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A Conversation on Sports and Mental Health with Dr. Angela Charlton


Athletes often carry a larger-than-life persona in the public eye. They’re regarded as modern-day warriors, competitors who bravely push past obstacles and adversity in the pursuit of victory. The unique culture of sports which includes a perfectionist mindset and the possibility of injury can put a lot of pressure on athletes, which can result in mental health issues. 

We are so excited to welcome licensed psychologist and athletic mental health and wellness expert, Dr. Angela Charlton, to the Bene Blog! We spoke with Dr. Angela about the struggles that professional athletes face, how athletes can improve their mental health, and expert advice to give someone who wants to become a professional athlete. Read on to learn more…

Nina Westbrook: As a licensed psychologist in both Washington, DC, and Virginia, you have gained priceless knowledge and experience as a mental health professional. What inspired you to embark on this path, how did you discover your passion for the intersection of mental health and sports, and what was your journey like to get to where you are today?

Dr. Angela Charlton: That’s a great question. I have always loved sports. It was something that most of my family participated in and watched growing up.  In fact, my first introduction to watching football was with my grandmother when I was around 5. My dad was a phenomenal baseball player.  I participated in basketball and track as far back as I can remember, and my son played football, basketball, and soccer.  

My journey was an interesting one. I was finishing up my doctorate and decided I wanted to work with mental health issues with professional athletes after seeing several high profile cases. I shared this with a friend, and he introduced me to a former NBA player that worked out in our gym, and he introduced me to his “boss” who was over the Top 100 Basketball camp. I spoke with him and was able to work at this camp and this is how it all started. I then went on to work for the NBA Retired Player’s Association, the New York Giants, The Washington Redskins (now the Commanders), NFL, and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

NW: With over 15 years of involvement in the athletic arena and over 20 years in the counseling field, you have worked with numerous professional athletic organizations to facilitate life skills groups and provide resources to athletes. How has working with professional athletes allowed you to understand and address the struggles that they face?

AC: I believe that working in the different environments that I have worked in has allowed me to have an intimate view and deep understanding of these struggles. Therefore, my experiences have allowed me to tailor my groups to fit the unique needs of athletes, both professional and collegiate.

NW: What do you think is the most important thing that athletes can learn from a sports psychologist? 

AC: The most important thing that individuals can learn from sports psychologists is that the mind is the control center of their body, yet we don’t spend a lot of time; if any, focusing on mental health. A lot of time is spent working out our bodies, eating right, and working on our craft; however, not a lot of focus is spent on exercising our minds and working on our mental skills which directly impact performance.

NW: Have you seen any strong examples of professional athletes who are focusing energy and attention on their mental health? How do you feel that impacts sports communities across the nation?

AC: Mental health has gotten a lot of attention lately, and many athletes have been outspoken about their struggles. Some of those include Naomi Osaka, DeMar DeRozen, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Kevin Love just to name a few.  

I think because these individuals have been outspoken, it normalizes that anyone can have mental health issues and that it is ok to get help with them.  

NW: What specific types of issues are you seeing modern day athletes face?

AC: Some of the issues include how to deal with failure and success, relationship issues, injury recovery, depression, anxiety. The pandemic has created an additional layer of stress. Student athletes are now dealing with maybe not playing a year or so, not having a “normal” year for example not playing in front of a crowd, season and games abruptly ending; how does these things impact their future. They have gained another year but are now a year older and how have their bodies responded to these changes. In some situations, injuries have increased. Additionally, there is the huge change in which college athletes receive NIL money – financial compensation for “name, image, and likeness” While this is certainly a positive move for student athletes, more pressures come along with this financial responsibility. 

NW: We just launched the newest Bene By Nina workshop together called How to Mentally Thrive as a Competitive Athlete, and I am excited to share more with our audience about how athletes can develop their mental fitness. Let’s give them a little sneak peek into what they can expect from the workshop! What’s your favorite part of the workshop and what can they look forward to?  

AC: I’m really excited about this workshop! I’m most excited about the practicality of the workshop and how Nina and I bring a phenomenal combination of knowledge and experience from different vantage points with some very practical tools that athletes and those that support them can use.

NW: What are you most excited about for what is to come/what is on the horizon for mental health and sports?

AC: I’m excited because we are finally talking about the importance and the impact of mental health on sports and performance. I think that because so many professional athletes and “famous people ” are speaking out about it, that mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves.

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