Sunday, September 4, 2011

When the Music Stops

Athletes are different.

From an early age, their physical prowess separates them from the crowd. They are faster, stronger, and more driven to succeed in their athletic endeavors than their peers. They are told they are elite. They stand out from the crowd.

Once a athlete begins to play their sport, great attention is given to their physical needs and condition. They are poked and prodded and measured on all sorts of physical metrics. Speed, strength, cardiovascular conditioning are all measured, recorded, and measured some more. The attention to physical condition only intensifies as an athlete moves through the ranks.
Their physical abilities open doors that few are privileged to enter. They are treated differently because of their talents. The attention given them, even at an early age, is often unmatched. Not only are they told they are different, there is tangible evidence they are not like the general populace.

As an athlete progresses to each new level, the treatment both in and outside the arena of competition steps to a higher plane. The training is more intense, the competition for a roster spot more fierce. And at each succeeding level, the coaching is better, the physical care is taken to new heights, the food is better, and everything about the athlete's existence tells him he is different.

Be one of those that makes it to the pinnacle of their sport, the pro ranks, and your professional existence is taken to elite status. Your travel and accommodations on the road are seen to. You have the best training, the best equipment, the best medical care. Most of your needs are an afterthought- the team takes care of them.

This attention to an athlete's physical ability is normal and justified. That exceptional physical talent is what propelled them to success in their sport. As this tragic summer has painfully revealed however, there is more than just the physical component of an elite athlete that should be considered and nurtured.

Depending on the league, a pre-draft psychological evaluation of varying depth is conducted. In the NFL, their are extensive interviews as well as the (in)famous Wunderlich test that is given each prospective draftee. In the NHL, the psychological evaluation is not as in-depth. In either case, the evaluation is designed to see how well adjusted the individual is at the outset of their career.

A career that at the professional level is an amazing ride.

What happens when the music stops?

What happens when an athlete is no longer considered "elite", or when his playing days are over?

We all know that an athlete receives exemplary care when they suffer a physical injury. Doctors and trainers can get an athlete rehabilitated and back to competition from a physical injury in an amazingly brief amount of time. But what about the injury that doesn't show up on an MRI? What about the doubts and demons that plague some athletes to the point that they are overwhelmed?

Being an elite athlete is a high wire act that we as fans don't often see. The pressure to stay an elite athlete can be immense, and for many losing that elite status is  frightening proposition. As an athlete ages, the physical limitations become more apparent, the threat of losing your job or your career looms larger. The pride that drives an athlete to be the best in their chosen sport now turns into a weight that can drag down even the most well adjusted. It is a voice that changes from "You're the best" to "You're not good enough".

The culture of professional sports has been to treat athletes as commodities.The NHL is no different than any other professional sport. The best raw products go into the system, and the ones that are no longer useful are let go. Brent Sopel echoed this sentiment in a tweet:

 Sopel says what all elite athletes feel to a varying degree: once I am used up, I am of no value and will be discarded.

A lot of the focus on the tragedies of this summer has been on the guys that made their living as fighters in the NHL, and it is true that these players face a set of circumstances that are particularly difficult. It is not just the fighters, however. To varying degrees, it is all players. Yes, some handle the pressure of holding on to a roster spot or eventually being moved out of the League better than others, but the pressure is still there.

To focus on the burdens of  the men who fight for a living in the NHL would be missing the larger point, and that is that the League has to commit to maintaining the psychological health of their players at the same level with which they take care of their physical health.

When a player comes into the League, they are given a baseline neurological evaluation which is used to assess their health in the event of suffering a concussion. Players have extensive physical examinations and evaluations at the start of each season. Why not a baseline psychological evaluation  that is part of the pre-season testing? Identifying a potential problem early makes the treatment easier and more effective and protects the player's overall well being. 

The mental health of a player is just as important as the physical health. It is time that the League takes the mental health of its players as seriously as it does their physical well being. It is too late when we hear a family member say that a deceased athlete was depressed or fighting some other demon.

It is not enough to wish an athlete well and send them on their way when their playing days are over. The transitional phase is tough, and all players face this emotionally and mentally challenging time. Teams have to make a commitment to their players well being after their playing days are done just as they did when they were playing.

This is not to say that the NHL or teams do nothing for their players. There are programs in place for treatment for addictions and for the transitional period when a player is finished with their career. What has to be done is an aggressively proactive program to avert the tragedies like those we have seen this summer.

We will not know if any of the losses of high profile players could have been averted if the NHL had regular psychological evaluations. One has to believe that routine psychological profiles could have identified earlier the problems with which the players contended.

The NHL has to evaluate mental health as it does physical health and give it the same level of care.

Otherwise, we will continue to too frequently hear funeral dirges when the music stops.


  1. You know I respect the hell out of you, Mark, but I have to disagree with you on a couple points. All three of the players who passed away this year received treatment for the various issues they faced. If they had fallen through the cracks and been ignored, I could see making such an argument, but they weren't. Boogaard was in the Substance Abuse program, and Rypien was granted a leave of absence from his team to get help last season.

    And when it comes to making the transition to a post-playing career, I can't think of a guy who had planned for, and set himself up more for success than Wade Belak.

    While these three were awful tragedies that we're all upset about, I just don't see a common cause that could be headed off by some institutional change.

  2. While none of us are privy to their medical records, there has to be some concern that the treatment programs are insufficient or at best perfunctory. While several were treated for addictions, I don't know that any were treated for depression or other psychological issues. Often, addictions are just part of the problem and it would seem to me that more serious evaluation/treatment was in order for several of these tragedies