Although athletes have consistently reported the importance of coaches, family and teammates in their lives, traditional campus counseling and psychological services usually only involve the athletes in therapy sessions. Also, it has been our experience that traditional services rarely address sport culture formally, and they usually require athletes to evidence psychiatric symptoms, upset or dysfunction in some way in order to receive mental health services. We believe these practices deter athletes from pursuing counseling that may have been beneficial due to perceived stigma.
In our trial, we altered a family behavior therapy that has demonstrated success in the improvement of mental health and social functioning, to address sport culture. To decrease potential for perceived stigma that sometimes occurs when pursuing psychological intervention, the University's associate athletic director at the time named the newly developed intervention The Optimum Performance Program in Sports, or TOPPS. Also, we made it possible for athletes to receive intervention regardless of mental health symptom severity. This was important because it positively branded TOPPS and normalized mental health along a continuum of optimization that could be shared by all athletes.
We attempted to create a culture of optimization and not of illness. The providers of TOPPS are referred to as performance coaches, treatment plans are performance plans, motivational posters and university sport paraphernalia cover walls. Freely distributed T-shirts and water bottles have pictures of the TOPPS logo with catchy phrases that appeal to college students (for example, "Wanna be on TOPP").
In explaining the Optimization Model to athletes, we asserted that performance in sport, and life in general, is influenced by thoughts, behaviors and emotions.
We helped them to understand that because emotions are particularly difficult to control, it is usually easier to focus mental skills training on behaviors and thoughts, which are all somewhere on a continuum from non-optimal to optimal. There is no assumption of mental health illness, although mental health conditions may exist. In this way, discussion of pathology and weakness or dysfunction is unnecessary, inspiring athletes to participate in TOPPS to get an edge in sport performance while concurrently optimizing mental health.
Not focusing on pathological content makes it easier to implement TOPPS performance programming in non-office settings, such as sport fields, for two reasons. First, athletes feel more comfortable involving their significant others in goal achievement exercises. Second, practicing in non-office settings enhances generalization of skills to real-world environments.
The interventions in TOPPS were developed to be exciting, goal-oriented and challenging. Each meeting starts with an exercise to assist optimum mindset in an upcoming event, such as practicing relaxation prior to an exam or improving focus before a free throw. To assist optimization in these exercises, performance coaches help the athlete use brainstorming to generate optimum thoughts and emotional intensity, and performance coaches model and encourage athletes to practice the respective mindsets in simulated scenarios. Athletes are assigned to practice these skills at home.
And, while studies have consistently indicated providers of psychological interventions should address ethnic and sport culture when working with athletes, TOPPS is designed to formally embrace culture using validated interviews. In doing so, athletes are prompted to indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree that their own culture is important, and similarly the extent to which they agree or disagree they've experienced difficulties or offensive remarks due to their culture. Whether they agree or disagree, performance coaches listen and ask questions to better understand where they're coming from prior to discussing potential commonalities between their own cultural backgrounds or perhaps empathizing with concerns. We believe this individualized approach assists in truly understanding the potential impact of culture in sports and life, in general without judgments, generalizations, or quick to understand statements.
Also, performance coaches encourage goals that are specific to mental health, sport performance, doing well for others, and avoiding undesired behaviors such as substance misuse and sexual risk behaviors. Significant others reward their efforts with acknowledgment and rewards.
Other components in TOPPS include performance planning, in which athletes prioritize available performance programs, methods of improving motivation, communication skills training (with family, coaches and teammates), environmental- and self-control skills training (including organization strategies, methods of refocusing undesired thoughts, diaphragmatic breathing, problem-solving, imagery), dream job development, job getting skills training and financial management.