Rick Aberman had an idea. An idea that some have found unnecessary. He wanted to use his doctorate. in developmental psychology to help athletes at the University of Wisconsin deal with the issues they were experiencing.
It was 1986. Mental health was not a topic of conversation back then. Still, Aberman convinced the school to hire him as a sports psychologist in the athletic department. Not everyone agreed with the decision. A ministry official openly wondered if they were getting in trouble.
“Now we’re going to have all kinds of problems that we never had before,” Aberman recalled.
Aberman shared this story over lunch the other day. He smiles and shakes his head now, knowing that it seemed absurd to him at the time and that it would seem not only absurd but grossly negligent if it were uttered today.
Fortunately, society’s 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 informed and accepts that mental health is a reality that affects so many people.
The sports world has played a key role in shedding light on this complex issue. When Kevin Love and Simone Biles stand on their giant platforms and share their battles for mental health, it lets others see and know that they’re not alone, that they don’t have to keep their own fears and struggles hidden in the dark.
Aberman has long been a crusader in this area. He was one of the first sports psychologists employed by a university athletics department, became the peak performance director for the Twins, and now assists athletes in his private practice. And while he sees significant progress in raising mental health awareness in sport, he also knows that this math needs a lot more work. The tragic cases of several college athletes who recently committed suicide underscore the need to prioritize mental health.
“We now have more resources available for our athletes than we ever had, which is great,” Aberman said. “But we still don’t hit the target.”
He notes that there are university athletic departments and professional organizations that still do not employ a full-time psychologist. And with teams investing heavily in analytics, technology, training methods and player development, Aberman wonders why there isn’t more focus on human development.
“We always deal with people,” he said.
More than 100 people from all areas of the Wisconsin Athletic Department sought Aberman’s services in 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, demystify it,” but he also notes that many conversations happened out of sight, sometimes in strange places in a stadium or arena, because his client was not comfortable with others knowing.
“You gotta get it to the level where guys stop rolling their eyes like, Oh, they need to see the shrink“, he said. “I’ve always said it, asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Changing perceptions does not happen quickly. Conversation, however, has never been more necessary and important than it is 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 criticize and, in the worst case scenario, ridicule athletes. Twitter can sometimes feel like a cesspool of negativity.
“We have a more complicated world,” Aberman said.
I’ve always admired athletes, especially high school kids, for their willingness to show off, knowing that their performances could lead to embarrassment or failure. It’s part of the alliance they make by being physically gifted and competent. But athletes are not exempt from the 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 the athletes he helps to dig deep to examine their “inner world”. His hope is that sports entities will make mental health a growing priority and normalize the conversation. His overarching message to athletes: ask for help.