Managing mental health in real person life is hard. It can be even harder to manage and work through mental health stuff when we are trying to train for and participate in a team sport.
I myself come from a place of having dealt with managing and recovering from a whole slew of pretty intense mental health issues throughout the course of my life, all while playing competitive team sports. So I have had to figure out, time and time again, ways to get myself to a place where I could be at practice or a game in a safe and (somewhat) focused way.
At base, talking about mental health is super important because it reminds us that we aren’t alone and it helps move our culture surrounding mental health away from shame and stigma.
So I’d like to share some of the things I have used throughout the years and that I continue to use to help get me to and get me involved in practices and games when I am having a Bad Day (or week or month), but still want to participate. This series is a three-parter, with easy step-by-steps to work through the hard parts of managing your health around practice.
These things might work for you all the time, some of the times, or not at all. And that’s totally ok. Everyone’s experience with mental health is different, so these definitely aren’t cure-alls. This is just a small list of tools that might help, coming from someone who has dealt primarily with eating disorders and anxiety disorders, while training and competing competitively.
So let’s start our first installment at the very beginning – with getting to practice on a tough day.
- Give yourself a time limit*.
What this looks like for me is, I tell myself, “I will go for 10 minutes and if I still don’t want to be there, I can leave.”
Figure out a time that feels less scary and more manageable for you and see if you can get yourself to stick it out. If you still feel bad and like you don’t want to be there, let a trainer/coach know and head out.
It’s often worth speaking to your coach on a good day, and letting them know this might be a thing that comes up, so you don’t have the pressure of explaining at the time.
*This doesn’t mean you ought to berate yourself if you don’t stick it out the whole time or if you end up leaving. Be proud of yourself for getting there.
- Ask a teammate for a ride, or promise a ride to a teammate.
If I know I have a teammate coming for me, and even more so if I know I have a teammate depending on me for a ride, it helps me be accountable for getting to practice.
- Pack your bag.
This is especially helpful for me if it’s one of those less severe days, but I am still waffling on whether or not I feel up to it. If I get my stuff together and go through the motions of getting ready, in a non-judgemental way – just observing my present emotions but not making any decision one way or the other, I’m still one step closer to getting to practice than I was before I did that.
Sometimes the first step is the hardest one. Make that first step with your bag, one skate at a time.
- Picture yourself doing the thing!
Sometimes, for me, I need to picture myself in a situation in a positive way to help calm my anxiety, especially when I’m having a tough mental health day.
If I can create positive visualizations for myself, whether that’s nailing something new at practice or picturing myself walking out of practice after getting through the whole thing, I can get myself to a more positive place mentally and move myself in the direction I want to go.
- Set some goals.
Sometimes I use this as a means of accountability for myself, sometimes as a means of finding something meaningful to do, and sometimes just as a distraction.
Setting goals for practice (even if they are things that might seem silly like “only cry once”, “try to stay focused for one whole drill”, or simply, “get through practice / the next ten minutes”) helps me feel like what I am about to do is important and has meaning for me.
These goals help me motivate myself to work towards something bigger than the turmoil in my head.
- Imagine your thoughts as little versions of you.
Sometimes I think of all the different, anxiety induced thoughts in my head as little Macks running around freaking out ’cause they wanna give their input, even when their input isn’t helpful or based in reality.
So I think of all those little thoughts as tiny people who are essentially that person who hears a fire alarm and starts losing their shit and running around in circles screaming. It’s my job to calm those little Macks and get them to be more cooperative.
So I take a deep breath and think to myself: “Alright y’all. I need you to just stop and give me a moment to figure out how I feel and what I want. I appreciate your input, but it’s hurting not helping.”
I then give myself a few minutes (setting timers is helpful) to sit with myself and breathe mindfully and attempt to ground and center myself.
Sometimes it’s also just a matter of acknowledging that those thoughts are there and giving them time to run around screaming until they exhaust themselves. Recognize that they are there, put them in a safe space in your head, and go on about your business. (Check out some of these great grounding exercises!)
It’s taken me a long time and a lot of practice to get to the place where I can do all that. But essentially the first step is usually recognizing those chaotic or self-deprecating thoughts as they are happening, and then the second step is recognizing, “ok. I am thinking these things, but I don’t have to listen to or believe them.”
Beyond that, we move into practicing condoling and mitigating them – whether that means confronting and dissecting them, choosing to ignore them, or working to get them to calm down.
- Ask for Support.
This can be in the form of “hey teammate/friend/partner/family member I’m having a rough day. Can you help talk me into going to practice?” or “Hey teammate/coach, I’m having a rough day. Can you help me by _____ at practice tonight?” or whatever that needs to look and sound like for you.
If you’re at a place with your mental health stuff where you know some specific things that folks can do to support you, it can be really helpful to have established an ally on the team that can be a supporter, if they are able and interested in that. Asking for support beforehand can help us feel like we’re not going into practice alone and without support in place.
Hope these suggestions have helped. Meanwhile, remember that none of these things are supposed to be easy. And that taking care of yourself and your mental health is important for you and your team.
Keep your eyes peeled for the next installments that walk you through the times when you just can’t make it, and what to do when you actually get to your practice and are trying to make it to the end as best you can.