Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond is pulled in numerous directions throughout a game week.
Beyond the obvious time spent on the practice field and in the classroom, the junior student-athlete must find time to study film, meet with position coaches, hit the training room and meet with the media among other football obligations, while maintaining a grasp on homework and studies.
And yet with hours in the day coming at a premium, Mond has made it a priority to meet weekly with sports psychologist Ryan Pittsinger.
“A lot of times the quarterback position, a lot of stuff is put on you,” Mond said, “and a lot of pressure can be stressful sometimes. So just being able to have that resource to help you mentally on that side is really big.”
It’s easy for Mond to openly discuss the positives of having a full-time sports psychologist on staff, but it’s been only within the last decade that players and athletic departments have seen the value the service can bring, on and off the field.
Now almost every Southeastern Conference school works with some kind of sports psychologist, for the national focus on student-athlete mental health is at an all-time high, A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said.
“For years and years, the stigma of that whole going to see a counselor or even a sports psychologist — you did it in the cover of darkness and you didn’t want anybody to know about it,” Bjork said. “Now it’s the forefront of really everything we talk about.”
Pittsinger, who leads A&M athletic’s counseling and sports psychology services, has been a full-time member of the athletic department since 2016. He has a doctorate in counseling psychology, a masters in sports psychology and a belief that preparing an athlete to be mentally strong on the playing field encompasses every aspect of his or her life.
In a first session, Pittsinger says 60 to 70% of student-athletes typically show up for on-field performance aid and find that general mental health and sports performance conversations start to blend together.
“Very rarely do I meet with somebody and it’s only about athletic performance, because we’ll start talking about fear of failure, or we’ll start talking about how they can perform their best and inevitably, something will come up,” Pittsinger said. “For example, maybe it’s self confidence or it’s fear of letting somebody down or fear of not being accepted or not wanting to disappoint somebody or feeling guilty or shameful. So it’s like life always comes in at some point.”
A&M’s athletic counseling and sports psychology department is a two-person operation featuring Pittsinger and Lauren Craig. Both service every A&M sports program with participation up to the student-athlete. The services can be customized to each student-athlete. While Mond meets with Pittsinger on a weekly basis, other Aggie football players choose not to use the department’s services.
Then there’s defensive back Keldrick Carper, who sits next to Pittsinger in his locker before every game and has a brief chat to mentally prepare for the game.
“Sometimes it’s just talking and being able to calm down a little bit, take a deep breath,” Pittsinger said. “Sometimes it’s talking about stuff totally unrelated. Sometimes it’s talking about, hey, here’s what I’m worried about. This is what I was doing during practice. How can I keep doing that?”
For Carper, the pregame chat is simply a moment to relax and focus on the things only he can control, Pittsinger said.
Meanwhile, A&M’s entire wide receiver corps meets with Pittsinger on a regular basis to set goals for each new week and look back on how many it met the week prior, junior receiver Jhamon Ausbon said.
Goal setting creates a mental road map, Pittsinger said. Without goals, arriving at the desired destination can take a lot more time and effort.
“We’re going to set these goals. We’re going to talk about the choices we can make in order to be successful,” Pittsinger said. “So once we’re in those situations, all we’ve got to do is follow that road map.”
Mond, like most major college quarterbacks, carries a heavy mental load during the season. The expectation is to be polished and perfect to properly represent himself and the program. Pittsinger says he provides a space where players in high-profile positions can simply be themselves and shed some of the mental burden.
“In a high-pressure position, I think it’s important that there’s opportunity for them to be real, be authentic and just talk about whatever they’re experiencing,” Pittsinger said. “Be able to put their guard down and don’t have to, you know, you don’t always have it together, always be so polished all the time.”
Pittsinger said head coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff fully embrace the importance of their services and encourage athletes to get involved.
“That’s a big part of today’s world, how to deal and comprehend and cope with things to put yourself in the right frame of mind and compete, because of social media and what people say,” Fisher said.
In the future, Bjork said he believes college athletic programs will hire full-time sports psychologists in equal numbers to their physical counterparts, athletic trainers. The volume of student-athletes entering Pittsinger’s door and returning for regular visits proves the need for his service and that any antiquated barriers about sports psychology have been broken, he said.
“One of the big things that I think is so helpful is just being able to be validated,” Pittsinger said. “Here’s what I’m feeling and that’s OK. You don’t have to try to make it go away. Here is someone that cares that I can talk through these things, that I can be real with and isn’t going to tell me to not feel that way.”