During the 2019 State Summer Games, the new Healthy Athletes clinic, Strong Minds, will be making its Special Olympics Wisconsin debut.
The Strong Minds clinic involves a series of interactive learning stations that are focused on helping athletes develop coping skills and stress management strategies. While Special Olympics competition provides a natural opportunity to develop many of these techniques, Strong Minds will allow athletes to more proactively learn about maintaining emotional wellness under stress through positive thinking, stress relief and connecting with others.
As a licensed professional counselor, new Strong Minds clinical director Amy Yonker knows the importance of proactively addressing emotional and mental health. “Just like you train your body to be the best at competition, it’s important to train your brain to handle the stress that comes with everyday life,” Yonker said. “Strong Minds is all about learning positive coping skills to work through tough situations. Whether you’re having a rough day at practice or need some positive thoughts before your event, Strong Minds can help provide you with tools to be your best emotionally and physically.”
“We hope to provide a positive space for athletes to build skills that enhance their athletic experience while promoting everyday positive mental wellness.” – Strong Minds Clinical Director Amy Yonker
Research from pilot Special Olympics Strong Minds events has shown that there is a significant need for a program like Strong Minds. According to the data, a large percentage of Special Olympics athletes face considerable daily stresses but are not always prepared with coping strategies. 12% of athletes reported having no coping strategies to deal with life’s stressors, while 62% mostly use avoidance to handle stress, which is associated with increased depression. Meanwhile, only a quarter of athletes in the pilot study reported using active strategies, which are associated with increased well-being.
The teachings of Strong Minds will be new to many SOWI athletes, but some athletes may be familiar with some of the techniques introduced in the clinic. For example, the Manitowoc County Miracles agency has for several years now incorporated yoga and mindfulness to address the emotional needs of their athletes. “Upon arriving at each yoga practice, athletes are urged to leave the outside world behind and give themselves a ‘brain break,'” agency manager Kristin Zolltheis said.
Although Strong Minds doesn’t utilize yoga, it does share some of the exercise’s characteristics. For example, one of the stations in the clinic is Strong Stretching, which focuses on holding stretches that relieve tension and connect the feelings of tightness in our bodies to stress or anxiety. Also similar to yoga, the Strong Breathing station’s goal is to show how the way we breathe impacts our feelings and how we can use focused and deep breathing to calm our nerves just about anywhere, anytime.
According to Zolltheis, stretching and breathing found in both yoga and Strong Minds can be incredibly beneficial for Special Olympics athletes. “Relaxing and focusing on breathing leads to a more relaxed state and allows the athletes to focus on the present or ‘be in the moment’ and put outside pressures aside. Breathing during the various yoga poses also allows athletes to get more in touch with their bodies,” Zolltheis said.
Strong Minds also has helpful stations like Stress and You, Strong Messages, and Strong Supporting that teach about stress, how it impacts our thoughts and body, and how we can use positive messages or social support to improve how we feel. At the conclusion of the clinic, the athletes are invited to consider which techniques were most effective for them and, hopefully, think of ways they can incorporate the coping strategies into their own lives.
After all, while the improved athletic performance that comes from having a Strong Mind is great, ultimately the goal is to encourage athletes to use active coping strategies in their everyday lives.
“We hope to provide a positive space for athletes to build skills that enhance their athletic experience while promoting everyday positive mental wellness,” Yonker said.