Caring For Athletes & Managing The Factors Impacting Mental Health

Happy October everyone!  I hope everyone’s fall semester is going great.  It is an exciting time in collegiate athletics.  During this time of year, as strength and conditioning coaches, there is never a dull moment, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Before we get into this month’s message, I want to take the opportunity to remind everyone if you have not yet registered for the 2021 Virtual National Conference, it is available until December 31, 2021.  This is a great opportunity to earn 15 valuable CEU’s for this year.  2021 is year two in this three-year CEU cycle.  We have a great topic and speaker lineup included in the virtual conference.  Take advantage of this great educational opportunity and opportunity to get your CEU’s.  This virtual opportunity WILL NOT be available after December 31, 2021.  Don’t miss out on this virtual experience for this year’s CEU’s!

Registration for the 2022 National Conference in Oklahoma City is available here.  I encourage you to take advantage of the Early Bird Rate.  We are expecting record attendance for the 2022 conference.  Make your plans now to attend.

Let’s continue our conversation with regards to student athlete mental health.  As an integral part of the performance model, we as strength and conditioning coaches play a very important part in the mental health landscape of the student athlete.  As previously discussed, it is not only our responsibility to train student athletes for the physical rigors of their sport and enhance their physical performance, but it is also our responsibility to prepare them for life’s experiences.  One would have to search far and wide to find a coach that has not heard the words “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  The depth of meaning in these words and the importance of this concept will never wane.  This concept has always been true and will forever be true.  If our players know we care about them as people, not because they can run or throw, not because they can score points, not because they can perform superhuman feats of strength, but that we care about them as people, they will move mountains for us as coaches.

Once our student athletes understand we truly care about them as people, it becomes an easier task to infuse intrinsic motivation factors.  Intrinsic motivation will outperform extrinsic motivation every single time.  It is more powerful and longer lasting.  This type of motivation will always prevail over extrinsic motivation based upon rewards or avoiding punishment.  When a young athlete achieves a goal or an accomplishment that means something to them, it becomes naturally satisfying to them.  Accomplishing these goals helps build self-worth, a true sense of accomplishment.  It is important in this situation to let the athlete set their own goals – goals that mean something to them, things THEY want to achieve and not things YOU would like to see them achieve.  This also gives you an opportunity to help them achieve the goals they have set for themselves.  When those goals are accomplished, there will be a bond of trust built that will be very difficult to break.

I cannot emphasize this enough.  Not only is it our duty to provide a great training atmosphere, but it is also our duty to be a part of the process of helping our student athletes find the help they need if they find themselves in need of mental health attention.  If an athlete sprains an ankle, we know where to send them.  If they show up to workouts and are feeling a bit under the weather, we know where to send them.  If they are struggling academically, we know where to send them.  What system do you and your staff have in place that will enable you to help a student athlete in need of attention with their state of mental health?

In conversations with Dr. Adam Feit, we discussed the idea of having interdepartmental communications that may be akin to your departmental Emergency Action Plans.  We should all be informed of signs and symptoms of mental health distress and be able to take appropriate actions to help direct our student athletes to the appropriate mental health professionals on our campuses.  Many factors have drastically changed the landscape of student athlete mental health.   Many of these things we have no control over, yet directly affect the mental and emotional state of the athletes we coach.  The student athlete’s life experiences play a big part, along with previous team cultures, or preconceived expectations from themselves or family members. They may possess levels of accomplishment in their own mind through awards, accolades, or coach and peer praise, which give them a level of confidence that becomes diminished when they are surrounded by teammates that are equally as talented or better.  They find they are no longer the superstar they once were now that they have advanced to a more competitive advanced level.

Social media plays a significant part in mental health.  People’s lives are full of confirmation and rejection – pats on the back and disappointments.  For everyone who participates in social media, these experiences are magnified.  In an athlete’s life, mainstream media is also a significant ingredient.  The pressure to perform where not only the people in the stands will see you achieve or fail, but also with the addition of social media, anyone can see you achieve or fail at any time.  Along with reposting, “likes,” “retweets,” etc., come the comments that can not only overinflate someone’s self-image, but also can be very damaging if the comments are negative, hurtful or bullying in nature.

When all these things converge at one time, it can be a difficult course to navigate in one’s journey to establish a balance in mental health.  Now, let’s add to the mix the pressure to do well academically, as this directly affects eligibility and study hall hours.  Also, let’s add in what is happening on college campuses socially, which is another factor in the balance of mental health, and we suddenly have a big mixture of things happening in a generation being guided by a generation who have never had any experience dealing with the effects of today’s complicated world.  With that being said, we as leaders in our department, and caretakers of our young people, not only need to be able to guide them to the proper professionals, but we also need to be equipped to recognize not only when they need our help, but also how to properly guide them to get the attention they deserve.

In closing, I want to say that I am certain all of us as strength coaches want to be able to help our young people in any way we can. We are the world leaders in strength and conditioning.  We have that covered.  We are responsible for other people’s welfare.  We should be the experts in creating a positive environment for our athletes to train in, as well as being able to recognize signs and symptom of mental health needs and being a part of the path to the proper mental professionals.  I would encourage all of you, as caretakers and protectors of our young people, to consult your departmental medical professionals to find out how you can help be a positive part of the mental health action plan at your institution.  We have an opportunity not only to impact student athlete lives with their physical wellbeing, but we also have an opportunity, and a duty, to impact their emotional wellbeing.  Be positive. Make a difference.

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