The Role of Trauma in the Athlete Experience
Meet Dr. Stephanie Byrd
In a profession built around performance and strength, athletes often struggle to prioritize their mental and emotional wellbeing and reach out for help when they need it.
Dr. Stephanie Byrd experienced this firsthand as a collegiate soccer player. It was only after she started taking psychology classes in college that she realized how important mental health actually is — and how little it was emphasized in the sports world.
Today, Dr. Byrd is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Founder and Clinical Director of bareWell, a group therapy practice that focuses on building genuine relationships and removing the stigma around mental health. She works with many current and former athletes, and her group practice bareWell, is also San Diego’s exclusive provider of outpatient mental health services for Hall of Fame Behavioral Health.
The Becoming is proud to partner with Dr. Byrd and other clinicians like her in our work as the official national counseling provider for Hall of Fame Behavioral Health. In this article, Dr. Byrd explains why it’s so important for athletes to access quality mental health resources, and she opens up regarding the lessons she learned about mental health, trauma, and identity through both her own journey of transitioning out of sports and her 22 years as a clinician.
Finding Identity Outside of Sports
Dr. Byrd first became interested in mental health in college, when she started realizing an unhealthy relationship with her sport had left her struggling. The more she learned, the more she discovered she was not alone in this challenge.
“I began to understand what years of training and dedication to my sport with little attention to other aspects of my life had done to me. I was not balanced; I lacked stability both inside and out,” she explained.
Like many athletes, Dr. Byrd realized she had found her identity in her sport, and when that phase of her life ended, she was left feeling unsteady.
“In hindsight, I realized that at that time in my life I was grieving the loss of my sport, the comradery, the familiarity that comes with the structure and routine I was so used to, and the focus and drive toward my next athletic goal was gone,” she shared. “It rocked my world. I struggled to find balance and to understand who I was off the field.”
The more Dr. Byrd progressed in her own healing journey, the more convinced she became that she wanted to devote her career to helping others with similar struggles. But while working in an acute care psychiatric hospital during her master’s program, Dr. Byrd discovered the complex set of challenges that keep many people from finding the mental health treatment they badly need.
Tackling the Stigmas Around Athlete Mental Health
Dr. Byrd quickly realized that American culture tends to promote a false narrative that mental health is an “all or nothing” issue, and many people believe only those who are severely unstable and dysfunctional should seek treatment.
Add to that our society’s focus on strength and independence and the messages athletes receive about needing to be tough and strong at all times, and it’s no wonder so many athletes struggle to reach out for help when they need it.
“Athletes are told they have to want it bad enough, they have to make the sacrifices, or maybe they’ve heard from others that ‘the best don’t rest’ and ‘limitations are in your head,” Dr. Byrd explained. “While initially motivational, these messages become yet another source of pressure and expectation for the athlete.”
In her practice, Dr. Byrd focuses on helping patients view themselves as a whole person, not just an athlete and helps them to learn the importance of taking breaks and asking for help. For that reason, she’s excited to partner with HOFBH and continue to advocate for and destigmatize mental health treatment for athletes.
“I have seen firsthand the unnecessary suffering when people have gone for years without receiving such badly needed mental health care and support… primarily because the stigma made it too scary or too risky to ask for help,” Dr. Byrd shared. “I believe that if we can reduce the stigma, more people will feel empowered and safe to ask for help when it’s needed.”
How Trauma Affects Athletes
Along with common issues like anxiety, perfectionism, and addiction, Dr. Byrd has realized many athletes who come to her for help are dealing with unresolved trauma.
Sometimes this stems from childhood issues like unhealthy relationships with parents, sexuality and gender struggles or the realization that they missed out on important milestones because they devoted their lives to a sport.
“Unresolved childhood trauma easily becomes self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, or lack of confidence to take on new challenges or goals,” Dr. Byrd explained.
Additionally, many athletes deal with trauma that happened during their sport, such as a frightening injury or chronic pain that leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms like addiction.
“These realizations or experiences can feel devastating and can lead to a cascade of painful reactions for the athlete,” Dr. Byrd shared. “It’s not until they get into therapy, and we begin unpacking these memories and identifying these messages, beliefs, and narratives that athletes begin to make connections between their current struggles and what has happened to them.”
By identifying and processing their traumas, athletes can begin to reform their identities and develop healthier relationships with themselves and others. They may even see their performance improve as a result of their newfound stability.
What to Expect When Seeking Mental Health Treatment
Since Dr. Byrd wants athletes to view themselves as whole people both on and off the field, she prioritizes a personalized whole-person approach to treatment, starting with the very first phone call.
All clients at bareWell go through a personalized intake screening where they can discuss their needs and treatment goals while starting to build a relationship with their potential therapist.
If both parties decide it is a good fit, they proceed with a customized treatment plan. Dr. Byrd and her team primarily use talk therapy, but their work with athletes can include:
- Depth work to explore aspects of the self and “pain points”
- Identity work, including how to transition to life beyond their sport
- Lessons on self-care, boundary setting and finding balance
- Processing trauma, grief, and loss
- Emotion regulation/integration and healing or navigating relationships
- Skills for dealing with addiction and recovery
Dr. Byrd also believes it’s important to work within the client’s own timeframe and comfort level especially when uncovering difficult topics that haven’t previously been addressed or processed.
“Once they feel ready, we will start the process of discovering who they are underneath the masks they have had to or continue to use to navigate their worlds,” she explained. “It is messy and can be painful at times. It’s not easy work, but it’s worth it.”
If athletes need additional resources beyond what Dr. Byrd and her team can provide, she’ll refer them to other providers within the HOFBH network.
Learning to Ask for Help
Dr. Byrd empathizes with the struggle of not wanting to ask for help, or not knowing where to start when you realize you need it, but she encourages all athletes to reframe their mindset around mental health. Just as you go to physical therapy to rehabilitate an injury, going to therapy can help you rehabilitate your thoughts, emotions, and relationships.
“You are not weak or a failure. You are not giving up by asking for help,” she states. “I get that it’s hard to imagine a world where your vulnerability is strength; you have been conditioned to believe that your vulnerabilities will lead to mistakes, failures, or a complete loss of your sport. But I challenge this belief, because in recognizing and owning your vulnerabilities or areas of growth, you can become even better.”
To learn more about Hall of Fame Behavioral Health and the services we provide as their official national counseling partner, visit hofbh.com, or call us right now at (866) 901-1241.