For most athletes, NIL is new. And when something is new, it can carry many emotions such as excitement, uncertainty, or stress.
Like anything else, athletes should consider their mental well-being before diving into NIL. There are time demands, possible new identities, and more.
Mental health and NIL are very intertwined.
Chrissy Holm – a former standout student-athlete and college coach, now athletic counselor, mental performance consultant and leadership coach with Premier Sport Psychology in Edina, Minn. – and Emmett Gill – a longtime clinical athletics and faculty member with a background in athlete well-being and social work – recently provided their mental health insight to athletes in the Opendorse Ready NIL Masterclass.
Both have backgrounds working directly with athletes, specifically college athletes. They have a good sense of what people are facing in their athletic journeys, and they provided insights to help everyone learn and grow.
Their first piece of advice: Mental health is a daily commitment.
A daily commitment to some core things that are going to set you up for success.
“In between [brand building], we’re staying consistent with practices every day,” said Holm. “Whether it’s mindfulness or getting up and setting your intention for the day. Get up and get some food. Get moving. And before you get on your phone … set up routines that are going to benefit you in the long term.”
Like becoming a great athlete, mental well-being requires practice and time. Being patient and aware of yourself will help set up better balance.
Developing an identity
Brand building is a common phrase in athlete development right now. But it is nothing new. It is another version of building out an identity, such as becoming an athlete or college student.
However, since brand building most often plays out on social media, there are some pitfalls that surface faster with social media compared to when other identities are being developed.
“Do you have the tendency to compare yourself to what others are doing?” asked Gill. “When we talk about the self, we talk about the ‘I’ and we talk about the ‘me.’ How I see myself and how others see me?
“When you’re emphasizing how others see you more than how you see yourself, then ultimately that is a challenge.”
Gill has seen tendencies of athletes up against this challenge. He recommends watching for rapid changes in routine after reading something. Or if you change your behavior after seeing others do things. And even when you may be avoiding people after others you trust give feedback.
For Gill, it comes down to this: Are you trying new things?
“If you are on a college campus and haven’t joined a club or attended events for free, those are the things you want to engage in to expand your identity. You’re going to experience things you haven’t experienced before (when in college).”
Despite the regimen for athletes, seeking new things could help solve the identity challenges.
“In terms of identity development, seek small opportunities,” said Gill. “Small opportunities to do different things. You just got to be vulnerable enough to try some of those things.”
Leading with authenticity
Leading with authenticity is one of the first steps of building a brand while still considering mental well-being.
In Holm’s view, the best thing – and a very challenging thing – to being a college athlete is the age at which you are experiencing life.
“There are constant identity changes,” said Holm. “That’s challenging enough. But it’s also a special time. You can pick and choose, try different things on.”
Maybe it’s volunteering with a group. Or a cause you are interested in working with. And after really experiencing it, notice how it’s making you feel.
“When you really experience it, notice what is happening in your body,” said Holm. “Is this making me feel energized or not? Is it making me excited to be engaged with this? Does it feel fulfilling? If yes, great, we’re moving in the right direction. If not, it’s okay. Let it go.”
Letting go is a healthy experience to brand building and NIL.
“Part of the mindfulness is non-attachment,” said Holm. “So, if you’re holding on to something so tightly and saying, ‘This has to be it. This is my identity. This is the best thing ever.’ Oftentimes that can get overdone and create challenges on the back end. That’s okay, let it go and just observe. That’s a natural part of the process.
“I would really pay attention to, ‘Is this something that brings me energy or drains it?’”
Both Gill and Holm, like many mental health advocates, recommend the daily practice of mindfulness for all athletes.
“Mindfulness is being in the present moment without judging,” said Holm. “Being in tune with what’s happening now and not reacting to it. Or putting a label to it, ‘This is good’ or ‘This is bad.’
“So often our challenges are caused by either anxiety – which is worrying about the future – or depressive thoughts – thinking about the past. With mindfulness, you’re practicing focusing on something that’s happening in the present moment so that you’re able to live there. That’s where change happens, where growth happens, where life happens.”
How can an athlete practice mindfulness?
Try this: Set a time every day where you remove all distractions and sit down for 10 minutes. Find a quiet space. Sit in a posture you find comfortable. Then focus on your breathing. Your mind may wander to something in the future or in the past, but without worrying about it, bring your focus back to the present moment. Go back to thoughtfully breathing.
“Oftentimes we’re reacting to something,” said Gill. “And when we’re mindful and in the moment, and sprinkle a little gratitude on that, then maybe our reaction in that moment is appropriate. It’s not compromising. It’s thoughtful. Because we spent 10, 15, 20 minutes per day practicing how to stay in the moment.”
Other proactive ways to maintain mental well-being
Being proactive with your mental well-being goes beyond mindfulness.
Gill suggests having conversations with yourself, coach, and/or family. It’s about making the commitment, which he calls “critical.”
He also encourages you to explore what relaxes you, and importantly what relaxes you outside of your sport.
Or have a trusted person in your “circle” to talk to. This can be a family member, friend, teammate, or whomever you value.
“What I encourage athletes to do is package all of those,” said Gill, “because once you package all of it, you have a plan. A mental health and wellness plan for yourself. It’s no different than what you’re going to do in the weight room when you talk about putting together a plan for a workout. It’s the same thing. But I go back one thing: You’ve got to be committed.”
For some athletes, building a brand or sharing more of your personality to create NIL opportunities is new and stimulating. Or some may find it overwhelming. But wherever you sit on that spectrum, it’s important to remember it’s not the only thing that makes you who you are.
“To navigate branding, NIL, and just being a student-athlete well is to see this (process) as one part of your identity,” said Holm.
That means you can still be a friend, athlete, student, son, daughter, and more on top of NIL and personal brand building. It also means finding the right place to build out your brand. That does not mean it always has to be on social media. Many athletes use their NIL to host camps or lessons, start a business, or support a cause they believe in.
Everything works together in some ways. But your life is a collection of all those things – and not reliant on just one identity or one place where you build your brand.
Holm uses a metaphor of candles, each representing a person’s different identities to help shape the perspective.
“If [NIL] was your sole identity, and you’re in a dark room, and you got that candle lit. What if someone blows it out? You’re left in the dark,” said Holm. “But if you have all these candles lit, you have all these parts of yourself that you’ve identified and you’re nourishing, if one or two them gets blown out, you’re not left in the dark.
“Keep your brand as one [identity] of many.”