Shocked teammates and fans watched as Damar Hamlin, a football player for the Buffalo Bills, collapsed on the field Monday and needed resuscitation. How do athletes and fans process what they witnessed? For insight, UKNow spoke with Marc Cormier, Ph.D., associate professor of sport psychology. Cormier’s primary areas of research include the psychological aspects of sport injury, team cohesion, and mental skills training. He is director of the Sport and Exercise Psychology graduate program housed in the University of Kentucky College of Education Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion. To hear more from Cormier, listen to the latest episode of The Learning Project, a podcast by the UK College of Education.
UKNow: After witnessing an injury like this – especially a life-threatening injury – what is the mental impact on athletes and fans?
Cormier: It’s important to note that every player and every person will have a different response to what they saw. Trauma is like that. For some, this was traumatizing. Unfortunately, there’s not a direct answer to that question, nor is there a sure-fire way to overcome some of what they are experiencing. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all. Having said that, if we were to interview every athlete who witnessed it, whether in person or on TV, we would likely hear some commonalities among them.
We saw a very human response to the efforts on the field, and the way the players created a protective ring around him. The imagery of this really cannot be understated. It’s very clear that players likely didn’t want a front row seat. Rather, I think they were communicating this was a team issue and he is not alone.
As far as getting back onto the field to play again, the likely difficulty would be related to players’ minds may be elsewhere. They may be thinking about how he is doing or how his family is handling it. They may wonder what this is going to mean for team dynamics and those kinds of things. It’s not a question of “moving on.” It is really more of a question of “moving with.” They need to think, “How do we carry this with us but also do what we need to be doing?”
They will need to engage in conversations that communicate, “It’s OK to not be fully present.” “It’s OK that your mind is going to wander.” “It’s OK that you are going to think about your teammate in the middle of a practice and you’re not going to be 100 percent focused.” Notice it. Recognize it. When you can, bring yourself back to where you are.
Something else that is likely very common is going to be fear. They may have fear that it may happen to them or another teammate. The thing is, all football players, all athletes of any sport, will have that conversation at some point in their career – the conversation of what are the risks associated with what we are doing and what are the rewards associated with what we are doing.
In football, which is a sport that unfortunately has injuries almost every game, you are going to see somebody being helped off the field. Most of the time it is minor, but in some cases we have traumatic brain injuries, back injuries, knee injuries, ankles, shoulders, those kinds of things.
Obviously, everybody on that field has had that risk-reward conversation at some point and, in their case, the benefits outweigh the risks, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. But this event threw something into the equation that was never there before, right? This is more serious. Rare, but more serious. It allowed them to take a step back and say, “OK, I made my decision to play football based on the information I had. But I didn’t have this piece of information and so this is new. Now we need to think about it and now I need to add it to my playbook and decide whether this is something I want to pursue, knowing this.”
UKNow: When we think back to that scene, we also think about the people at the center of that ring – the first responders. Typically, they are responding to knees, shoulders, and more minor injuries. What about those first responders, especially in a situation where seconds matter. How do they stay focused on it?
Cormier: Sport psychology is performance psychology. As we have seen in this example, there is a mental element to a group of people, in this case non-athletes, performing their jobs at the highest level. They needed to, at a moment’s notice, jump into action, assess the situation, triage, and execute a plan. They had to rely on their instincts, and trust in those instincts and their training. These are all things that we teach athletes. We talk a lot when I work with an athlete about “trust your training.” You’re going to respond in the way that is most appropriate with whatever the game throws at you. That’s a skill that you develop. In this case, we are talking about medical professionals. We also need to teach them to trust their training. They understand, at a moment’s notice and probably in a very chaotic situation, what they need to do. These are all things we teach athletes, but there are professionals in my field who work exclusively with medical, military, business personnel, and others. It is the same concept, just different environments. If we can agree that mental preparedness or mental skills are responsible for performance, then we have to agree that it makes sense for the medical profession to include this training as part of their curriculum as well. Many of them do.
I’ve worked closely with our medical school here, offering workshops embedded into the curriculum, working with surgical residents, and helping a variety of medical professionals understand how to work under the pressures of the job. They are in situations of literally life or death outcomes. Fortunately, like in the case that we saw, onsite medical personnel drill for this. Every single game they run through scenarios they hope they never have to use. But, on the day they must, they are really glad they did.
We work with medical professionals in the same way we would work with athletes in terms of how you prepare for any possible scenario, understanding that some are going to be less or more likely than others, but still, you are going to be in a situation where you are going to be ready to go should this happen. The same concepts apply to those individuals as they would to an athlete, in terms of having a good understanding of your body, slowing down your heart rhythm, taking those deep breaths, the mindfulness we spoke about earlier, that’s going to be very relevant in terms of not being able to be distracted or, when you do get distracted, gently pulling yourself back to where you are. These are all things that apply across the spectrum.
UKNow: We seem to be more aware now of the field of sport psychology. We think of athletes like Simone Biles who stepped back from Olympic competition, citing mental struggles and how that played out in the public eye. Are you seeing an increase in people interested in studying this field?
Cormier: Without a doubt, it has exploded into the mainstream. More programs are being developed to study sport psychology and we are seeing more student applications being submitted. Our applications at UK go up every single year and that’s because we have a good program, but also the field is growing as more people are becoming aware of it. They think “I like helping people and I love sports. Would that make sense to work in the sport industry doing the thing I’m passionate about?” Low and behold, they discover there’s a field of study and careers dedicated to those things. If you look at job postings and the general market, it’s a booming industry and one of the fastest growing areas, if not the fastest growing area, within psychology or helping professions.
If you look at the stigma associated with mental health across the board, it’s there. Multiply that by 10 and then you’ve got the sport industry. It’s a very toughness-driven kind of culture and a lot of people don’t want to admit that they’re struggling with very human issues. It’s usually kind of “rub some dirt and get back out there” or, “play through the pain,” things that make people think they’re not allowed to talk about what they’re struggling with. So, we’re seeing a real shift in the tides here and a lot of credit has to go to some of those athletes who are speaking up and saying, “I’m not OK and I am going to step back from, such as, my Olympic competition.” A lot of us are thinking, “Oh, what I would give to even be in the Olympics. And you’re choosing not to participate. How dare you?” But athletes come back saying “Yes, but I’m not just a spectacle. I’m a human being who participates in a sport. You need to remember that.”
And so, advocacy helps. We’re seeing full-time staff in areas that we’ve never seen and it’s becoming more of a proactive approach as well, which is a very positive thing. Many people think about mental health as a safety net when something happens and we are struggling. But working with a psychologist, counselor, or social worker even when things aren’t going wrong can be an incredibly productive thing to be doing because then you’re acknowledging why things are going well. You’re able to use that as a blueprint for when things eventually go wrong sometimes. I think a lot of that is happening in the sport world where we’re talking to athletes and saying, you know, you don’t need to talk about sport psychology and mental health only when you’re having a hard time.
It’s OK to be very open and honest about the fact that working with a mental health or sports psychology professional is just another part of you accessing resources and doing everything that you can in order to be the best person that you could be, the best athlete that you could be. It is good to take a more proactive approach.
UKNow: It is such a fascinating topic. To learn more about your program, how should individuals contact you?
Cormier: We have students here who are always willing to talk to prospective students or those interested in the field. A good first step is to visit our website and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to begin the conversation and learn more about the field and our curriculum.