3 Steps to Support Mental Health for Coaches and Athletes

The health of an athlete comes before any performance consideration. In fact, the health of the athlete is the number 1 performance consideration.  In order to create the conditions for a person to improve athletically, they must be in mindset that is conducive to that endeavor. Without positive mental health, it is impossible to focus on anything else. Here are some guidelines that can help you support the mental health of your athletes.

  1. Understand it
    • What is anxiety and how does it feel? There is a difference between having an anxiety attack and feeling anxious. When you are having an anxiety attack, you know that you may not have good reason for feeling this way, but you are unable to stop it.
    • Know the statistics. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18% of adults and 7% of children. During the onset of the pandemic you can be sure that these numbers have increased substantially. Consider the age of your team and the total roster number and you can see that there are athletes on your team and people in your life that are struggling.
  2. Normalize the conversation
    • “Let’s talk” – its one thing to endorse the idea that someone else should talk and recognize that we should “end the stigma”. It’s another thing altogether to actually talk about your challenges and to create an environment that is safe to do so.
    • Model it and tell your story. Show your athletes that you struggle at times. Be honest and vulnerable and watch the engagement of your group increase.
    • Ask about it. Take the time to talk to your athletes and ask them directly about mental health. Two questions I use that have been extremely helpful is, what is one thing you can do to improve your mental health? And what is the biggest challenge in your personal life? This always opens the door to a meaningful conversation.
    • Follow up. Have a plan to remember what your athletes are going through and follow up with them.
  • Take action – don’t talk about it, be about it.
    • Be supportive. Starts with knowing your athletes.
    • Observe – if you know your players then you will know when something doesn’t seem right. If you have educated yourself on mental illness you will be more likely to recognize the signs.
    • Assume positive intent and ask questions. When an athlete is behaving in a way that concerns you, rather than judge them immediately, remember to assume positive intent and have a bias toward asking questions before placing blame.
    • Mental health can always improve. We prescribe off-season conditioning for athletes with strong bodies because there is always room for improvement. What are we doing to build their mental skills?
    • Remember you are not the expert and it’s not your job to “fix” anyone. It is your responsibility to be supportive and when necessary refer athletes to professional help.

Recently, I spoke to Mark Wick, an NCAA coaching veteran on my Coaching Project Podcast about this topic. Mark has anxiety and depression and courageously shares his powerful personal story. We also discuss the ways that leaders can improve their mental health as well as support the mental health of their athletes. I urge you to take a listen and give some thought to how you can improve your environment.

Furthermore, let’s remember the importance of taking care of you. Leadership and coaching is stressful and can take a toll on your mental health. Helping yourself is helping your team.

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