Clinical Social Worker Mark Van Steenberg Talks Working With NFL Players, Holistic Healing, and Addressing Mental Health

There is far more to sports and what goes on in a professional athlete’s brain than statistics, wins, and their lucrative earnings. Numerous professional athletes, ranging from tennis star Naomi Osaka to former Green Bay Packers tight end Brandon Bostick, have opened up about their personal lives and mental health journeys in recent years.

Mark Van Steenberg, a clinical social worker and Bostick’s business partner, is devoted to helping those athletes help themselves. In a recent interview with Sportscasting, the Colorado-based Van Steenberg discussed his work with NFL players, why so many have turned to holistic healing, and how the conversations about mental health have changed.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The whole details of the holistic approach

Clinical social worker Mark Van Steenberg
Clinical social worker Mark Van Steenberg discussed his path with Sportscasting | Contributed

Sportscasting: So, Mark, just walk me through, if you can, what specifically you do.

Mark Van Steenberg: I’m a clinical social worker. I work specifically with elite athletes right now; the majority are former and active NFL players and some NHL players. I’m opening up a clinic out here in Boulder, Colorado, and I focus holistically on treating these elite athletes. PTSD, depression, anxiety, a lot of those things transitions out from the sport into life. We focus on the brain.

My business partner is Brandon Bostick, who has a department underneath him that he consults with, and we have physical trainers, so we’re combining the mental and the physical. We’re also doing this for local high school athletes too, but right now, specifically, we’re working with a lot of professional athletes.

SC: Why do you believe professional athletes in the last few years have been so drawn to this holistic approach?

MVS: The reality, man, is that an athlete uses the physical body as the vehicle to get to the top, right? And we’re starting to look at all of the mental issues that that can cause, too. The strain; the stress. And so, the holistic approach is being able to tap into that athletic body, that vehicle, [and] tap into that athletic mind that is full of drive and will. Instead of making that vehicle focus on peak performance, we’re focusing on a little bit of peak performance, but we’re now we’re shifting it and focusing into like quality of life. How good of a life can you be? We want to be able to use that athletic body to get them there.

SC: I think when people hear holistic, they think of eastern ways, or they might think of yoga. What specific methods do professional athletes use? Is there a specific one size fits all path?

MVS: There’s not really a one size fits all path. I guess there’s all kinds of different little interventions that you can do, but it’s really solidifying that mind and body connection. It’s treating the whole person right. If you go to a therapist and say, “Hey, you know, I’m feeling kind of sad,” they’re going to focus on that sadness, right?

But if you’re if you’re going to somebody that’s holistic, they’re going to be looking at the nutrition, that’s going to be part of the treatment plan. They’re going to be looking at a workout plan for you. They’re going to be working at looking at your hormone levels. That’s a huge one for former NFL players is really getting the hormone therapy checked, especially with head trauma. That’s the mainframe; that’s where all the hormones and stuff are really being produced. And if it’s under constant shock, it’s really going to mess with that mainframe. … Holistically, we want to treat the whole person. We want to focus on what they’re eating, how they’re sleeping, and we want to focus on the social connection.

Van Steenberg also made it clear that his clinic, Sage Elite, ensures players’ families and loved ones are a part of the process.

MVS: That’s another huge one that we really focus on at Sage Elite is really making sure that the family, the wives, girlfriends, mothers, children, everybody is understanding what’s going on with that player. What does brain trauma look like? What is it? How are you seeing that play out in your house?

Brandon Bostick, synergy, and mental health

New York Jets tight end Brandon Bostick in 2016.
Former New York Jets tight end Brandon Bostick works with clinical social worker Mark Van Steenberg | Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Van Steenberg was already working with former and active NFL players when one put him in touch with Bostick, who was diagnosed with severe anxiety and major depression disorder in 2020.

MVS: Once we started connecting, it was very synergistic, and we were very aligned in our belief system. Brandon is an advocate of really utilizing nutrition, exercise, yoga, so that’s a really big component. And that was very synergistic for us.

SC: Brandon has really been open about mental health the last few years. With regards to mental health, we’re seeing more players speak out, and there have been a couple of NFL players who have taken leaves of absence. Do you feel like the stigma around mental health is starting to change in the NFL?

MVS: I think the stigma, I think we’re becoming more aware of it. We’re becoming more aware that these athletes aren’t just people that we see on our TV. You know, they’re actually humans, and they have lives and families and children. But there is a really big component connected to mental health, even within the Black community, of seeking services and the stigmatization of seeing a therapist and even acknowledging that you have depression or anxiety. So there’s a lot of that mixed into it, but at the same time, I do see a little bit more awareness growing around it.

I mean, you should really care about your defensive end who’s going through a personal problem, especially if your pain is more expensive than a Lamborghini. You should care about that. You shouldn’t care about his stat line. You should care that he’s feeling OK and he’s actually content with his job.

The next generation

SC: You mentioned earlier working with younger athletes at the high school level, and it seems like with social media, there’s so much toxicity. There’s all these trolls. Is there anything specific that you would advise or that you do advise these young players about how to handle what they’re going to see on Twitter or who’s going to contact them on Instagram?

MVS: My recommendation would be limit your social media. I mean, that’s the number one. But of course, kids, these days, that’s very hard to do. They don’t just use their cell phone to text message [or] they communicate through apps. So it’s kind of dancing that fine line.

It’s about trying to understand that if you’re going to go into that role, understanding the positive male leadership and understanding the importance of a positive male role model in your school system in your community and understanding how that’s also part of the resume.

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