Mental health and sports have a complicated relationship. One that is definitely evolving but that still has a long way to go. Kelsey Erickson, a varsity athlete, turned academic researcher, turned director of SafeSport USA, is on a mission to change the way we think and talk about wellbeing in the world of sports. In her first year as director, she has already made huge strides in providing athletes with mental resources and has been the driving force behind team USA’s new Well-Being programme, which launched last month. We Love Cycling talked to her about the delicate balance between discipline and good mental health, the slow unravelling of athletic stereotypes, and the importance of coming together to address these issues as a community.
What is your own athletic background and how did you become director of SafeSport USA?
Sports have always been a huge part of my life. I played basketball in college, then switched to volleyball when I moved to the UK for my masters. As soon as I graduated and was no longer a student-athlete, I realized how much I was going to miss it. That is when I came across the field of sport psychology and I figured that would be a great way to combine my passions.
My master’s and PhD studies were focused on the issue of doping in sport. I came into the topic with a very black and white view but through conversations with various individuals who had been impacted by doping – whether that be via someone else’s doping behaviour, their own or whistleblowing on doping – I quickly came to appreciate that doping is a lot more complicated. I came to see how difficult it can be to speak up about misconduct in sport more generally, despite the fact that individuals are increasingly expected to do so. I became passionate about providing a platform for athletes to share their experiences, speak their truth and challenge current culture. While I started focused specifically on doping in sport, my interest quickly grew to addressing broader integrity issues. So, when the opportunity came for a job that would allow me to lead efforts in both anti-doping and SafeSport, it seemed ideal.
Did you know going into this role that you wanted to prioritize mental health? Has it been something you’ve struggled with yourself?
I think anyone who has been heavily involved in athletics has confronted mental health issues in one way or another. Mental health impacts everyone – we all want to be mentally healthy. A lot of what makes many athletes so exceptional could probably be understood as a mental health disorder if looked at through a different lens. Whether we’re talking about OCD, perfectionism or narcissism, these are qualities that are often very useful and productive in the sports world but when the sport is taken away – through injury or retirement or whatever it may be – what was once an asset can quickly become a detriment.
I’ve always known that for myself, personally, sports and being active have a very positive impact on my mental health. But there’s also a lot going on internally for most athletes that we’re only starting to talk about. Traditionally, it has been discouraged to show weakness or vulnerability in the world of competitive sports and that has caused a lot of problems. Thankfully that’s starting to change, we’re seeing a recontextualizing of weakness as bravery and vulnerability as strength.
Have you felt demand from athletes for this kind of programme?
It is really the athletes who have been filling the void themselves because the resources have been so lacking. Many have been brave enough to share their stories and to see that there is strength in speaking out. Thanks to them, we’re starting to understand how common a lot of these issues are.
From a broader sport point of view, I feel like we – those of us working in sport – are way behind in providing resources. It is up to us to start actually listening to the stories being shared and to provide both recognition and better access to help and community. The programs we’ve launched here at USA Cycling – our Team USA Well-Being Programme and In Our Own Words – are not only about providing professional resources but also about creating a space for athletes to talk about their struggles and connect.
How was the response been thus far?
In Our Own Words launched with three stories – dealing with depression, being sexually assaulted by a coach, and dealing with chronic pain – since its launch, USA Cycling members have contributed stories addressing a range of topics and the responses from readers has been incredibly encouraging. We are starting to talk about things that impact our community and we are learning to come alongside one another to celebrate, cry and rejoice. That is powerful.
With regards to our Well-Being Programme, in just a few weeks we have already had multiple people reach out to access the services offered and we are developing relationships with professionals who are willing to work pro-bono. Now we need to focus on spreading the word and creating a culture where people feel comfortable asking for help. In my opinion, taking care of mental and emotional health should be part of standard training for any athlete. If you’re going to put in so many hours on the bike, it is important to acknowledge that you need to take care of yourself in other ways too. This will be a key part of the messaging we put forth.
A big thank you to Kelsey for taking the time to talk to us. You can learn more about the USA Cycling Well-Being programme here. Let’s hope that this vital initiative acts as an inspiration for others. Going forward, a better understanding of mental health has a key role to play in sporting integrity and athlete protection. As a cycling community, it is important that we focus on providing access to mental health services and support for athletes at all levels.