Robert Bumbaco (MSW ’07), a former Division I ice hockey player, knows the psychological challenges confronting athletes well. While competing in college, he struggled with anxiety, depression, and the pressure to perform but felt uncomfortable speaking with his coaches about his mental state. “I worried it would affect my playing time and that I would be seen as ‘weak minded’ if I admitted what was bothering me,” Bumbaco says. Afraid of the stigma and unsure of where to get help, he focused on his physical performance instead, but the mental strain took a toll.
Bumbaco’s personal experience was a powerful motivator to pursue a career in social work. As an MSW student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, he met Jody Bechtold (MSW ’02), an adjunct professor specializing in addiction and mental health disorders who later became his mentor and licensure supervisor. In 2018, the two cofounded The Better Institute, a Pittsburgh-based mental health services provider focused on addiction and recovery, mental health, skills development, and confidence building for diverse clients.
At The Better Institute, Bumbaco saw an opportunity to revisit the gaps in mental health support for players that he’d witnessed as a college athlete. He established Back in the Game, a sports performance program designed to provide players of all ages and skill levels with accessible tools to optimize their performance and overcome psychological obstacles to success. Back in the Game works with individuals, teams, and coaches to address the challenges surrounding competitive sports play and promote a strong mental game among athletes through a combination of education, prevention services, and skills development. It also strives to reduce the stigma around mental health in sports among players, coaches, parents, and audiences.
“Success in sports is about much more than physical skills,” says Bumbaco. “So much goes along with performance.”
Back in the Game focuses on strengthening six core skills in participants: goal setting, preparation, confidence building, self-talk and visualization, focus and motivation, and working through adversity. Bumbaco and Bechtold identified these key skills through a combination of clinical practice, research, and on-the-field experience. Each one is designed to help athletes excel in a specific area of performance and minimize the risks that competitive players often are susceptible to, such as addiction, burnout, depression, and performance anxiety.
Since its inception, Back in the Game has worked with a wide range of athletes and teams, including the Robert Morris University men’s basketball team and EXCEL Hockey Academy, a partnership between North Catholic High School and the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Each client or team benefits from a customized performance plan that is tailored to meet their specific goals on and off the field. Sessions can look drastically different from client to client or week to week, says Bumbaco. He shares the example of an athlete who felt uncomfortable talking in a traditional sit-down arrangement but opened up after Bumbaco moved the meeting to the basketball court. Passing the ball back and forth put him at ease to discuss the challenges he was facing and helped him to connect the dots between his mental state and his physical performance.
While COVID-19 has prevented Bumbaco and his team from interacting with clients in person, the switch to remote services has made it easier for them to share Back in the Game with a wider audience. The Better Institute will soon release an online mental skills training for athletes, and Bumbaco has been working with his clients remotely during the pandemic, encouraging them to make the most of their downtime. After all, he says, “Even though we can’t have physical practice and play games with our teammates, there’s no better time to develop a strong mental game.”