In the previous CSCCa Monthly Newsletter, we put a spotlight on mental health. I want to continue that conversation with more thoughts on mental health, and the role the strength and conditioning coach plays in the mental health of the student athlete. I want to share a few “Ha Ha’s and Aha’s” while sharing with you on how we as strength coaches can impact the days and lives of our most precious entity, the student athlete.
In my career, I have been very blessed to be around many great mentors, coaches, counselors and leaders. Early in my life, one of those coaches told me, “You have one mouth and two ears so you can listen twice as much as you talk.” (Ha Ha) I have tried to heed that lesson, although some of you may not agree. When experts and leaders in our field speak, I want to listen and absorb everything they are saying. I internalize the points they make. I think about the concepts they share and see how they fit into my life. I observe where the concepts originated, then file them away for future use. Just because ideas, concepts and advice don’t fit into my current situation, doesn’t mean they may not be useful at a future time. (Aha)
I was fortunate to have an amazing conversation with Dr. Rick McGuire. I want to share some of that conversation, but first, let me share some of his impressive background. As expressed on drrickmcguire.com, Dr. McGuire was the Head Track and Field Coach at the University of Missouri for 27 years. During his career, he coached 143 All Americans, 110 conference champions, 29 USA National Team Members, 7 NCAA champions, 3 collegiate records, and 5 Olympians, including 2 Silver Medalists. Dr. McGuire also established The University of Missouri’s graduate masters and doctoral program in Sport Psychology, along with providing an undergraduate sport psychology class. In 2014 he was awarded by the USTFCCA, the George Dales Award for lifetime service, achievement, and contribution to the coaching profession. In 2016, he was inducted into the University of Missouri Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to these accomplishments, Dr. McGuire is also a founding member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP). I highly recommend you visit Dr. McGuire’s website and invest your time in his Positive Coaching Online Digital Workshop.
The first thing Dr. McGuire told me was to call him “Rick.” I told him that I was taught that anyone who had earned the recognition that he has earned deserved to be called Dr. McGuire. Although it was out of my comfort level, I obliged him at his request. During our conversation, I learned we had similar views and opinions on coaching and the value of the strength and conditioning coach. One thing we agreed on is that everyone in the campus life of a student athlete is important. Some are more important than others. Strength and conditioning coaches are important! It did my soul good to hear him say that, especially with the conviction with which it was said. We will come back to that conversation in a bit.
What Dr. McGuire said is true. Strength and conditioning coaches are a very important part of the student athlete’s life. We all believe we have a positive impact on the players we coach. We see them getting bigger, faster, and stronger. We have more tools of assessment now than ever and can objectively show those improvements with more data than we have ever collected. All that data can prove in a scientific manner, we have a positive impact on physical performance. It has been said that strength and conditioning coaches spend the most time with the student athletes. I am not sure if that can be documented, but it is safe to say we spend a significant amount of time with them. The strength coach has a unique influence on the student athlete. We can potentially have a very positive impact on their physical well being and performance, however, we do not have any influence on scholarship money or playing time. I was told many years ago that the two things that motivate players the most are money (scholarship in those days) and playing time. We, as strength coaches, have no say in neither scholarship money, nor playing time. We have a tremendous influence on physical and mental well-being.
With that being said, I think it is important that we not only be cognizant of recognizing signs of mental health distress in our players, but it is even MORE important that we create environments in our facilities that do not create mental health distress for our athletes. It has long been my belief that we should coach our players in the same manner we would want our own children coached. I know, I know, not all coaches have children, but I think you get my point. In addition to that approach, I have always promised parents and coaches that I would coach their players as if their families were in the same room with us. I would try not to ever do or say anything that I would not want their families to hear. I will admit, it took me becoming a parent to adopt that philosophy, and even more practice to adhere to it, but I have found that philosophy to serve me well.
Back to our talk. Dr. McGuire asked me, “Who do you think controls how a student athlete’s day goes?” My response was, “The student athlete.” His response, “No, the coach.” I was answering under the old thought process that nobody could make me have a bad day without my permission. Many of our students today do not know that thought. He began to educate me on how a sport or position coach determines how a practice will go, how the environment and culture will be on practice days. The coach will determine how that athlete will be challenged or not challenged at practice. What goals will be determined and met, etc. So, suffice it to say, after pointing out where he was coming from, I totally understood the depth of his question and answer. (Aha)
Our conversation turned to his opinion of the strength and conditioning coach and the environment in the weight room. This conversation really put big air in my professional sail. In Dr. McGuire’s opinion, he felt as though the student athletes saw the weight room as a safe haven. Don’t misunderstand, we are not talking about a soft place to land, but a safe haven. A place where they can go and work hard to improve their physical abilities. A place where they do not have to worry about playing time, pleasing the coach who influences their future. (Aha) I had always thought the same thing, I just never viewed it from his perspective. It is a bit of a safe haven. A place to better oneself. A place to show improvement. A place to improve performance excellence.
