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Healthy Mind, Healthy Body: Boise State Counselor On 21st Century Athletes Facing Higher Hurdles

A track athlete is mid-air over a hurdle.
Boise State Track & Field
Student athlete Jose Rubio in the 400m hurdles in April 2018.

Stephanie Donaldson has a personal perspective on the often-considerable tests in front of a Division I college athlete. She competed as a swimmer at Pepperdine University. And like so many others, she experienced extreme pressure in the pool and the classroom. But her coach pointed her to the university’s counseling center.

“It really opened my desire to help others and to give back and to help other people that might be struggling,” said Donaldson.

Today, she’s Boise State University’s first-ever director of athletic performance focused on the mental health of student athletes.

Donaldson visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about her own experience, how she interacts with today’s athletes and Naomi Osaka, one of the planet’s best tennis players who made headlines around the world when she opted to step away from her sport for a while to take care of her own mental health.

“The things that you have going on in life ultimately affects you on the field.”
Stephanie Donaldson

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Sports and psychology…. indeed, we've talked about the psychology of competing against others, against the elements… or against ourselves. But sports psychology has taken on a new urgency of late as more of us learn about the challenges facing the 21st century athlete. Stephanie Donaldson is here. She is the Director of Athletic Performance and Psychology at Boise State. Miss Donaldson, good morning.

STEPHANIE DONALDSON: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

PRENTICE: Can I assume… well, I guess this is a big assumption on my part: Were you in athletics when you were in college?

DONALDSON: I was. I swam at Pepperdine in college. So I swam competitively growing up, and then I went away to school. I was born and raised in Boise, Idaho, and went away to school because at the time they didn't have any swim programs in Idaho. So, I went out of state for my collegiate swimming career.

PRENTICE: I don't want to oversimplify that….but being a Division I athlete has to give you some particular insight into working with athletes.

Stephanie Donaldson, Boise State director of athletic performance, psychology
Boise State
Courtesy Boise State University
Stephanie Donaldson, Boise State's Director of Athletic Performance, Psychology

DONALDSON: Absolutely. It was a long time ago when I was in college and mental health didn't have the same focus, but it was through my own experiences and specifically my experiences being a student athlete. And I definitely struggled with it in terms of the pressure and figuring out how to be away from home and figuring this all out on my own for the first time. And it was actually a coach that… and this was a long time ago… and you don't actually have that. No one talked about mental health. But my coach said, “Hey, I think that you're struggling,” and I want to go talk to someone. And so for me, that was a life changing experience. And from then on, I just I looked at mental health and counseling and therapy in a whole new way. And it really opened my desire to help others and to give back and to help other people that might be struggling.

PRENTICE: Can you talk a bit about how you spend your days? I think it will be interesting for our listeners to know how or why you would meet with an athlete.

DONALDSON: Sure, I spend my days doing a variety of things, some of it is direct client care, where I meet one on one with student athletes; and I also do team talks where I go in, and we call them team talks. And those are just educational talks that we go in to do with the teams. I also meet with coaches, and there's the administrative part where I have just meetings in general about the program and different decisions that are being made. I meet with student athletes for a variety of reasons: some related to sports performance, some that is more based in mental health. But the student athletes … they definitely have a different set of pressures than their same age peers. But the issues and the things that they're dealing with are the same in terms of a lot of anxiety and whether it be on the field or off the field. But the things that you have going on in life ultimately affects you on the field as well. And so it's helping certain athletes process what they have going on and help to create kind of a mental locker so that they can focus on sport when it's game time

PRENTICE: A mental locker. Wow. All of a sudden…. well, the rest of us talk about a mental toolbox. I love the mental locker idea.

DONALDSON: A mental toolbox is important as well. That's another thing we do talk about. But it's also knowing how to have a mental locker where you can talk about it, but then also kind of take it, put it away, shut it for a little bit and go out and live life, because we can't just have that locker open all the time where we're processing it, 24-7.

PRENTICE: What a great visual. Can I assume that the conversations that you have with an athlete, you would not, or could not share with a coach or a trainer?

DONALDSON: Yes, that's correct. So with my license, it's protected health information. And so it's all kept confidential, which is really helpful, I think, to the student athlete and their willingness to come and share because it's a space for them where it's just a nonbiased place where they can come and talk and know that. There are certain things that I do have to report. But that's just by law. And other than those, then it's all confidential.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about Naomi Osaka. And while most of the world heard about her decision to step away from the French Open, literally at the top of her game to protect herself, I'm interested in your perspective because you look at that through a very particular lens.

DONALDSON: Right, I'm really proud of her and the courage that she's shown by taking time off and taking time away from the open and just to be able to say, “Hey, I'm working on my mental health,” and I am proud to do that. I think that she was able to do that and then that the Open as well was able to come together and not in an adversarial way, but in in working together and trying to normalize this in the future, and not making it an “us versus them” and “old system versus a new system.”

PRENTICE: Well, once upon a time, I've been in those press rooms at Wimbledon a few times, and I know what cads there are in in my business. And my sense is that the media needs to own some of this… and can be a part of the problem. But if media chooses, it can be part of the solution.

DONALDSON: Mm hmm. I agree. And you can easily be part of the problem or part of the solution. And I think that…what was it? Socrates said that the secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new. And I think that is so powerful within the mental health world, because when we talk about stigma as an us versus them, it really becomes we're fighting the old instead of coming up with solutions to how do we move forward and create something new and a new approach and new collective way of looking at mental health.

PRENTICE: Here's the easiest question you'll get today: What part of your work do you love?

DONALDSON: I just I love my daily interactions with student athletes, and I don't take it for granted. I think it's a privilege and an honor to be able to be invited into someone's life and to talk with them and help them and to be with them when they're struggling and then also to see their success as well. And I don't take that lightly. It's a huge honor to be able to be a part of their lives.

PRENTICE: She is Stephanie Donaldson, Director of Athletic Performance and Psychology at Boise State. Number one: thank you for what you do and the care that you give. And then thank you for giving us some time this morning.

DONALDSON: Thank you so much for highlighting such an important topic.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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