When Yolanda Bruce Brooks, PsyD, looks at an NBA or NFL rookie, she doesn't see a star in uniform, she sees a member of two distinctly demanding families.

"I look at how the player functions as part of a family system"--as a member of the sports team family as well as a member of his traditional family, she says. "I look at his strengths and at where the player needs improvement in coping, transitioning and maximizing his potential--in both systems."

Brooks, a clinical and consulting practitioner based in Dallas, is among a growing number of psychologists who have client-athletes from the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. She has been in private practice for nearly 12 years and has worked with professional athletes for seven.

Brooks's venture into the professional sports didn't spring from a love of sports. "I am not a sports psychologist in the traditional sense. I focus more on the person as an individual--not just the person who happens to be a player," she says. "I ask myself all the time, 'How did I end up here, the only woman back here in this locker room?'"

She got her start in the field at a 1996 symposium where she co-led a team of NBA rookies, facilitating discussions on topics such as learning how to pick an agent and stress management. Then she began giving presentations to wives', mothers' and families' groups for the NFL and NBA.

Soon after, she was approached by Calvin Hill, a former pro-football player and father of Grant Hill, who plays for the Orlando Magic. He asked her to design a mentoring and support program for the Dallas Cowboys, a short-term project that led to similar work in the professional sports arena. Now she works extensively with players and their families.

Certain aspects of sports culture keep her intrigued, like the way the teams function as families for players. "A player's team is also a family," she says. "In professional sports, unlike many other professions, your whole lifestyle is set up around that particular culture and that calendar."

She's also fascinated by the job-security issues pro players confront. "In the NFL, the average professional career is only three years," she says. "They have an opportunity to make an incredible amount of money in a very short time."

Her goal is to help players create lifestyles they can sustain beyond their NFL tenure and help them conceptualize lives that are not centered on the game. Brooks works with recently retired players, as well as those still in the league, to get them thinking about the type of lives they want after the fame, money and secure professional identity evaporate.

"If you're 22 years old, let's say you play until you're 30. What are you going to do for the next 40 years?" she asks. "We encourage them to start preparing for that before they leave the league, while they still have access to those resources."

Brooks also helps players cope with the fact that once they're off the team, "this aspect that's been core to their existence is no longer a part of their lives," she says. "Psychologically, that generates a wealth of issues--issues of loss, of identity crisis, of how he looks at himself and defines himself."

For those interested in working in professional sports, Brooks recommends that psychologists make this part of their practice, not their whole practice. She also notes that working in this arena can be extremely time-consuming, so "this must be an area of strong interest." And she points out there's likely to be a significant amount of time expended without compensation.

But despite the drawbacks, Brooks loves the fresh challenges afforded by her work with athletes. "I enjoy the opportunity to help make a difference in their lives as people, not just as athletes."

Julie Cohen is a former Monitor intern.