In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Nebraska released a conversation between director of sports psychology Dr. Brett Haskell, head football coach Matt Rhule and host Jessica Coody for a final May episode of the Husker Sports Podcast.
Rhule has advocated for various aspects of student-athlete health since he arrived in November. He hired strength and conditioning coach Corey Campbell, who then assembled a staff of various skillsets. Nebraska also expanded its nutrition program for student-athletes. Rhule also reiterates the importance of caring for a player’s mental health. In the podcast conversation, Rhule reiterated the pressures his football teams face now as opposed to a decade earlier. A bad play can become an internet meme. A missed assignment can result in a bad grade from one of numerous online analytics databases. Are his players prepared for that?
“I think that is something that’s such a unique challenge and the programs competing at the highest levels are being very intentional and deliberate how they educate and train their players with the culture of surveillance,” Haskell said. “You can ignore newspapers, you can not pick up the newspaper. There’s no way to interact with the people in your life without picking up your phone. It’s really really hard for our athletes to avoid that constant feedback from strangers.
“I talk to my athletes a lot about who’s your audience and let’s be really deliberate about who you want your audience to be. Not that we can’t please the fans but you have to in your mind get really clear about who you’re letting evaluate your worth and value.”
Haskell played volleyball at Nebraska-Kearney until she graduated with a degree in psychology in 2005. She earned her Master’s in sports psychology from North Carolina-Greensboro upon a recommendation from a mentor who worked at the Olympic Training Center at the time. The only class she enjoyed in high school, she said, was advanced psychology. While at UNK she studied her fellow student-athletes. She tracked their experiences related to psychological wellness and high performance. She fell in love with it but without much of a job field. That field has exploded in the last decade as more universities, and even some high schools, employ a sports psychologist. Rhule said they used whatever resources at Temple they could, then Baylor hired its first full-time sports psychologist during his time there.
Nebraska currently employs four others in the sports psychology department. Including Haskell, all are dual-trained in performance psychology and clinical mental health. This allows providers to care for Nebraska student-athletes across the mental care spectrum. On average, 1 in 4 college students deal with a diagnosable mental illness. That ranges from addressing mental illness to helping student-athletes gain brain hacks for better performance. Haskell wants to expand the school’s sports psychology reach to train future providers as the field continues to expand. That fits in with Rhule’s philosophy of teaching and improvement.
“Mental health is something that’s affecting a lot of people and at the same time sports performance, everyone is looking for an edge,” Rhule said. “The way you think, the way you prepare yourself mentally is as important as anything else. It seems to be a unique time and we’re well positioned with Dr. Haskell here.”
Rhule, coming off his NFL coaching stint, said one of his non-negotiables when accepting a job at Nebraska was to have a sports psychologist embedded in the program. That way every player is close to the resource. He brought up Austin Larkin, who is now on staff at Nebraska, who discussed his own mental health in front of teammates while playing in Carolina. That helps build buy-in from players. Haskell mentioned Garrett Nelson as a success story in the program. He went to the department to help him optimize mental performance on the field.
Rhule himself holds a weekly meeting with Haskell to optimize his mental performance for his hectic schedule. Haskell prioritizes sleep and helped Rhule address his lack of it (partially from his Whoop readings). Rhule said getting players to sleep at optimal levels is difficult. He’ll sometimes lend his personal experiences with sleep meditation for guidance.
“If there’s one thing I tell the athletes I could prescribe to every student-athlete to take athletic performance through the roof it would be high-quality sleep. It is the foundation for all things physical health and all things mental health. It is where our brain recharges and restores,” Haskell said. “And your brain is controlling all the psychological processes that allow someone to get strong and get fast and get good reaction times, and things of that nature.”
Society continues to de-stigmatize mental care treatment but Haskell hopes more student-athletes, and students in general, receive treatment as needed. Rhule said he’d keep to himself and self-treatment if left to his own devices. He’s convinced he’d continue to work hard and burn out. He complimented Haskell’s accountability and care for student-athletes.
Right now, Nebraska is among the top three in the country in terms of student-athlete-to-provider ratio, according to Haskell. She’s optimistic of the program’s future, especially if they can get the training program moving with momentum. She sees it as an investment into society’s future to have resilient, gritty people who can conquer obstacles with mental flexibility. Her drive isn’t lost on the head football coach.
“We don’t want to be complacent and whatever our need is in society it’s only going to continue to grow,” Rhule said. “Being proactive and one of the things to be in football is not only be one of the best but be the best. She wants to be the best. I want parents to know if they send their kids here, their kids will be taken care of in all aspects of their life. Your mental health, brain health, it effects all aspects of your life.”