Cody Commander has always loved sports.
“I played everything growing up,” said Commander, a 2010 graduate of Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology. “If you can compete in it, I’ll probably enjoy watching it or participating in it.”
This summer, Commander will experience firsthand the ultimate display of athleticism when he serves as a mental health officer for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC).
Commander first learned of the opportunity when he was presenting at a conference at UCLA in early 2020. A sport psychologist approached him afterwards and asked if he would be interested in applying for the USOPC’s new position.
“Who wouldn’t be excited at an opportunity like that?” Commander recalled.
When Commander first expressed interest, he thought he would be heading to Tokyo in the summer of 2020 for the Olympic Games. But the COVID-19 pandemic quickly upended those plans, delaying the competition to 2021.
Since the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, Commander has been serving as a consultant to the USOPC and helping the organization develop a strategic mental health plan. As part of that plan, the USOPC will train everyone involved—from athletic trainers to coaches—in the appropriate mental health care of the athletes.
In addition to the strategic mental health plan, Commander has created a directory of sport psychologists who are available to work with athletes in every state. That directory includes an online map where athletes can easily see the providers nearby.
“It just makes it easier for them and their coaches, and everyone involved in their care, to help find appropriate resources for their mental health,” Commander explained.
Once he’s in Tokyo, Commander will be responsible for overseeing the mental health care of Team USA athletes. He will ensure that their psychological and mental health needs are being met, and be on hand for any emergencies or crises.
Commander is one of three mental health officers hired by the USOPC. While Commander will focus on the Olympic Games, the other two mental health officers will work at the Paralympic Games. The USOPC has also hired a director of mental health services to develop and implement mental health services and programming for Team USA.
“There have not been positions like this before at the USOPC. It’s kind of groundbreaking,” Commander explained. “To the USOPC’s credit, they have really prioritized mental health. It highlights the importance of mental health services for the athletes and ensures that all athletes have access to mental health care.”
In the pressure cooker environment of Olympic competition, Commander said, the mental health of athletes is just as important as their physical conditioning and training.
“Whenever an athlete is training for the Olympics or Paralympics, the amount of stress they experience will inevitably lead to some mental health challenges,” Commander said.
In a world where one injury could permanently impact the trajectory of an Olympic and post-Olympic career, athletes experience stressors at every turn. They struggle with financial burdens due to the high cost of training. They endure loneliness and isolation from traveling and being away from family. And there is the constant nagging worry about what the future holds when the days of Olympic glory are but a mere distant memory.
“It’s definitely not easy to be an Olympian or Paralympian,” said Commander.
That high level of stress has only been compounded by the postponement of the 2020 Games.
“They’ve been working hard toward a goal that has a strict deadline on it. All of their training is focused on the date they’re competing,” Commander explained. “When that gets shifted, it throws off all of their training, which then affects how well they can mentally adjust to all of the changes.”
That delay has been especially difficult for athletes at the peak of their careers and staring at their last shot at Olympic gold.
“You add another year and you may have some athletes who are now questioning whether it’s worth training for another year. They may have already postponed starting a family or launching a second career,” said Commander. “For athletes, this can be difficult, as almost every minute of their life is structured. They know exactly what they’re doing, how they’re going to do it, and when they’re going to do it. When you add a level of ambiguity to that, it can definitely be a challenge.”
For Commander, there is one upside to having the games postponed—it gives him another year to learn some Japanese.
This will be Commander’s first trip to Japan. He plans to arrive in Tokyo two weeks before the games begin and will spend four to five weeks there.
Most of all, he is looking forward to being part of a team that supports the mental health of Team USA athletes.
“I’m excited to participate and be available when needed,” he said.
For Commander, sport psychology has been the perfect career fit as it combines his passions for athletics and psychology.
Commander grew up watching tennis on television with his grandmother, who won a high school state championship in tennis. A native of Sherman, Texas, Commander played on his high school’s tennis team and earned a scholarship to play NCAA Division II tennis at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where he majored in psychology.
In his spare time, he also coached tennis. During those coaching sessions, Commander couldn’t help but notice how the players’ personal lives were affecting their performances on the court.
“I really liked helping people, not just how well they could play tennis, but how well they could be prepared for life,” he said.
After seeing how mental health can impact every facet of an individual’s life, Commander was inspired to earn a master’s degree in counseling at Southeastern Oklahoma State. While working with a neuropsychologist on psychological testing, Commander was encouraged to get his doctoral degree. He enrolled in Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology.
“I was able to get training in different areas—neuropsychology, health psychology, general practice,” said Commander. “That really helped me in my training with athletes, because they come in with a myriad of stressors that I feel more prepared for.”
Commander was impressed with Wright State’s top-notch faculty and he especially enjoyed diversity-related coursework.
“Every program needs to have that commitment to diversity and multiculturalism,” Commander said. “I’m forever grateful for my experiences with those professors in those classes.”
In his third year at Wright State, Commander met a sport psychologist and decided that was the career path he wanted to pursue. While interning at Ball State University’s counseling center, Commander did a rotation in the athletics department. When a post-doctoral fellowship opened at the University of Oklahoma’s athletics office, Commander jumped at the opportunity.
Eleven years later, Commander is still at the University of Oklahoma (OU), where he serves as director of sport psychology and oversees all of the psychological resources for OU’s student-athletes.
Commander and his team of four sport psychologists and two doctoral interns are committed to being on the cutting edge of sport psychology and providing mental health care to all of the university’s student-athletes.
“We’re commonly at practices and competitions,” he said. “We do a lot of close work with the athletic training staff, the strength and conditioning staff, the registered dieticians, and the academic advisors. We really provide a holistic approach to treatment and health care.”
According to Commander, student-athletes can face an array of mental health disruptions including depression, anxiety, or a history of trauma. They may also seek assistance because they’re not happy with how they’re performing and they need help with confidence, focus, or managing their emotions.
“Some of it is teaching them how to look at things differently. We call that reframes,” Commander explained. Reframes help athletes develop a consistent confidence regardless of their performance.
“While most athletes base their confidence on their performance, the best athletes don’t. The best athletes base their confidence on their abilities,” said Commander, who teaches athletes how to maintain confidence throughout the entirety of a competition, regardless of whether they’re on a hot streak.
As the pandemic continues, Commander remains concerned about the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on mental health. He said he worries about people in contentious relationships who are stuck at home, individuals who cannot find work, and limited access to places like gyms, parks, and movie theaters where people could normally go to decompress.
“We’ve had an increase in stress but a decrease in resources to curb that stress,” he said.
One coping tip that Commander has offered throughout the pandemic is to be mentally prepared for the worst-case scenario.
“If we can have plans for all of the scenarios, that is going to decrease our stress. The stress comes from the ambiguity of not knowing what’s going to happen,” he explained. “If we can decrease that ambiguity, it’s going to alleviate that stress and anxiety. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we know we have a plan regardless of what happens.”
For more information on Team USA and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, visit teamusa.org.