As attitudes shift around mental health, particularly in sports, Pistons life coach Corey Yeager is on a mission to normalize the conversation and simply be there for his players.
Flash back to NBA All-Star Weekend in February 2018. DeMar DeRozan had just earned his fourth All-Star nod and signed a $139 million contract with the Toronto Raptors the prior offseason. He had the money. He had the stats. And he had the accolades. The Compton Kid should have been celebrating.
From the outside looking in, it could be hard to understand why that wasn’t the case. But that’s just the thing — we’re on the outside. We can read the headlines, but we can’t know the struggles. Those everyday feelings every human experiences, regardless of their position in life. And whether it was intentional or not, DeRozan pulled back the curtain that weekend with a tweet in the wee hours of the morning.
It wasn’t the first time an athlete ever spoke publicly about mental wellness, but it was enough to empower other pro athletes to follow suit.
Not A Therapist
Dr. Corey Yeager doesn’t want to be viewed as a therapist; he’s a Life Coach.
And he got his introduction to the NBA through his friend, Dwane Casey, who was coaching the Raptors at the time of DeRozan’s tweet.
“When all that unfolded, Case said to me, ‘Hell, I didn’t know DeMar was struggling with that stuff,'” Yeager told Boardroom.
When Casey was named Detroit Pistons head coach in June 2018, Yeager came with him. He’s been with the Pistons ever since, sitting in front of the team bench before every game, available for players to talk to and confide in. Yeager is there to offer compassion, empathy, and a friendly ear as the best basketball players in the world look to navigate high-pressure careers.
During Yeager’s time with the Pistons and as mental health dialogue grew around the NBA, Commissioner Adam Silver implemented new rules and hosted a mandatory health and wellness meeting for team executives and mental health and wellness providers in Chicago, setting formal requirements for all 30 teams.
“It tells you how proactive that Coach Case was, how forward thinking and progressive it was to think around the concept of mental wellness,” Yeager said of Casey hiring him before Silver instituted any requirements. “He was already ahead of the curve in terms of finding that level of support for players. Coach Casey told me ‘you can be at anything — you got access because we want you around, want you supporting our players.’”
According to a recent study from the CDC, 23.2% of people aged 18-44 received mental health treatment in the past year — an increase from 18.5% the previous year. Another study found that 42% of people aged 18-24 have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
Yeager believes people like DeRozan have a mission to speak about mental health. It would go a long way toward normalizing it to the point that the discussion matches the numbers above.
“I think the mission of the younger people in their 30s and below — those young people that make up the NBA — they’ll hold people accountable and voice that they need mental wellness support,” Yeager said. “The younger generation will demand it.”
Part of the Staff
Make no mistake: Yeager is a part of the Pistons’ coaching staff. His job is to naturally build relationships with players and let them inform how he implements his own practices.
“[Players are] used to coaching, so life coaching is just saying, ‘hey, let’s get some coaching around what’s going on in your day-to-day process outside of basketball,” Yeager said.
“I make sure that those guys know what my work is about, what it is, how it works, how it can be helpful, and then allow that opportunity for them to engage with me. Being present is really important. So when I mention being at all those games, sitting at the front of the bench pre-game so they can engage, heck, even shooting them a text — it’s really important.”
There’s a clear distinction between someone you spend real time with vs. a doctor made available by appointment. Yeager mentions how balance is key in all of this — being empathetic, but also helping push the conversation.
“I have a thing that I call Open Mic. I sit down with a group of players and I don’t go in with an agenda about what we’re gonna talk about,” he said. “I’ll ask: What is one or two words that describe where you are at this moment today? As we check in from that conversation, there’s a pattern that emerges, they start talking about things that are important to them.”
How does he find a balance without invading private space or opening a wound that might not need to be opened?
“Sometimes they want some private space,” he said. “Some may say, ‘Hey Doc, I’m gonna hop on a call with you later.’ I live near some of the players in the area, so sometimes they’ll say ‘Hey, I’m gonna swing by tonight, Doc.’ Sometimes they’ll swing by, sit down, and have a two-hour conversation. That organic piece of engagement really occurs from just being around a lot.”
‘Tell Them to Fire Me’
Of course, Yeager must also consider confidentiality, finding a way to work with Casey without informing him what, exactly, players are saying. Casey does his part, making it clear to Yeager that he does not want to know any specifics.
“[That] makes it a lot easier for me to engage and build trust with those guys,” Yeager said. “I tell players off the rip — if you ever hear anyone talking about the things that you and I have talked about in private, you should go to the GM directly at that moment and tell them to fire me. Why? Because that means I’ve betrayed your confidence and I’m never gonna betray your confidence.”
As Yeager discusses trust, he touches on the importance of empathy and self-reflection, both prominent themes in his book “How Am I Doing? 40 Conversations To Have With Yourself.”
“When you say self-reflection and empathy, those are things that weren’t taught early on,” Yeager said. “We may see people empathize with others, but no one points that out specifically.”
As for self-reflection?
“We may see others in self-reflected moments, but no one’s really saying, ‘Hey, so this is a way that you slow down and self-reflect?’ So I think pointing out those things is really important to really guide [athletes] to understand. Ask: what is self-reflection? What does that look and feel like? What is empathy? How do I develop a version of empathy? Understanding those things, becoming more comfortable with those concepts, means I can engage with those concepts more readily. If I can be more empathetic, more self-reflective, that means the world’s better. If we all can do that, I think the world gets better.”
Your Own Journey
During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competition, saying her “body and mind were not in sync.” Critics couldn’t wrap their head around the 24-year-old’s decision, particularly because she was set to pass Shannon Miller for the most Olympic medals won by an American gymnast.
During the 2021-22 NBA season, Ben Simmons filed a grievance against the 76ers for withholding $20 million from his salary. Simmons spent that season on the sidelines, citing mental health issues. Through it all, many could not register the empathy required to wrap their heads around the situation. So, they threw rocks from a glass house.
Yeager opened up about these instances, saying that someone’s mental wellness is not dependent on someone else’s understanding.
“You don’t have to understand it. It’s mine,” he said. “So I’m not asking anyone else in this world to understand my mental wellness journey or what I need to fulfill my mental wellness. It’s not dependent on you.”
As for Biles, Yeager had praise for the young athlete.
“Biles was gonna break all these records for the most Gold medals and all that, and people wanted to see her do that. She obviously would’ve loved to break those records, but she knew that [her] mental wellness was more important.”
Ironically, Yeager spoke to Boardroom while sitting at the Pistons’ shootaround on Jan. 10, before a game against none other than the 76ers. He may have been on the phone, but he was still present. He was willing to listen and just be available for any player who needs him. And every day that he’s able to do that is a day that helps normalize discussions around mental health.
“I’m encouraged that these conversations are unfolding,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that everyone is accepting and we’ve completely normalized mental wellness, but I think we’re on the road towards that. Hopefully 10-20 years from now, mental wellness will be accepted the same way physical health is.”
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