Mental health has become front and center in the sports world, as athletes such as Simone Biles have forced many to rethink the negative stigmas associated with it. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one sports psychologist is also helping to lead the charge.
Nedu Izuegbunam joined the UNL’s sports psychology team in the fall of 2020. He immediately gelled with the team and was one of the missing puzzle pieces to one of the now biggest college sports psychology teams in the country.
Izuegbunam took an unconventional route to get where he is today. He started at UNL as a broadcast-journalism major and had a psychology minor. He wrote for The Daily Nebraskan all four years of his college experience and initially wanted to go into sports broadcasting. But he saw that the industry had former college athletes fill the roles Izuegbunam wanted to go into. So, he leaned into his psychology minor and moved it up to a double major.
“I just really wanted to learn more,” Izuegbunam said. “I wanted to see what it was like for an athlete to optimally perform, and if they mess up, how they can get back to that elite level or bounce back to that optimal performance.”
He wanted to learn the tools athletes could use to help them get out of their own way when they are in their own head and it negatively impacts their performance. He said he wanted to stay in the world of sports, and, more importantly, be a helper in sports.
Izuegbunam serves a massively important role on the sports psychology team. He helps oversee programming for substance-use in the athletic department and is the liaison between the sport psychology department and life skills department. He currently works with the Huskers’ bowling, cross country, swim & dive, track & field, women’s gymnastics and wrestling teams.
Part of Izuegbunam’s big impact is his role with the substance abuse program in Nebraska athletics. Each team receives mandatory drug tests throughout their season. When an athlete tests negative for drugs then there is no problem. But, when there is a positive test, that is where Izuegbunam and the program’s protocol comes into play.
After a positive test, the student-athlete will meet with Izuegbunam or their team’s assigned psychologist. They will then go over how the program works and the expectations that need to be met to not be a part of the substance abuse program any longer. Some of those expectations are two negative results within a certain week’s span, an evaluation and clinical recommendation from an outpatient therapist. They also communicate with coaches, or at least some member of their staff.
The outpatient therapist gives recommendations that can range from sessions on drug education to more severe cases in an intensive outpatient facility, which means that the student-athlete is at an outside facility to remove them from the environment putting them at risk for positive tests.
Consequences not covered in the program are usually up to each coach or team and range from dismissal to reduced playing time.
“I usually will quiz my athletes that I meet with,” Izuegbunam said. “I give them two quizzes just to really gauge and measure what they are learning with me. And then I provide them with tools to help them find something to substitute for the drugs or alcohol.”
Trust is also an important part of this program. Each student-athlete signs a waiver that essentially gives permission and allows the Izuegbunam to communicate with someone, whether that be coaches, staff or parents. Izuegbunam said many of the student-athletes are very receptive to someone being a part of the treatment, to help keep them accountable. He does not overshare what needs to be shared.
“Trust is built in the sense of not necessarily going into heavy detail of what’s going on with these individuals,” Izuegbunam said. “In order to really feel open to sharing something vulnerable and private and secretive with the therapist, you’re not going to want them to be sharing everything. So, when the coaches or staff or parents are meeting with us, we just share the attendance results, and beyond that, only what the student-athlete wants shared.”
While the substance abuse program is necessary, one of Izuegbunam’s most important impacts is his role as an African-American, male counselor. Having a counselor who is able to relate to unique experiences is important in the helper-client relationship.
Dr. Kate Higgins, the Nebraska Athletic Department’s neuropsychologist, is one of five sports psychology team members and said Izuegnunam and Mariah Bullock, one of the athletic psychologists on staff who also joined in 2020, were major additions to their team.
Higgins said that before Izuegbunam and Bullock were hired, the department needed to improve on understanding the lived experience of diverse and minority individuals.
“We recognized that we were three white people serving the most racially, ethnically and culturally diverse ecosystem on campus,” Higgins said. “So that was something that the head of our department, Dr. Haskell, really prioritized and we wanted to reflect the population that we serve.”
This is the reflection of a legitimate problem across the country. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), as of 2019, there were 110,270 psychologists in the country, yet only 3% of that number are African-American, 3,733 to be exact. In Division I college athletics, there are 184,028 athletes, and of those athletes, 20% are African-American, according to the NCAA.
There is still a stigma in many cultures, however, against therapy. This is one of the reasons there is a disproportionate amount of white psychologists compared to African-American psychologists.
Higgins said Izuegbunam’s importance to the Nebraska sports psychology team and to the student-athletes he serves is tremendous.
“The first words that first come to mind when speaking or thinking of Izuegbunam are compassionate, empathic and conscientious,” Higgins said. “The level of conscientiousness he displays with the ability to be very aware of his patients’ experience and to be in tune with them and make them feel comfortable is incredible.”
Paul Klempa, Nebraska’s bowling coach, shares a similar view of Izuegbunam now. Klempa said he was not happy when the bowling team received a new counselor to work with in 2020. That sentiment didn’t last long, though.
“It took very little time,” Klempa said. “I don’t even remember there being any growing pains at all. Nedu seemed to kind of roll with everything real nicely and he immediately built a rapport with everybody on the team.”
Izuegbunam is overly critical of himself. He noted a few strengths but can speak more to what he should improve upon. His peers had much more trouble in that regard.
Klempa and Higgins spoke at length on Izuegbunam’s strengths. They said all the student-athletes he serves gravitate toward him so easily. The strengths they mentioned are a laundry list and include validation of lived experiences, a tremendous listener, easy to talk to and a great sense of humor, he’s driven and maybe most important of all, he’s genuinely interested in being a helper. Those around him have noted he is quite good at it.