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Why Nike and its CEO are focusing on mental health

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John Donahoe, CEO of Nike. Image: Courtesy of Nike
John Donahoe, CEO of Nike. Image: Courtesy of Nike

John Donahoe is the CEO of Nike.

When I was 28 years old, I got some advice that changed my life.

It was 1988, and I was a consultant at Bain. These were intense years — long hours, little sleep, lots of travel, constant work, and trying to balance family life with a spouse and two young children. I was glad to be learning as much as I was, but I also remember feeling like I was barely staying afloat.

One day, during a training program for young consultants, a speaker came to impart some wisdom. I was half-listening at first, my mind drifting back to the office, when he asked us a question: How many of us wanted to be world-class at what we did?

Naturally we all raised our hands. The speaker laughed and said, well, that’s the intelligence test.

Then he explained. He said he spent years studying world-class athletes. (I’d always looked up to athletes and my ears perked up at this.) And he said that these top athletes all shared a unique trait: They take care of themselves.

He said for every hour they’re on the playing field, they train for 20 hours. They work out, they sleep well, they eat right. They look inward to learn their own strengths and weaknesses. And importantly, they are not afraid to ask for help — in fact, they view asking for help as a sign of strength.

“Michael Jordan has a bench coach, a personal trainer, a chef, and a mental coach. He wants to get help so he can get better,” the speaker told us. “But you businesspeople don’t take care of yourselves. You think not getting sleep is a badge of honor! And you want to be world-class? You think asking for help is a sign of weakness, not strength. I don’t get it!”

'I was sacrificing my mental health at the altar of my work'

I was rocked back. My eyes were opened. He was right. Like so many others, I was sacrificing my mental health at the altar of my work, simply because I thought that was the only way.

As my career continued, I took his advice to heart. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some high-impact, challenging jobs over the years. And despite these leadership positions, I have always tried to keep perspective by taking care of myself and by asking for help.

I meditate. I exercise every morning (OK, most mornings). I do gratitude practice to try to stay positive by keeping myself grounded in what I’m most appreciative of. And I’ve embraced a lot of help. I’ve had the same therapist for the last 30 years. I have spiritual advisors and business mentors, who I call often for guidance. I can’t imagine being able to perform today without getting help.

Nike CEO John Donahoe huddles with store athletes. Image courtesy of Nike
Nike CEO John Donahoe huddles with store athletes. Image courtesy of Nike

As you may know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For me, it’s a reminder of how glad I am that I learned the importance of mental health all those years ago. Today, I still try to eat right and get plenty of sleep. And I strive to be an advocate for those around me to take care of themselves, to always try to show up rested, present, and whole.

The mind-body connection

What really excites me about mental health today is how many paths there are now for people to find their own peace.

In the past few years, elite athletes from NBA All-Stars to Olympians have been vocal about incorporating yoga into their daily training routines, as they focus on the mind-body connection — the idea that taking time to breathe or to meditate can have a huge impact on all facets of fitness. Today, looking to unlock strength from within, millions of people rely on yoga for improved calm and movement. Is yoga a sport? Absolutely.

So is taking a walk. Or dance. Or meditation. That might surprise you, coming from Nike, but we strongly believe in expanding the definition of sport. We are committed to getting people active and attending to their health and wellness, no matter what form it takes.

We also know mental health has no offseason. It isn’t just about preparing for moments of urgent need — it’s also about cultivating a healthy mind and body for everyday life. It’s why at Nike, we’ve taken a number of steps to support our employees through enhanced access to diverse counselors, free wellness memberships, support for families (including paid parental & family leave, back-up care, childcare subsidies), and more. And as we continue to listen to our teammates’ needs, we plan to further enhance our offerings later this year.

We’ve also teamed up with Crisis Text Line to provide everyone in the U.S. free, 24/7 mental health support via text messaging. Through this partnership, we’re able to give more people access that’s simple and convenient (text STRONG to 741741 to reach a volunteer Crisis Counselor). There’s no question: Asking for help is one of the most powerful expressions of strength. We know mental health is as important as physical health to realize our full potential, in sport and in life, and a community of support is a vital part of that.

Our focus on mental health and the expansion of sport was essential during the pandemic over this past year. Since COVID-19 first began to spread, we saw just what sport can be, all over the world. When folks were stuck at home, we saw first-hand a global, deeply felt demand to keep moving. People worked out in kitchens and on apartment rooftops. They processed their uncertainty with meditation and mindful running. It led to an explosion of creativity and optimism that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Today I continue to be inspired by the many ways people make sport a daily habit, even in the most challenging of times. I strongly believe that sport can no longer be defined by only traditional activities. It’s about movement, dance, yoga and — yes — mental health. Sport has become more democratic, extending into fitness and wellness for people everywhere like never before. It’s something we all share: the ability to think of our mind as another muscle to power toward our goals.

This is a catalyzing moment for all of us — a time for new and better ideas that will define the future of sport and create lasting change. Each of us has the power to take care of ourselves, just like our sports heroes. Mental health is the ultimate tool for athletes. Let’s all be world-class together.

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