Editorial by John F. Murray, Ph.D. – JohnFMurray.com – Sports Psychology commentary – With today’s news that Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Warren Moon credits therapy and going to a psychologist for much of his success over the years, we are faced with an exciting opportunity to once and for all put the nail in the coffin of ignorance about psychology, sports psychology, therapy, mental health and whatever else you wish to call it.
Many have written about the terrible stigma associated with going to a psychologist, and I have worked very hard to help eliminate that. I have been on national television and radio talking about it, I have written hundreds of articles, and I have been quoted in over 2000 articles and often extolling the same theme that talk is tough and that it is more manly to admit to a problem and seek help than to hide from counseling as if it is some deep dark secret that can never be revealed. And my thesis today is that one of the primary reasons for this stigma comes directly from my own profession – from the thousands of psychologists and few sports psychologist in America who only further the terrible stigma by taking the principle of confidentiality and perverting it to an unnecessary degree!
In graduate school and in professional supervision, we as psychologists are taught about the virtues of total patient confidentiality so much that I think we go way overboard. Now I am not saying that every client does not have the right to total privacy, even about the fact that they entered therapy or sports psychology counseling, or whatever you call it, and this right is essential to getting people to open up, feel safe, and deal with difficult issues in a professional manner. But what really irks me is that many psychologists take this principle to the absolute extreme with their introverted personalities, and their hush hush environments, and that this behavior contributes unnecessarily to the stigma that we all need to eradicate. Many clients (by the way I hate using the word “patient” as it is demeaning and puts the client in the role of a sick person) end up with the view that what they are doing is somehow shameful, embarrassing or taboo. No wonder so many people like Warren Moon had to sneak into the therapist’s office late at night, probably dressed in disguise, so that nobody would find out that he was seeing a shrink!
Get real world. The biggest problem is that people are not accessing mental heath care and they are not accessing sports psychology the way they all know they should. This stigma associated with psychology is especially pervasive in my specialty of sports psychology because athletes are supposed to be “tough” and to not need help from another person. How silly and insane is that? People like Warren Moon are the toughest and strongest of them all by coming out and admitting to a problem. Moon got help. Did it hurt him? Is being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame such a bad thing?
Now confidentiality is indeed important and I tell all my clients that this is their total right. I explain to them how it helps them. But the fact that they are seeing a therapist or a clinical psychologist or a sports psychologist should not be such a deep shameful secret. I am certainly not going to tell anyone who my clients are without their consent and participation and desire, but there are no reasons why any individual on the planet should feel that they have to sneak into their therapist’s office late at night! It is this shame and this ridiculous stigma that prevents people from accessing care and getting the help they need in the first place. It is this absurd baggage that prevents NFL teams and coaches from employing team psychologists as regularly as they do trainers and physicians. People – stop equating counseling and psychology with shame! It is just a profession to help people become more well adjusted, and sports psychology can also give them a better chance to win the Super Bowl with vastly improved mental skills such as confidence, focus, energy control and goal setting. Even Joe Namath recently talked about how hard it was to stay totally focused.
I recently received an email on a list of a group of psychologists from a therapist that I will not name after the Warren Moon news came out. Here is a direct quote: “can athletes really feel safe when so many sport psychologists advertise who they work with (whether it is an individual, team, etc). I do whatever I can to make sure no one ever knows who I work with for so many reasons, but in our field, it is rare…let’s work to improve this.”
While every therapist and sports psychologist is entitled to their opinion and to practice the way they see fit, it is the spirit of this message which got my attention and which irritates me to no end. Why would it be a shameful thing for a team to say they had a team psychologist or sports psychologist? I would say that we need to improve our marketing much more and to remove the stigma by shedding light on what we do, not running into a corner and pretending like our clients just committed an embarrassing act by coming to see us! He did not say anything inherently wrong but the field of sports psychology is cloaked in shame and secrecy so much that good athletes are suffering and good teams are being prevented from improving.
My message to all therapists and fellow sports psychologists is that we need to be much louder in talking about our work, and we need to do a much better job of telling everyone that we exist and that our services are needed, not going into hiding as if we just committed a crime! The shame associated with seeing us is ridiculous and we are our own worst enemies in promoting confidentiality so much that it makes it seem like a horrible thing for clients to come see us.
I say remove all stigmas about going to see a psychologist but retain total confidentiality about what is discussed. Promote to your clients and promote in your advertising that going to see a psychologist is like going to your dentist, medical doctor, or publicist. We are providing a vital service to society that is being terribly neglected because we have too many introverted, OCD, and secretive characters who are fearful of telling our clients to let others know that we exist. We are greatly needed, we should be confident in that truth, and there is nothing at all shameful in seeing us.
On the contrary, our clients should be raving about our services. Why did it take Warren Moon many years after his career to finally tell the world his secret. It should not have been a secret at all. It should have been a celebration that he was getting help for his issues and others should have known about it so that they could get help too. In some ways, confidentiality taken to the extreme is not only weird, it is selfish because it prevents others from knowing about a great profession!
The Berlin Wall only fell because there was an overwhelming movement and tipping point that revealed that keeping people locked up behind a wall is somehow wrong. What an interesting view. When the wall came down everyone asked why it did not happen earlier. Today we face the same problem in psychology and sports psychology. As a society, let’s band together to tear down the wall of ignorance and shame surrounding psychological services.
Most people will have some form of depression or anxiety in their lifetime. All athletes need mental training to be at their best. Brag about your sports psychologist. Brag about your psychologist. Brag about your counselor and social worker. Tell your teammates they are wimps and losers for not going to the sports psychologist when they need it. Tell your coaches that they are neglecting the team by not having a regular sports psychologist on site. Deal with mental health and mental training issues long in advance as preventive care, not long after it is too late and someone abuses dogs, shoots someone in a nightclub, beats their wife, goes in hiding before the Super Bowl, or suffers from social phobia so much that they go to Australia to smoke weed and destroy a team and all their fans in the process.
The bottom line is that Warren Moon just took a big chunk out of that wall of absurdity with a big and strong sledge hammer. I encourage every one of you who reads this article to start swinging and pounding away at that wall of idiocy until it falls even harder than the Berlin Wall did! I hope you enjoyed this editorial article on sports psychology.