Checking on your mental health is important in times like these — and the Wizards know it

On the court, NBA players can do what most people cannot, but when they are not making winning shots or perfect passes, they are dealing with the same emotions and stresses as everybody else.

Being a professional athlete who makes a lot of money is not insulation from dealing with mental health.

The NBA understands this and because of that, every team is required to have mental health professionals, just like they have coaches and athletic trainers, on their staffs to make sure players are strengthening their minds along with their bodies.

Jim Soda is the mental skills coach for the Washington Wizards, and part of his job is to help players to be mentally ready to succeed in games.

By helping players with mental tools like focus, imagery, and visualization, Soda’s goal is to improve the performance of players on the court.

But Soda’s interaction with players often leads to other areas of their lives beyond basketball.

“Ideally through the course of the year it is us having conversations about performance on the court and maybe how that translates a little bit off the court from the day-to-day standpoint,” Soda said.

“But if something more significant happens, they know that somebody is there to help direct it and make sure it doesn’t get bigger than it is.”

There are no games right now. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA has been shut down since March 12, and the Wizards players have been working hard to stay in physical shape while knowing there is mental health support available if they need it.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Soda believes it is important not only this month, but also every day to keep an open line of communication about mental health.

The need to process feelings and emotions have probably been amplified during this pandemic because there is so much uncertainty that naturally triggers anxiety in people.

“It’s OK to feel whatever you are feeling. It’s OK to take a little extra time to make decisions,” said Soda.

“It’s also important to know that there is help out there. You can reach out to a professional or even a peer or a friend, just to keep that chat going just to get your information, your thoughts out there.

If you struggle with that, then just write down your thoughts.”

Soda also recommends breathing exercises or mediation as tools to relieve stress and anxiety.

Physical activity, as simple as taking a walk, is another option when suddenly a stressful situation arises or thoughts race in different directions.

In short, finding a way to physically change your environment, even if it is sitting down in another space for five minutes, is one way Soda said he believes will make a difference in mental health.

“If you think about your day, everything starts and ends with your mind,” Soda said.

“When you wake up and then the last thing before you fall asleep and it’s even those two things, how you wake up, and how you go to sleep, have a large impact on that day and the next day.

So all of the stuff in between. We have very little control over, even if we have it planned.”

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It’s the lack of control over so much in our lives, especially now, that leads to a rise in stress levels.

Knowing that, Soda hopes people remember that while it is natural to think about the future, it is more important to focus on what is in front of them.

“Stay grounded, whatever that means for you,” Soda said.

“Whether it is breathing exercises, mediation, physical exercise, or writing something down, you need to have something to help bring you back to the present.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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