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Human Performance Performance Psychology | 14.05.18

How to Take Care of Your Mental Wellbeing in Elite Sport

Leadership guru Kevin N Lawrence on the six steps to mastery in the crucible of competition.

‘I wrote this book because the exasperating truth is that most advice offered to business leaders is complete nonsense,’ writes Kevin N Lawrence. ‘Too many well-meaning authors regurgitate ideas that, in my experience, just don’t match the practical circumstances of leaders.’


By John Portch

The strategic advisor and leadership coach’s latest work, Your Oxygen Mask First: 17 Habits to Help High Achievers Survive & Thrive in Leadership & Life, promises to help those leaders at risk of floundering in high-stress environments. Lawrence, who has spent more than two decades coaching CEOs and business executives, illustrates the upsides and the downsides of what he terms ‘the leadership dichotomy’ with a view to providing tools for executives to thrive.

The upsides of leadership are there for all to see, whether it is the Philadelphia Eagles’ EVP Howie Roseman lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the conclusion of Super Bowl LII or Golden State Warriors General Manager Bob Myers acquiring the services of Kevin Durant in 2016 for his already-gilded team, but the downsides are altogether more invidious. ‘People rarely talk of the dark side of leadership,’ Lawrence continues. ‘The harsh truth is, leadership can crush people made of steel. You experience moments so intense you seriously wonder if you will make it out alive – much less with your business intact.’

It is with ‘the dark side of the dichotomy’ in mind that Lawrence presents his 17 habits for high-achievers, which range from doubling resilience to tackling tough conversations. On the occasion of UK Mental Health Awareness week, the Leaders Performance Institute takes a look at number seven on his list – managing mental health.

As Lawrence writes, ‘You’re in good company if, at times, you suffer mentally and emotionally. No one is immune, not even the hardiest among us.’ NFL aficionados will recall that for all Bill Walsh’s success at the San Francisco 49ers, the legendary head coach came close to burnout on several occasions, while the former Miami Dolphins’ running back Ricky Williams’ experience of depression was well publicised.

These days, the presidents, general managers and head coaches across elite sport realise they can have genuine influence on the organisation’s attitude towards mental wellness. Theo Epstein’s introduction of a mental skills program at the Chicago Cubs in 2014 proved a useful resource on their march to the World Series two years later, while the Rugby Players’ Association in England ensures that its members have access to support services.

‘Ultimately,’ says Lawrence, ‘mental health is no different than physical health. People just respond differently because of the stigma.’ Time and again throughout his career he has witnessed the same scenario play itself out. ‘People get busy, stop taking care of themselves and as a result they’re in a weakened mental state. Then life throws them a curveball.’

It need not get that far and Lawrence’s message for those lagging behind is clear: ‘As a leader, you are in a position to help silence the stigma associated with mental health. I ask you to take on this role. Educate yourself. Acknowledge the struggle. Talk about it with family, friends and your team.’ Additionally, he provides six steps to mastery.

Six Steps to Mastery

  1. Notice when stress starts to crack your armour

As a preface to the six steps, Lawrence takes the reader through the Mental Health Continuum, a tool used by mental health organisations across the globe. Actions are listed as healthy [green], reacting [yellow], injured [orange] or ill [red]. ‘It’s an easy way to assess mental state and spot warning signs fast,’ he says. Armed with the Mental Health Continuum there is a framework for self-awareness and dragging yourself back: ‘A well-balanced person spends most of their time in the green zone. In my experience, most leaders visit the yellow or orange zones on a somewhat regular basis, and when things get rough, dip into the red. I know this is true for me and many executives I coach. I use this framework with my clients and it’s incredibly common for someone to suddenly realize, “Holy smokes, I’m orange right now.” It’s an immediate reality check.

 

 

‘Here’s the important thing to know: no matter where you are on the spectrum there is always a path back to the green zone.’ As he explains: ‘If you are in the yellow or green zone, make a list of the things you can start doing (and/or keep doing), and stop doing (or do less) to strengthen your mental health.’ And if you are further down the spectrum: ‘If you’re in the red or orange zone, make an appointment with your family doctor or a mental health expert, to get back on track.’

  1. Be aware of major life events

When Lawrence lists the potential negative impact of real life events it is obvious that each and every example could apply to people in the sports industry as much as anyone else; and elite sport being what it is, it may be results on the field or actions in the front office that are the root cause of these potentially shattering events (Lawrence cites the loss of a career dream, major conflict and a significant mistake, to name but three). In all cases he suggests seeking professional help if things are not going well, but there are a few simple questions we can ask of ourselves or about those in our lives experiencing significant downs: ‘If you [or someone in your life is] facing one or more of these issues, check in with yourself… are you ok? If all is well, great. But keep an eye out for anything unusual.’

  1. Do some mental spring cleaning

Lawrence observes that most people are affected by a major trauma by the time they reach middle age. ‘You know your past traumas affect you in some way. They rear their ugly heads when you’re maxed out, or quietly float about your thoughts. But it’s also possible they affect you without you even knowing it, lurking beneath the surface of your consciousness.’ In order to determine what needs to be done, Lawrence says: ‘It’s important to review your life history, not your major traumas, and ask yourself a tough question for each one: Is this an open or healed wound?’

  1. Know who to call

As mental wellbeing initiatives begin to spread across elite sport there are improved services for executives, coaches and athletes alike. Lawrence, however, emphasises that leaders who witness a colleague or associate suffering must be realistic about their ability to assuage the situation. ‘Unless you are a mental health pro, don’t take on the task of being their primary source of advice and support. You wouldn’t attempt to fix a fractured femur or clogged artery. Experts exist for a reason.’

  1. Take preventative measures

For Lawrence, preventative measures include what he terms ‘Resilience Rituals’ and defines as ‘activities that calm and rejuvenate you’. He cites some pretty firm research in suggesting resilience rituals such as exercise, eating well, clearing your mind, having social connections, doing things you enjoy and talking to someone. He invites leaders to ask themselves with activities they do and which ones they need to do more often. It seems obvious enough but he offers one caveat: ‘it’s crucial to understand that doing these activities does not make you immune to mental health issues when major life events occur. It’s very likely you will need support in those situations.’

  1. Have coffee talks

Coffee talks, as Lawrence describes them, can happen – and be effective – once you have a grasp of the Mental Health Continuum. ‘Once you have your own plan on track, you can be more aware of the state of those around you,’ he explains.

‘You may start to notice subtle things in people that may indicate their mental state – like changes in appearance, attitude, social activity, work attendance or substance use.

‘You may begin to get a sense of when someone you know well is headed for trouble. This is time for a coffee talk. Make time to chat with the person outside of the office, where they are more likely to open up about potentially difficult topics.

‘All you have to do is gently say that you’ve noticed something seems different about them, and you’re wondering if there might be something really stressing them out. If they open up and share something, listen and be compassionate. People can benefit greatly from having someone hear and understand their situation. Sometimes that’s enough.

‘If appropriate, you might tell them about the Mental Health Continuum, and your personal experience with slipping into the yellow and orange zones. See where the conversation takes you. Be a calm, listening presence. If it looks needed, point them toward a trusted professional, or offer to help them find one.’

For more guidance and assistance for leaders looking to be more mindful of their mental wellbeing read Your Oxygen Mask First: 17 Habits to Help High Achievers Survive & Thrive in Leadership & Life, widely available from Lioncrest Publishing.