Psychologist Keeps NFL Players Mentally Fit
NFL football and UMass Amherst aren’t your everyday word-association partners. Enter Sara A. Hickmann ’04 PhD (psychology). As manager of the NFL’s Career Transition in Player Development, as well as coordinator of the Players Assistance and Personal Conduct programs, she helps individuals perform at the top of their game.
One of Hickmann’s main responsibilities is overseeing the Life Skills Program, that raises players’ awareness of the unique challenges and situations they might face in the NFL. “Football culture fosters a sense of invincibility,” says Hickmann, a licensed clinical psychologist. “Most athletes function in a ‘no-excuses’ environment where they learn that physical pain, problems with family, etc. should not stand in their way of being able to achieve at high levels. If they do experience problems, they often try to just ‘tough things out’ and not talk about it. And despite their tremendous athletic success before joining the NFL, many players don’t realize how challenging the transition can be. Functioning in a high profile, competitive environment that is often unpredictable can create new and different problems.”
One of the first things the NFL does is to engage their draftees in a three-day intensive Rookie Symposium. “We teach players how to deal with the media, how to manage their financial decisions, and how to deal with family and friends, and other relevant issues,” Hickmann explains. In addition, during each season all active players must attend a seminar to help them address a variety of issues, selected from a menu of options: coping with injuries, handling requests for money and tickets from friends and families, managing high-risk situations, dealing with authority, and more. “Talking about these situations normalizes players’ experiences and makes them feel less alone,” she says.
Hickmann is always working to beef up the Life Skills Program. One new option is the Former Players Panel, bringing past NFLers together with current players to share learning experiences and their successful—or unsuccessful—transitions out of the sport. An option that was added this year focuses on leadership training and preventing relationship violence.
The Players Assistance Program provides counseling services to players and their families in each of the team cities. “It often is challenging for professional athletes to admit they need any kind of assistance, particularly when it comes to emotional or psychological issues,” says Hickmann. “Making counseling more accessible and reducing the stigma attached to seeking help is a huge focus area.”
One way Hickmann does this is to have peer players share their own experiences with counseling. This year Warrick Dunn spoke in a powerful video about the period after his mother, a police officer, was killed while working a second job as a security guard, leaving him to single-handedly care for his siblings while trying to grieve and manage the demands of his job. Swallowing his pride, Dunn worked with a counselor for his depression, but in time realized the experience was a plus. He became a better manager of his family and re-connected with the joy and camaraderie of the game. “When we showed this video to the teams, you could hear a pin drop,” Hickmann says. “Warrick’s courage and willingness to share his struggle made a huge impact on other players. They realized even very successful peers aren’t immune from struggling with painful emotional situations.”
If players get arrested or violate the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, Hickmann again appears on the scene, coordinating the intervention component of the program using her psycho-educational curriculum for skill development in anger management, impulse control, stress management and time management. “We have a separate track for domestic violence incidents to address abuse and control and to develop a healthier belief system about relationships and more effective communication skills,” Hickmann explains.
“My career path was anything but linear and traditional,” Hickmann acknowledges, noting that the job is “ideal. You aren’t going to get all of the experiences necessary for success wrapped up in a neat package. I filled my skill gaps one by one. It took longer, but I was always mindful about piecing experiences together to complete the puzzle.”
Hickmann’s quest began with her own athletic experience. “Competing in gymnastics, I realized that the mental aspect of sports is tremendously important to success. No matter how physically talented you are, if you can’t manage your anxieties and fears and maximize your confidence and focus, you aren’t going to dominate.” She knew that she wanted to help other athletes manage these issues and embarked on her mission of becoming a successful sports psychologist.
Back then, information about sport psychology was sparse. “At UCLA I majored in psychology and got involved with relevant experiences, like being a peer health counselor,” Hickmann says. Junior year she was asked to tutor a basketball “star.” Their first meeting was eye opening. “He entered the room—all 6’8” of him—in flip-flops and dark glasses. He was exhausted and behind in his homework, unable to take any of the regularly scheduled exams because of the team’s very demanding travel schedule. I realized I had a lot to learn about the culture and unique challenges of different sports, particularly the high revenue ones that demand so much time and energy from the athletes.”
And she did. Hickmann got involved with academic support services for athletes at UCLA, before earning a master’s in sport psychology from San Diego State. She then landed a position there as an academic counselor for football. “I learned the importance of keeping players engaged, having a highly organized system, and using positive reinforcement as a motivator.” Eventually, Hickmann became the athletics academic and eligibility coordinator at the University of San Diego, before going for the PhD.
“My UMass Amherst education is a critical contributor to where I am today,” Hickmann says, who also completed a post-doc at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School. “Professor Richard Halgin, who is interested helping athletes develop themselves off the field, allowed me flexibility to shape my experiences. I created a program for injured athletes, who were struggling with the psychological and emotional challenges of that loss. And I developed an intervention study during which I traveled and interviewed NFL players, assessing impulsivity levels.”
Hickmann also notes that financial support through assistantships and fellowships not only helped her complete the degree but also offered invaluable opportunities to provide therapy to adolescents and adults within an eclectic range of psychological needs. “My assistantship at the Center for Teaching was life-changing,” she says. “The director, Mary Deane Sorcinelli, is one of the most genuine, caring and hard-working faculty I know. The longer I was at UMass Amherst, the more I realized it is a place full of high-performing individuals who care about education and people.”
December 6, 2006