Thorns FC

Thorns FC building mental health into overall athlete wellness

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Performance and Wellness Coach Dr. Renée Pirkl provided insight into the club’s approach to mental health and wellness and the growing emphasis on mental health in professional sports.

During the month of May, Portland Thorns FC have enjoyed some of their best soccer, setting a club record for consecutive wins. Also, May is a month to continue awareness around mental health and wellness.

For Mental Health Awareness Month, Thorns FC Performance and Wellness Coach Dr. Renée Pirkl provided insight into the club’s approach to mental health and wellness and the growing emphasis on mental health in professional sports.

Dr. Pirkl joined the club’s medical staff in December, and she has used her expertise to build mental health into the overall wellness program for the players.

"We incorporate mental health care into our overall wellness program in various ways," says Dr. Pirkl. "I offer monthly team meetings that focus on mental health and wellness topics. These meetings include creating a values-based life, developing distress tolerance skills, managing negative self-talk, managing emotions, the mind-body connection, and mindfulness."

Dr. Pirkl's work in elite-level sports goes back over a decade. From 2013-16, she worked with the Portland Trail Blazers as both a Mental Performance and Mindset Coach and has seen first-hand the growth and changes around awareness for mental health in sports.

"Awareness of mental health in sports has certainly increased in recent years," she says. "This is in large part due to athletes breaking the social taboo around discussing mental health. The NBA Players Association was one of the first professional sports organizations to create a mental health initiative and a national network of providers to provide mental health services to its players. Since that time, many other athletes have come forward to discuss their mental health struggles or taken time away from their sport to manage mental health issues."

Six months into her role as the Thorns' Performance and Wellness Coach, she reflects on what mental health care looks like today in women's professional sports.

"Specifically in women's pro sports, the emphasis on mental health awareness stems from the number of factors that come into play for women athletes, including the hurdles to becoming professional, historical abuses of power, higher rates of injury, decisions about having children, and maintaining a balance in professional and personal lives," says Dr. Pirkl.

Self-care and wellness are a key ingredient in the club’s matchday preparations.

"Sessions are focused on relaxation and fun to provide the athletes with periods of reset and refocus," Dr. Pirkl explains. "Another thing we do is mindful moments, which involves 5-10 minutes of breathwork, meditation or visualization. Finally, as needed, I offer individual sessions or referrals to athletes, who want to do more in-depth personal work."

Similarly to how the work on the training field can impact a team’s performance or results, mental health can be key to both player and team success.

"Mental health contributes to a team's success," Dr. Pirkl explains. "Mentally healthy people are more open to feedback, better able to connect with others, recover more quickly from setbacks and fatigue, have a decreased risk of injury, are more focused, are better at problem-solving, and are generally more resilient. These all enhance individual performance and support the team's collective success."

If you or someone you know is need of mental health support or resources, please visit Lines for Life, an Oregon-based nonprofit, at https://www.linesforlife.org/ or reach out through one of their 24-hour call lines.