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Mind Game: Q&A with Julie Kliegman

Released on March 5, 2024, Mind Game: An Inside Look at the Mental Health Playbook of Elite Athletes written by Julie Kliegman provides an in depth look into how even the best athletes struggle with and persevere through mental illness. The Hidden Opponent sat down with Kliegman to discuss her new book.


Can you provide a brief overview of Mind Game for those who may not be familiar with it?


Mind Game is a deeply reported look at how elite athletes navigate the twin elements of mental performance and mental illness. I interviewed athletes themselves (including some pretty high-profile ones, like Chloe Kim, Adam Rippon, Kevin Love, and DeMar DeRozan!) and experts to give me context for how athletes face and overcome monumental challenges in those realms.


What inspired you to write Mind Game?


I grew up playing sports recreationally and then competing on my high school varsity cross-country and track teams (go Bears!). I also grew up with mental illness — I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2018 after about a decade of experiencing debilitating symptoms and being misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder. I also had to give up sports for good in the middle of high school due to ankle injuries and nerve damage from surgery. Just like that, my outlet to relieve stress was gone, and I suffered. A lot.


Given my own experiences as an athlete, I've always been in awe of those who make it to the college, Olympic, and professional levels. They stare down so many physical and mental challenges. I wanted to write Mind Game to get in their heads and celebrate their experiences.


How would you describe the writing style of Mind Game, and how does it contribute to the overall atmosphere of the book?


I tried to keep the tone as conversational as possible. I was hyper-aware that the book could read like a medical textbook if I wasn't careful. I wanted to put athletes' compelling personal stories in the context of sport psychology and mental health care as a whole. 


Can you share some insights into your writing process for this book? Were there any hurdles or major triumphs throughout the process?


Honestly, reporting, researching, and writing the book took significantly longer than I expected. I was afraid to ask for an extension on my deadline, but I did. Writing is such a solitary activity, and you have to keep yourself motivated. Plus, I was writing Mind Game on top of a full-time job at Sports Illustrated. You have to leave space to be kind to yourself and respect that good work takes time. The triumph is that I finished, and I have an end product I'm extremely proud of and that I think will help people.


What impact did the interviews with the professional athletes that are included in this book have on you? Especially concerning their willingness to engage in vulnerable conversations about a topic that holds some stigma in athletics.


The interviews were really touching. They were emotionally draining at times, for me and I'm sure for the athletes on the other end of the line. Ultimately, though, they were super rewarding. It's a privilege to have people share such personal stories with me, whether they've told them 1,000 times or zero times before. I never take their trust for granted.


Do you have a favorite chapter or section in Mind Game? If so, what makes it special to you?


My favorite chapter might just be the one that outlines the rich and bizarre history of sport psychology. This profession took more than a century to truly catch on. Without this foundation — legitimate practitioners and questionable hypnotists alike — there might be no mental health movement in sports to speak of today.


What do you hope the book accomplishes? What impact would you like it to have for readers?


One phrase we overuse when talking about mental health is "starting a conversation." I don't want my book to start a conversation. I want it to continue and deepen the various conversations that are already happening among athletes, coaches, leagues, and fans about how to best support one another through mental performance challenges and mental illness. I hope readers come away with not just lessons they can learn from athletes' perseverance, but also ideas for creating a better culture around mental health in sports.

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