Without the athlete acknowledging the need for help, and without the organization’s willingness to provide support, no model can succeed. On the contrary, when the athlete has the courage to speak up, and the team has the inclination to help, any model, weak or strong, can make a huge difference to both athletes and their clubs.

For more information regarding actions that can empower athletes’ engagement and wellbeing, you can get in touch with us at [email protected] .