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The NBA's Sports Psychiatry Program

How the NBA Got It Right for Their Players


It might surprise you to know but The National Basketball Association, known as the NBA, is the sports industry leader in mental healthcare. The NBA started developing programs and initiatives in 2015 to help provide its athletes with comprehensive mental healthcare.


Each year, the NBA has taken steps forward to improve its programs. Sports therapy is becoming more recognized around the mental health world so we will take a look at the NBA’s programs and how sports therapy can help all athletes. 

Keyon Dooling’s Story

In 2012, Keyon Dooling went from a game seven loss in the eastern conference finals of the NBA to being committed to a mental health institute. Only a week after signing a new 1.2 million dollar contract to play another year, Dooling found himself in the General Manager’s office explaining to his boss his plans of retiring.


Danny Ainge, the General Manager of the Boston Celtics at the time, knew something wasn’t right and called a few players to the facilities to help Dooling get some help. 


The story of Keyon Dooling is well known by most NBA fans. If you are unfamiliar, Keyon was sexually abused and assaulted when he was 7 years old by a 14-year-old boy.


Keyon had told no one of the abuse as a child and used the situation to push him to his dream of an NBA career. All the bottled up emotions and pent up anger came flooding out when, at a steakhouse, another man in the restroom made unwanted sexual advances on Dooling. A week later he was in Ainge’s office. 


Dooling ended up in a mental hospital and his story was so profound and unfathomable, it led to the NBA’s mental health program that we know today. It is sometimes hard to grasp athletes, especially well-paid athletes, having mental health issues but they are real and sports therapy can help. You can read Keyon’s entire story in a piece he wrote

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Mental Health Issues In NBA

Keyon Dooling is not alone when it comes to mental health issues in the NBA. Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, both All-Star NBA players, have been outspoken about their mental health issues.


During a press conference, DeMar spoke about depression and how it can often get the best of him. While some may be skeptical of what he was talking about, Kevin Love came to his side. 


Kevin Love suffers from severe panic attacks so much that there are many times he feels like he might die from his heart-stopping. “I ran back to the locker room and was running room to room like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really, I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me ‘you’re about to die.’ I ended up in the training room on my back just trying to breathe.”

Kelly Oubre Jr. joined the men and talked about the culture they grew up in and how mental health issues are considered “weak.” “We face a lot more adversity and a lot more problems and struggles as a normal human being. It’s a little bit more amped up, we just can’t show it. I’m really good at keeping a poker face because when I was growing up, my dad always told me, ‘Don’t let anybody see you weak.’ Nobody sees that I’m weak, but deep down inside, I am going through a lot, and Hell is turning over.”

The Mental Health Stigma

While these men compete at the highest level and are put on display week in and week out, the mental health stigma is not just isolated to professional athletes. Growing up in a competitive culture, most young athletes are taught to not show weakness.


While there are many benefits to competition and sports, pressure and anxiety are often side effects. Side effects that some athletes are trained to suppress in order to not show “weakness”.

Sports mental therapy can help work through those feelings and find healthy mechanisms to cope and deal with the stresses of a competitive environment. As our own Chris Williams talks about, a sports psychiatrist can help address how mental and emotional health issues impact performance and sport enjoyment.

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What the NBA Did

Prior to the 2018 conversation about mental health, the NBA had a loose policy of mental health and allowed each team to choose how to address mental health programs. The Dallas Mavericks were the first team in the NBA to hire a full-time psychologist on staff, Dr. Don Kalkstien.


Since then, most all of the NBA’s teams have hired full-time psychologists. Indiana was the first NBA team in 2011 to have their psychologist’s office in their facilities and be available at any time for their players, including traveling with the team during road trips.


In 2018, the NBA took a huge step forward by creating a program that runs independently of teams, the league, and the players union. NBPA Executive Director, Michele Roberts, said in an interview that the program is independent of the league and players and is to provide a safe place for NBA players. “We don’t want players to be discouraged from getting help when they need it because they’re concerned that it will get back to the team, or it may affect their play, or it may affect their next contract.”


The new program called NBA Cares is designed to help tackle mental health issues amongst NBA players; most notably depression and anxiety. NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, made comments in February that shows the NBA’s understanding and want to help. “What strikes me is that they’re truly unhappy, a lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy. We have developed NBA Cares to help these young men get the help they need to be in the best place they can.”

What The NBA Is Doing Now

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 NBA season, owners and general managers met in Chicago for health and wellness meetings that were mandatory. During these meetings, the NBA agreed-upon formal requirements that all 30 teams must follow to try and help move forward the mental health program.


New rules require all 30 teams to add at a minimum, one full-time licensed mental health professional in the form of a psychologist or behavioral therapist. The professional must be full time and on staff like any other member of the team. Teams will also be required, starting this season, to retain a licensed psychiatrist to assist when needed.

A “written action plan” in the event of mental health emergencies are also required by every team and were submitted to the NBA office. Along with the written plan, players and staff members must be informed about how the team will ensure the privacy and confidentiality of mental health matters. This is the NBA’s attempt to help with the stigma of mental health issues. 

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How Sports Psychiatry Can Help Athletes

First and foremost, when it comes to mental health, the overall well being of a patient is priority number one. However, sports psychiatry and therapy sessions for individuals can have numerous benefits.

Individual services focus on promoting the mental and emotional health of the athlete so that an athlete can experience optimal performance and enjoyment of sports.  Sports counseling services can help athletes to:


  • Overcome low self-confidence

  • Overcome poor motivation

  • Manage performance anxiety and stress

  • Improve performance

  • Cope with adjustment issues due to injuries

  • Assess and treat mental and emotional health issues or concerns


Team services can help teams improve cohesion and improve team performance.  Services help teams to:

  • Play with greater unity

  • Improve communication and team dynamics

  • Set and achieve team goals for improved performance


Normally Services Include:

  • Team Goal-Setting

  • Team Consultation & Team Building Techniques

  • Consultation with the coaching staff

  • Mental skills and character development via a class program


If you are interested or want to know more about the benefits of sports counseling and therapy you can contact our professionals at Therapist & Psychologists | Mental Health Services.

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The NBA is taking the right steps to help its young players and their mental health. We expect other major organizations like the NFL, NHL, and MLS to follow suit as more and more athletes are willing to share their stories publically.


If you have a young athlete or work with sports teams, it is important to talk about mental health and let your athletes know there is nothing to be ashamed of and getting help is important.

Contact us today to learn more about our Sports Counseling

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