The football world was saddened this past week with the suicide of Denver Broncos player Kenny McKinley. Why would a young man living his dream do the unthinkable? Unfortunately, there are really no concrete answers, and no way to bring this young man back. Is there anything we can learn from this tragic event, and maybe prevent similar incidents in the future? No one can say for sure, but we would do a disservice to this man and his family if we did not try.
In general, sport psychology is an underused resource. Reading about this tragedy, I could not help but think how my field could potentially have helped this young man, and others who may be going through a similar situation. Here are three ways that athletes and teams can use sport psychology:
- Recovery from injury. McKinley was going through his second season ending knee injury. Sport psychology can be a useful tool for athletes recovering from an injury. Athletes may use visualization and goal setting to stay focused. Athletes can also attend injured athlete groups for support and encouragement from athletes in similar situations. Not only that, but these groups provide the team atmosphere that is taken away from them by the injury.
- Identity crisis and transition. Many elite athletes have put so much time, effort, and dedication into their sport that it becomes increasingly difficult to separate their identity from their sport. McKinley once had business cards printed up that said: â€œKenny McKinley, Football Player.â€ So without football, he may have felt that he was nobody or nothing. Family, friends and fans would have loved to argue with him on this given the chance!
This identity crisis phenomenon is not only true for the injured athlete, but anyone going through a transition: from high school star to collegiate red-shirt, from college star to minor league second-stringer, or from any level into not playing at all through injury. Sport psychologists are great at seeing different perspectives of a situation, as well as helping athletes determine new courses of action through goal setting and visualization, among other skills.
- A non-biased person to have a discussion with. Take this passage from the article:
â€œPeople who are dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts aren’t always outwardly despondent, said Dr. Michael Allen, director of research at the University of Colorado Denver Depression Center. He said suicidal individuals don’t always reach out for help, even to those closest to themâ€¦
Allen, who wasn’t addressing McKinley’s death specifically, said reaching out can be difficult for those in the military or on sports teams: “In any group of men where toughness is valued, talking about anything that may be viewed as weakness goes against the grain,” Allen said.â€
Who would McKinley have shared any hint of despair with? His coaches? He might be seen as weak and lose playing time or his job. His family? They may be depending on him for support. His teammates? They may take this the wrong way and see him as not being someone they could depend on. A clinical psychologist? That would be admitting defeat and not being able to solve his own problems.
But what about a sport psychologist? Especially if a staff sport psychologist is someone who all players are required to meet with for performance enhancement. If a rapport has been built up over a long period of time, it may be easier to bring up this issue than to just some stranger in an office somewhere. Maybe the underlying issues could have been dealt with earlier and over a period of time.
The stigma of psychology, especially in male dominated sports, is a major obstacle in the way of not only sport psychology, but also counseling and therapy in general. At SPINw, one of our goals is to educate and promote to athletes that working with a sport psychologist is for the strong. It is for people who want to succeed and are looking for an extra edge.
Could the use of a sport psychology consultant have averted this tragedy? We cannot say for sure, but certainly it could not have hurt.
Tribute to Kenny McKinley: