Rick Aberman had an idea. An idea that some people found unnecessary. He wanted to use his Ph.D. in developmental psychology to help athletes at the University of Wisconsin deal with whatever issues they were experiencing.
This was 1986. Mental health wasn’t a topic of conversation back then. Yet Aberman convinced the school to hire him as sports psychologist in the athletic department. Not everyone agreed with the decision. One department official openly wondered if they were setting themselves up for trouble.
“Now we’re going to have all kinds of problems that we never had before,” Aberman recalls the man saying.
Aberman shared that story over lunch the other day. He smiles and shakes his head now, knowing it sounded absurd to him back then and would sound not only absurd but grossly negligent if uttered today.
Thankfully, societal views on mental health have evolved. The stigma attached to someone seeking professional help has slowly eroded. The world has become much more open and knowledgeable and accepting that mental health is a real thing that affects so many people.
The sports world has played a key role in shining a light on this complex issue. When Kevin Love and Simone Biles stand on their giant platforms and share their mental health battles, it allows others to see and know that they are not alone, that they don’t have to keep their own fears and struggles hidden in the dark.
Aberman has been a crusader in this area for a long time. He was one of the first sports psychologists employed by a college athletic department, became the Twins director of peak performance and now helps athletes in his private practice. And though he sees significant progress in mental health awareness in sports, he also knows this reckoning requires far more work. Tragic cases of several college athletes taking their life recently underscores the need to prioritize mental health.
“We have more resources now available to our athletes than we have ever had, which is great,” Aberman said. “But we’re still not hitting the mark.”
He notes that there are college athletic departments and professional organizations that still do not employ a full-time psychologist. And as teams invest heavily in analytics, technology, training methods and player development, Aberman wonders why there isn’t a stronger emphasis on the human development piece.
“We’re still dealing with people,” he said.
More than 100 people from all areas of Wisconsin’s athletic department sought Aberman’s services his first year in 1986. Imagine what that number would look like today given the increased focus on mental health.
Aberman began working with Twin Cities teams and athletes in the early 1990s. His mission has been “to normalize it, to demystify it,” but he also notes that many conversations happened out of view, sometimes in strange places in a ballpark or arena, because his client wasn’t comfortable with others knowing.
“You need to get it to the level where guys stop rolling their eyes like, Oh, they have to see the shrink,” he said. “I always put it as, asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
Changing perceptions doesn’t happen quickly. The conversation, though, has never felt more necessary and important than it does now.
The world has changed so much. The power and influence of technology and social media have intensified the pressure on athletes. We know more, we demand more, we expect more, and now we have a forum to critique and, in the worst cases, ridicule athletes. Twitter can feel like a cesspool of negativity sometimes.
“We have a more complicated world,” Aberman said.
I have always admired athletes, especially high school kids, for their willingness to put themselves out there, knowing their performance could result in embarrassment or failure. That’s part of the covenant they make in being physically gifted and skilled. But athletes aren’t exempt from personal struggles that the rest of society encounters. Depression doesn’t care if a person can dunk a basketball or hit a baseball 425 feet.
Aberman challenges athletes he helps to dig deep to examine their “inner world.” His hope is that sports entities make mental health an increasing priority and to normalize the conversation. His overarching message to athletes: Ask for help.