Leah Howard played tennis in college before deciding that she wanted to take up sports psychology for her career. She has already completed her Master’s in Education and is currently working towards her PhD in Counselor Education with an emphasis in Sports Counseling. She has worked as an educator, a school counselor, and a professor. Throughout it all, she has been an advocate for mental health and social change. She has built her social platforms around the name “The Sports Counselor” and was one of the first followers and supporters of The Hidden Opponent. Our team sat down with The Sports Counselor for a Q&A about her work and mental health professions. Leah can be found on Instagram at @thesportscounselor
Tell us about yourself. How did you get to where you are today? Why did you choose sports counseling?
Hi everyone! My name is Leah Howard. I currently reside in Atlanta, GA and have been a mental health advocate and counselor for a few years. I grew up playing basketball and tennis from a young age and was the captain of my college tennis team. I got to where I was today by experiencing the sudden transition of my college athletic program being cancelled my senior year. I had always had a passion for helping people and improving mental health, so I decided to specifically focus on the intersectionality of sports and counseling. I want to help athletes deal with the mental side of things that others may not be able to physically see. I didn’t know of many sports counselors and I knew that athletes were a population that needed support.
What was your experience like playing college athletics? How has that helped you in your career?
I had an amazing time as a student athlete in college. Playing tennis was something I had done all four years in high school, so the time management was not the most difficult transition when I got to college. I had a coach that was understanding and flexible if I needed to prioritize academics. I think being a college athlete has helped me in my career because I am able to relate to other athletes due to the unique experiences we share regardless of the sport.
What are your main career goals? What do you see as the main goals of any sports counselor?
My career goals essentially include providing mental health accessibility to student and professional athletes. I also would like to be a supervisor for other counselors wanting to work with athletes and develop curriculum programs that promote student athlete mental health. The main goals of any sports counselor should be to provide their clients with quality care. Sports counselors can provide resources and strategies to assist athletes with decompressing during stressful situations or major life transitions.
What is the general educational path for someone who wants to be a sports counselor?
There are a number of ways someone many look into becoming a sports counselor. It requires a master’s degree in counseling or a related field such as social work or psychology and they must pursue licensure in their state. I always try to encourage people to connect with professional organizations or present at sports conferences so that they can stay up to date on the research in the field and connect with others that are interested.
Have you seen a recent shift in the culture of mental health and sports?
Yes! The past couple years have certainly evolved and shifted into people taking notice that it is important to prioritize mental health in the athlete community. Colleges and professional organizations are starting to do their part in hiring mental health staff that are trained and available to work with the athletes. Student organizations are also being developed to promote the conversations surrounding de-stigmatizing mental health.
How are sports counselors helping the culture of sports?
I think sports counselors are helping the culture of sports because they are providing another layer of advocacy and social justice for athletes. Sports counselors can use their voices to promote athlete well-being even when athletes may not be able to verbalize what they are experiencing. I think they help the culture by giving athletes the space to feel vulnerable to talk to someone about their feelings.
What can coaches do to help their athletes more on the psychological aspect of the game?
I’m a big fan of collaboration. Coaches can provide support to student athletes, but their time may be limited when it comes to addressing personal concerns. By collaborating with mental health professionals coaches are promoting a culture of monitoring the mental side of the game and helping to de-stigmatize seeking help. Mental health workshops, clinics, and a meet the counselors session are some suggestions for ways coaches can support their athletes.
What can athletes do to build up their mental game?
Athletes can build their mental game by prioritizing their mental health. This may look like developing a self-care routine, establishing a strong support system, and addressing concerns as soon as they happen. As far as tools go, athletes may enjoy guided meditation, visualization & imagery technique videos, and progressive muscle relaxation techniques. It is suggested that these be done with the assistance of a mental health professional, but for those interested in building their mental game these strategies may be helpful.
Do you have any resources you suggest to an athlete looking to learn more about sports counseling?
Yes, the American Counseling Association has a Sports Counseling Interest Network. The NCAA also publishes a Mental Health Best Practices booklet available for free online. They can also follow my account on instagram @thesportscounselor where I post articles related to athlete mental health.