Taylor Oren (17) is impacting the field one mentally-resilient athlete at a time.

At all levels of athletics, mental health has taken center stage in recent years. As elite athletes like Simone Biles have begun to share openly about the pressure around athletic competitions, the conversation around mental health and athletics has become more normalized. This movement has paved the way for professionals like Oren to step into the gap. 

“My job is to help individuals become more mentally resilient, whether that be athletes or working professionals or someone who has suffered a traumatic event,” said Oren.

Oren is an associate professional clinical counselor who works for Pacific Counseling and Trauma Center. She counsels a wide range of clients, but her passion is working with athletes at all levels.

Oren explained that trauma for an athlete can be either physical injury or a humiliating experience that causes deep shame for the athlete. As a result,when the athlete is put into similar situations, the body will revert back to the previous headspace, following old neural pathways, and push the individual into a fight, flight, or freeze response.

“No one wants to perform badly, but there are these underlying psychological responses that influence athletes whether they know it or not,” said Oren, “It can be the most frustrating experience for them because there’s a deep desire to perform well but there’s this block keeping them from doing that.”

Oren’s work focuses on using techniques like brainspotting to help athletes overcome these mental blocks and improve their performance. Brainspotting is “a powerful, focused treatment method that works by identifying, processing, and releasing core neurophysiological sources of emotional/body pain, trauma, dissociation, and a variety of other challenging symptoms.” Essentially, counselors like Oren work with patients to help their brains embody and reprocess trauma so that they can move away from the fight, flight, or freeze survival responses. 

“I really try to maintain an athlete-first perspective. I’m focused on honoring them as a person over their performance.”

“I really try to maintain an athlete-first perspective,” Oren said. “I’m focused on honoring them as a person over their performance.”

Oren has worked with individuals ranging from collegiate to professional to Olympic-level, helping them become more mentally resilient versions of themselves. And while she loves her work and finds it to be very rewarding, she stated that real change for athletes will come when entire organizations start taking mental health more seriously.

“I see individuals and I love that part of the job, but I have to be working on systemic change,” Oren said. “The thing that bothers me the most is that I truly believe that some of the pain my clients experience is avoidable. I think that with better education, tools, and resources, people won’t have to experience these common, painful events.”

To that end, Oren has started working on a larger scale with entire companies and coaching staffs to ensure change on a broader level. Oren shares information around healthy coaching tools and communication designed to motivate and inspire athletes. She focuses on the difference between strength-based coaching and shame-based coaching.

“I aim to help coaches see that the same value lies in their players who start every game as those who play little to no minutes,” Oren said. “Every player contributes and coaches need to know that the way they communicate can either increase self-esteem and confidence or decrease those things and cause humiliation.”

“Every player contributes and coaches need to know that the way they communicate can either increase self-esteem and confidence or decrease those things and cause humiliation.”

Oren explained that in some ways her work with coaches is as important if not more important than her work with athletes because many professional athletes go on to become recreational and professional coaches.

“The internalized shame and self-criticism that athletes carry through their athletic career bleeds out when they become coaches,” said Oren, “If their internal dialogue when they were athletes was always negative, then their external dialogue when they become coaches is going to be negative.” 

And while Oren is making an impact in the counseling field with her professional career she has also started her own personal counseling business called Taylor Oren, LLC where she also shares mental-resilience tools with businesses, organizations, and clients.

“In my work I always want to look at the full picture and create more change,” said Oren, “To not choose complacency and to always think about the environment and getting to the root cause of a situation.”

Oren’s work and the work of other mental health professionals at the collegiate, professional, and international levels can only serve to improve athletes’ understanding of their value beyond their sport and performance. Oren is hopeful that the tides of mental health are shifting as coaches and programs become more mental-health forward.

“The message in sports right now is that the price of excellence is trespassing all of your boundaries,” said Oren, “Sacrifice your mental health, relational health, and everything that gives you a sense of identity outside of your sport to be successful.”

Oren sees her goals around athletes as breaking this unsustainable culture, not only with the individual athletes she works with, but also with coaches. By focusing on athletes and coaches, Oren is approaching the issue from both sides with the goal of positively impacting the current culture around sports performance. Mentally-resilient athletes can become mentally-healthy coaches who train up mentally-resilient athletes, and so on.

“We can’t just stop at the micro,” Oren said. “We have to look at systems and do the preventative work so we can mitigate a lot of these issues.”

Kendall Patton is a 2016 graduate of PLNU and a former student-athlete. She graduated with a degree in journalism and is a freelance writer for the Viewpoint.