Now, let’s be clear. When student athletes are working hard, there is a high level of intensity. A high level of grit. Fatigue. Mistakes will be made. Frustration can set in and trigger anger and verbal lashing out. Let’s not forget, they are kids. They are kids. When a coach holds a player to a high standard, there will be accomplishments and there will be failures. It is our job to get those players to those high levels of performance, to make them better. HOW we get them there is a different story. Question: “Do you coach your kids hard?” If you answered “yes,” then what does that look like? Is your voice positive? Do you get excited and cheer on your athletes when they do well? Do you yell and scream and cuss and fuss at them when they don’t? Can you stop the action and coach them through where they fell short? Let’s be honest here, how many athletes have you ever had that came to a workout with the mindset of “I am just not going to be very good today?” Not many. Has it happened? Of course it has. We have all had days where we did not get the best shot our players had to give. I doubt very seriously that many have ever showed up on purpose to do poorly. They want to win. They want to compete. They want to get better. They may not always know how to do that. That is where a good coach comes in.
So, what does this have to do with mental health? Everything! Let’s wrap this up in a tidy package. If we truly as strength coaches spend a significant amount of time with our student athletes (we do), and they consider it a safe place (they do), we need to make sure we create environments that are indeed a safe haven for our students. We are very well versed in protocols that keep our players safe. We are well indoctrinated in avoiding sickle cell events, exertional heat illness and heat stroke, and rhabdomyolysis. We are experts in exercise technique, spotting, exercise prescription, and recovery. We would never dream of creating an environment in our facilities that put someone’s child physically in harm’s way. What are we doing to create a safe environment for our players in terms of mental health? Not only should we as strength coaches be providing the safest environment to prevent physical danger, we also should be providing a safe mental health environment. A strength and conditioning coach should never be a negative in a player’s day then blame it on “I was just coaching them hard.” It’s ok to coach someone hard. Our athletes expect to be coached hard. They expect to be pushed. What they do not expect is to be belittled, demeaned, embarrassed, or disrespected. Think about that. There is not a single solitary student athlete in the world that gets up every day and thinks, “I sure hope I get yelled at and belittled today.” Nobody wants to be demeaned, belittled, or embarrassed. It is absolutely ok to hold a high standard and be demanding. It is never ok to be demeaning. It is never right to be disrespectful to anyone, especially a young person whose parents have trusted you to care for them, protect them, and help them. If our facilities are a safe place where athletes come to improve and make themselves better, we must create a safe mental health environment for them. If we create a toxic environment in our facilities, why on earth would they even come in? Yes, I know, because it is mandatory. Don’t you think that makes a toxic situation worse? How detrimental would it be to be forced daily into an environment that you hate? As a strength and conditioning coach, our behavior and influence should NEVER be the cause of mental health distress for our student athletes. We should always be the positive.
I am going to borrow the words of Dr. McGuire. These are the building blocks of Positive Coaching: Teaching. Guiding. Encouraging. Building. Believing. Caring. Sharing. Giving. Forgiving. Expecting. Respecting. Modeling. Serving. Inspiring. Our student athletes are under more pressure and perceived pressure than ever before. It is our job not only to provide a safe environment for our athletes to physically prepare, but to also provide an environment that provides and promotes positive mental health. It is our job, our duty, to provide an environment that gives them an opportunity to feel good about their time investment with us, help create and nurture internal motivational factors, understanding of what it takes to be successful, and setting a standard of competitive excellence. It is not our job to break them, it is our job to make them. Be the encouragement, be the positive! Be the one to greet them with positive body language, a grin, a high five, a fist bump, even a compliment. Be the entity they look forward to seeing every day because you will be the one to pick them up. We all know that the players don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they believe you care about them as a person, not how much they can lift, how fast they can run, how hard they can throw, or how many points they score, but how much you care about them, they will move mountains for you. The mental health of our student athletes is a very real and very important topic. The CSCCa is committed to educating our membership in the area of positive mental health. We all should strive to become departmental leaders in the area of student athlete mental health.
I want to take this opportunity on behalf of the CSCCa Executive Team to wish all of you the very best of luck with your fall sports competitions.
For more information on Positive Coaching, please go to drrickmcguire.com.