Military Athlete Programs : Making Mental Health a Priority

Not everyone realizes it, but education and careers in the military often go hand in hand with elite athletics. It’s not just about the Army Black Knights vs Navy Midshipmen college football series that has run uninterrupted since 1930. Nor is David “The Admiral” Robinson the only serviceperson to don an NBA jersey. The likes of Ted Williams (Marines), Willy Mays (Army), and Joe DiMaggio (Army) are not from a bygone era. At press, there are a number of military athlete programs with NCAA Division I designation. Beyond the Black Knights and Midshipmen, these include the Virginia Military Institute Keydets and the Citadel Military College of South Carolina Bulldogs. From Annapolis to West Point there are collegiate officers-in-training and secondary institution cadets that seek the highest levels of achievements in sports, be it baseball, basketball, football, rowing, track, or more. The prestigious Army & Navy Academy in Carlsbad CA even has a surf team.

One can only imagine the discipline that goes into managing a military athlete program. For decades athletic trainers have been working with service members in improving performance and readiness for the battlefield. If you layer goals of Division I titles, Olympic medals, and placement on the rosters of professional leagues into the mix, the intensity ramps up exponentially. Consequently, institutions are required to revisit their programs often, looking at more holistic methods to support their athletic programs while protecting the integrity of their athletes and officers-to-be. This is where a focus on mental health comes in. Large bodies of research have proven the importance of mental health management for servicepersons and for elite athletes. When an individual lands in both categories, it can be said with confidence that mental health support becomes essential. Let’s review.

Why Athletic Programs in the Military Should Place Equal Focus on Mental Health

Mental Health Issues Common to Members of the Military

Most of the focus on mental health of servicepersons applies to those who have already been deployed and seen “action”. They return home with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxietystress, and depression, and even hypersexuality disorders, all of which require intervention from therapists who specialize in treating each within the military population.

However, there are vulnerabilities to issues evident within academies, stemming from pressures to not admit to struggles concerning mental and behavioral health:

“Military schools have the means to be protective against mental illness and stigma. In their current state, however, they function as a risk factor by failing to properly educate officers on appropriate self-care in the military. Despite accepting students who already demonstrate high levels of grit and hardiness, military academies fail to implement specific trainings that deepen these strengths and instead push these students into experiences of high stress as a way to build resilience (Kelly et al., 2014; Maddi, 2007). This unstructured strategy leaves students to develop their own, typically unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress management, like isolating themselves from the group to avoid appearing incompetent or weak (Atwater et al., 1999; Ben-Zeev et al., 2012; Gold & Friedman, 2000). The lack of structure also eliminates the schools’ protective nature of creating social support systems, perpetuates the military’s stigma of mental illness as a sign of weakness, and forces students to develop stigmatized beliefs that inhibit them from seeking help (Gibson & Myers, 2006; Greene-ShortRidge et al., 2007; Myers & Bechtel, 2004; VanSickle et al., 2016).”

New York University (NYU)

In addition, military bases and training facilities are hotbeds of casino gaming and sports betting activity, which is problematic given that gambling disorder among members of the military is 3.5 times higher than among civilians.

The nature of being in, or training for, the military on its own requires greater attention to mental health support. Now let’s look at the vulnerabilities of highly-competitive athletes.

Mental Health Issues Common to Elite Athletes

Studies have shown that competitive athletes at a secondary-school, collegiate, and professional level in America struggle with a wide variety of mental and behavioral health concerns. These include (but are not exclusive to) the following:

  • Burnout
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Hypersexuality disorders
  • Problem gambling and gaming

You can view more on the mental health issues common to elite athletes, but the implications are clear. With some of the disorders overlapping with those experienced by members of the military, the call for greater mental health support in athletic programs is clear.

Mental Health Observations of Military Members in Competitive Sport

One their own, servicepersons/trainees and competitive athletes each require therapeutic intervention. But is there any research regarding the mental health of military members engaged in competitive sport? One study regarding the Invictus Games found that stress, anger, and dejection emotions significantly increased in the build up to competition, with excitement and happiness emotions significantly decreasing over the same period. Further, the study found that organizational stressors and threat appraisals were found to negatively relate to performance, well-being, and mental health.

It must be noted that the Invictus Games are for wounded, injured and sick (WIS) armed forces personnel. More research is required to address the mental states of the “military athlete” in academies and collegiate settings, and those who are actively engaged in professional sport. Regardless, the weight that each individual – military or athlete – carries on their own demands greater mental health support.

Enhancing Performance with the Power of the Mind

We want to make one thing clear – mental health support for military athletes is not just about protecting individuals from the conditions and disorders that they are more vulnerable to. It’s also about being the best that they can be out there on the court, track, field, stadium, and arena.

That’s right, making mental health an equal priority in a given military athlete program can put more hardware in the trophy cases of military schools and armed forces bases. It can help military boarding school athletes get scholarships to top academies, usher some into professional sports, and even into the Olympic games where they can represent their country twofold.

Kindbridge Behavioral Health has entered into a partnership with Momentum Labs to cover all mental wellness bases for military athletes. Through Kindbridge, members/trainees in the armed forces in addition to athletes garner behavioral health support for all of the conditions addressed above. Meanwhile Momentum Labs can supplement efforts by working with individuals to tap into their mind power to better excel in athletics. It’s a win win no matter how you look at it!

Military Athletes - Military Athlete Programs

Your institution can provide holistic support to promote mental health and performance of its athletes. Reach out via the contacts provided below to discuss customized options.

Get Mental Health Support for Your Military Athlete Program

CALL +1 (877) 426-4258


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Military Athletes - Military Athlete Programs