With mental health at the forefront of sporting conversations, the WTA’s Mental Health & Wellness department (MH&W) is committed to enhancing an athlete’s well-being through education, training and individual consultation and support.
These services are provided to support peak performance, extend career longevity and improve career-life balance for WTA athletes. The MH&W staff provides onsite consultations at designated tournaments, as well as telehealth sessions between tournaments.
WTA Insider sat down with Becky Ahlgren Bedics, Vice President, Mental Health & Wellness, at the WTA to discuss the department's work over the past 25 years and the trends that are shaping the future of the tour's athletes.
When we say "mental health in sports," what does that mean to you?
Ahlgren Bedics: A lot of the general population's go-to thoughts when they think of mental health and athletes, are what's happening on the field of play. One of the things people commonly forget is that athletes are humans first. They have all these other roles in their life and being a tennis player is only a part of that. So the stressors of life that everybody has, they have as well. We have to keep in mind that our athletes are part of the broader human experience.
But there are some significant differences. First, their successes and challenges are being played out on the public forum, which sometimes incurs a range of public feedback, which can affect their self-confidence and mental health. Second, they have to perform in their sport in this forum, despite anything else going on in their life.
Why was the Mental Health and Wellness department founded?
Ahlgren Bedics: The catalyst for a formalized WTA mental health department came from the athletes. When surveyed 25 years ago, the athletes’ number one request was to have someone to talk to who really understood the very unique context in which they live and perform as elite, professional tennis players. Thus, the department was born and licensed mental health professionals were provided as resources for WTA athletes throughout the competitive calendar. We were listening to athletes 25 years ago. We are still listening to them today.
What structure is in place to respond to the athletes’ needs?
Ahlgren Bedics: The MH&W team, including Kathy Martin, Caroline Zadina, Dr. Rick Jensen, Kathleen Stroia and me have created what we call our “Pillars of Purpose.” The first one addresses mental performance skills. This is what brings our athletes in the door most often. That's going to relate to an athlete’s confidence, composure, focus, attention; all of the things you think are required to be a successful, resilient, consistent, high-performing athlete. Those are examples of mental performance skills we partner with the athletes to enhance.
Our second pillar is the mental health piece. This area focuses more on stressors that have been identified by the athletes from their own experience.
Identified stressors with mental health implications include factors such as self-expectation, which has been in the top three forever. Financial pressures? Certainly. Pressure to perform? Absolutely. Relationships and maintaining relationships; those are the kinds of stressors that are unique to our context. How are you at 19, a CEO of your own company, meaning you're hiring and firing your coach, you're hiring and firing your nutritionist, and maybe your sports psychologist. That can be a heavy weight to carry, in addition to performing athletically at your best every week.
Our third pillar is tour life skills. How do you manage all of this? How do you set up your schedule so that you have recovery time? How do you manage your leadership skills? How are you a leader for your team? It's really learning about how to be a WTA athlete on this tour and exist and succeed within this context.
Finally, the fourth pillar is about critical incidents and safeguarding. If there is a critical incident, and that can be anything from an on-court incident, to somebody testing positive for COVID, mental health is also an integral part of the process.
In terms of deploying your services and making yourselves available, what are the logistics there?
Ahlgren Bedics: We strive to be at as many tournaments as time and staffing capacity allows. When we are on site, we have a private space to meet with athletes, sometimes at the player hotel, sometimes the room is on site. Each day, we'll spend some time on site and we'll spend some time at the hotel, typically in the evenings when the players are back from the courts. We are in the booking system, the same as the massage therapist, the same as the physios. Athletes can book in for 30 minute session with us, they could book in for 60 minutes, they can book in every day. They can also book at the beginning of the tournament just to check-in. We also offer telehealth sessions for athletes to communicate with us between tournaments. The frequency, duration and topics discussed during our sessions are truly athlete-led, whether in person or via telehealth.
What is the maintenance for long-term well-being?
Ahlgren Bedics: Sometimes when people think about getting help for mental health concerns in general, they think they have to be at the precipice of a cliff and things are going horribly wrong. Most often, though, an athlete can have a little something going on that just doesn’t “feel right” and want to get ahead of it before it becomes a bigger problem. It is like if you are going for a run and get a little pebble in your shoe. If you try and “gut it out” and hope that the pebble works its way out on its own, you might end up with a bigger problem like a blister in the end. The WTA MH&W team is here to help the athletes pause, address the “pebble,” and get back to running, so to speak.
We work a lot in prevention. We work a lot in education. We have offered many programs over the years to help athletes as they start their professional tennis career, as they move through retirement and for all their experiences in between. We strive to empower the athlete to seek support when they need it, and enhance their skills and knowledge to manage their mental health, much as they do with their physical health. The WTA Performance Health team is here to support the holistic health of the athlete.
With athlete mental health being increasingly in the sporting conversation, whether because of specific athletes or because of the unique nature of the pandemic, have you seen an uptick in interest from the players?
Ahlgren Bedics: We certainly have seen an increase in conversation around mental health. We have been sought out by people who maybe hadn't really thought about it prior, but with peer athletes telling their stories and sharing their authentic selves, others have decided to start their own conversation.
Our goal for any athlete, just as a human being, is to let them feel heard for who they are and not just for what they do for a living, and also to be able to live in their own authenticity. I think that's such an important part of being free to perform at your best.