Dr. Lani Lawrence tackles the perception of mental health in athletics


Lindsay Benza '23

Dr. Lani Lawrence speaks to the Upper School about mental skills and athletic success.

By Kelly Haggerty, Sacred Heart Greenwich

Sports psychologists who work with athletes of all ages emphasize the importance of strengthening mental skills.  Athletes often dismiss the mental component of sports, resulting in unwanted outcomes.  Dr. Lani Lawrence, sports psychologist and Director of Wellness and Clinical Services of the New York Giants, visited Sacred Heart Greenwich March 8 and discussed how mental fortitude assists athletes in achieving their goals.

Athletes of all types seek out sports psychologists to improve their game, work through mental blocks, and overcome the mental effects of injuries. Many professional athletes face psychological pressure when performing at an elite level, creating mental health issues, according to apa.org.   World famous professional athletes such as Mr. Micheal Jordan and Mr. Shaquille O’Neal have credited a sports psychologist as a key factor in their success, according to maximizethemind.com 

Dr. Lawrence received her Master of Education in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Sport Psychology from Boston University and her Bachelor of Science degree from Northeastern University.  She played on the women’s basketball team at Northeastern, where she is second all-time in rebounding and blocked shots, and fourth all-time in field goal percentage.  After college, she played professionally for a year in Europe before returning to her education.  She went on to acquire her Doctor of Psychology degree from the University of Denver and completed her pre-doctoral and post-doctoral internship at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Student Counseling Services.

Before her start with the New York Giants, Dr. Lawrence worked with student-athletes at USC in Los Angeles, California, as a clinical and sports psychologist.  There she worked with 21 different Division I (DI) men’s and women’s teams.  She also taught a freshman seminar class on Foundations of Self for Women of Color, which explored the experiences of women collegiate athletes of color.

Currently, she leads the New York Giants player engagement and development program.  In her role, she prepares players for the mental aspect of the sport by teaching them how to handle failure and focus on the next play, according to nypost.com.  She speaks to the team the night before every game and gives presentations on different topics to help athletes achieve a positive mindset.  Dr. Lawrence discussed the benefits of concentrating on the mental aspect of sports.

“They are so focused on building their skill set and learning the game that they do not realize how the mental aspects impact them,” Dr. Lawrence said.  “Some of the most successful athletes…like Serena Williams, and even someone like Lebron James; at a very early age they understood the mental aspect and how it impacts them.  So I feel like before, back in the day, strength and conditioning was brand new, and now it’s sports psychology and this mental piece, and just like everything else, I think it is going to become more and more commonplace.”

As many high-profile athletes are opening up about their mental health, they are creating a shift in the narrative of mental health in sports, according to hbr.org.  Drawing from her experience with professional athletes, Dr. Lawrence spoke about the stigma surrounding athletes and mental health issues.

“The reason why I think it is so important for athletes to open up about their mental health is to reduce the stigma,” Dr. Lawrence said. “They are looked at as role models, and I do think that there is a younger generation that is more open to mental health and talking about how they feel, but to be able to see people you love and respect be able to talk so openly encourages those fans to do the same.

Dr. Lani Lawrence reflects on her own experiences throughout her athletic career.  Caterina Pye ’23

Dr. Lawrence spoke to Upper School Sacred Heart students about balance and self-care.  She discussed the different types of stress that challenge both students and athletes.

“For general students, everyone has stressors, your family, academics, and anxiety, the difference between a general student and an athlete is those stressors are public,” Dr. Lawrence said.  “Stressors to be a captain or a leader, pressure to balance it all and not knowing how to do that.  They both share some of the same experiences, but there are some unique experiences for student-athletes, like their failures being public.”

One of the main reasons athletes turn to sports psychologists is because of bad injuries, causing them to be removed from the game for an extended amount of time.  Dr. Lawrence reflected on the mental challenges that appear because of the consequences that injuries can have.

“For some of our guys who have had ACL injuries, they develop a fear of reinjuring by doing the same move, and the other fear is will I be as good as I was before?, or can I get to that high level again?  For others, it might be anxiety because they have not played for a year or so,” Dr. Lawrence said.  “Each player, I think, is different.  As a football player, when you are hurt, you cannot work out as you did before, so you might get anxious because you cannot physically move as much, or you might start feeling down because you want to move and you cannot.”

Dr. Lani Lawrence explains the value of mental health for athletes. Lindsay Benza ’23

Dr. Lawrence drew upon her own experiences of achieving success in a male-dominated industry.  To frame her guidance to Sacred Heart students, she offered a piece of advice that applies to students, athletes, and performers.

“You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and push yourself so that you can grow.  It is important to take calculated risks and recognize that you are more talented than you realize. These opportunities will push you to grow and teach you that you do not have to be perfect to be successful,” Dr. Lawrence said.  “I think as women, we think that we need to be perfect, but as long as you are giving 100 percent of what you have, you are moving the needle a little that day.”

This story was originally published on King Street Chronicle on March 9, 2023.