Paddy Steinfort Represents Growing Trend Toward Sports Teams Addressing Mental Health And Wellness | #sports | #elderly | #seniors
When Kevin Pillar was a guest of Paddy Steinfort’s “Toughness” podcast earlier this year, the veteran major league outfielder was just about to sign a free-agent deal with the New York Mets.
Pillar, 32, had split time between the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies during the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, and now he was getting a chance to continue his baseball career with a possible playoff contender. But despite the positive news of having a new employer as he headed into 2021 spring training, Pillar described on the podcast a dark period in his life that had unfolded only months earlier.
“I just finally felt like things were so far out of my hand and out of my control that I lost control, and I had a breakdown,” Pillar told Steinfort. “And I got help.”
Pillar’s interview was one of the more recent public testimonials on mental health by a professional athlete. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love wrote a personal essay in the Players’ Tribune in 2018 detailing his past struggles with panic attacks and anxiety, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott discussed his bouts with depression in an interview on “In Depth With Graham Bensinger” last year.
Steinfort, a mental performance coach who has worked with athletes in numerous sports at the professional and collegiate levels — including Super Bowl-winning quarterback Pat Mahomes when he played college football at Texas Tech — is currently the senior mental skills coordinator for the Red Sox. Steinfort said that when high-profile names in sports, or any field, come forward and tell their personal stories like Pillar or Love or Prescott did, “it helps normalize” an issue that has long been stigmatized or pushed out of the spotlight.
“It’s huge when it happens,” said Steinfort. “These are super successful people, who are often viewed as paragons of strength or perfection. Coming forward shows that even though they’re viewed that way, they’re not immune from mental and emotional struggles. By them normalizing these issues, and sharing what they did to get through their struggles, including connecting with support services, that changes the behavior of the many people who follow them — via social media or other means.”
The Australian-born Steinfort, 42, had a nine-year career playing Australian Rules football, first with Richmond FC from 1997 to 2001, and then two seasons each with Coburg FC and West Adelaide FC. But during his athletic career, Steinfort said he lost a close relative to suicide. When he later was at a crossroads in his coaching career, he moved to the United States and pursued a master’s degree in applied psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
That began a new professional chapter for Steinfort, and in addition to the Red Sox, he has worked with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, the NBA’s 76ers and the Toronto Blue Jays, where he first crossed paths with Pillar.
Steinfort is not a licensed psychiatrist or medical professional, and his work is more focused on building confidence and strengthening cognitive skills to “find better ways to elevate” one’s performance. But Steinfort said there can often be a “blurring of lines” between some of the challenges and pressures an athlete may face on the field or court and any “mental health issues that can be a little deeper.”
Steinfort’s role with the Red Sox is one that he said he hopes more professional teams may embrace as part of their overall culture.
“I would like to think so. There’s been a trend in the last 10 years, where more MLB teams have someone in a similar type of role as myself,” said Steinfort. “I think there should be access to clinical and mental health support services for every athlete, coach, and team personnel, and I think it’s trending that way.”
The “Toughness” podcast, Steinfort said, was born out of request by a U.S. Army think tank. Steinfort, an advisor for the Army, was asked to create an interview series specifically for the Army population, which is an estimated 1.3 million active servicemen and servicewomen.
“The central topics were going to be toughness, resilience and performance in high-stakes, high-consequence environments,” said Steinfort.
But the coronavirus pandemic changed all of those plans. Steinfort said that instead a decision was made to share the podcast content “with a wider civilian community in the wake of the challenges we all faced doing life in 2020.”
In addition to Pillar, former Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, former Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno and 49ers running back Raheem Mostert are several sports figures who have been interviewed on the podcast.
“One of big aims of the ‘Toughness’ podcast is that it looks to use people we might look at as heroes, to tell their stories and end the old-school ‘Keep quiet, keep it to yourself’ approach to mental health,” said Steinfort.