Welcome to August! By now, I am sure the fall sports are back on campus and ready to go. It is my hope that all returning athletes had a very productive and safe summer of training for the sports they love so much. I am looking forward to keeping up with as many teams as I possibly can, and I look forward to championship season as the fall progresses.
It won’t be too long before all the spring and winter sports athletes will be making their way back to campus to begin their fall training schedules. Campuses will soon be buzzing with students, excitement for upcoming games, welcoming back returning athletes, and meeting newcomers for the first time. Such an exciting time!
As we get back into the swing of full weight rooms and full campuses, it is imperative to keep in mind the safety protocols of training in transition. It is important to get our student athletes back in the swing of training with a team if they have not been already, but we must pay close attention to the time off they have experienced and take the proper precautions when introducing them back into training safely and effectively.
We have covered these protocols in our previous email newsletters. If you need an online resource in which to refer, please refer to this link as well as this link for best practices and recommendations, as well as return to training protocols to help reintroduce training to student athletes that have been away from your guidance for an extended period of time. This transition time is a critical time in training and must be handled in the proper manner. These guidelines and protocols will help guide you with safe and effective concepts.
In light of the spotlight on mental health at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, it is a great time for all of us as coaches to pause and give great consideration to the topic of mental health in collegiate athletics. I know it is not only an important topic on every campus but a big topic nationally as well. As performance coaches and major influencers on young people, we need to embrace the topic of mental health.
It has been said that to care for others, we must first care for ourselves. It is my hope that you were able to enjoy some down time, recharge your battery, spend some time with loved ones, friends, and family, and take the time to embrace your identity outside of athletics. It is important that we as coaches have an identity outside of the coaching and competitive arena.
In a recent interview with swimming legend Michael Phelps at the Tokyo Olympic Games, he said something that was very insightful, and it made a great impact on me. He spoke of the pressures to perform, the pressures to be great, the pressures to perform at a high, nearly perfect level, as well as feeling the weight of the country on your shoulders. That is one aspect of mental health in sports. The thing that got my attention was his comments on an often overlooked subject — something I think many of us overlook in the world of competitive athletics.
He asked the questions, “What happens when the lights go off? What happens when there is no roar of the crowd? What happens when nobody is around to ask for a picture or an autograph? What happens when all your daily support is gone?” I think this is as much a part of mental health in athletics as the mental approach to performance. What happens to you as a coach when the athletes aren’t around? Do you have an identity and support group when the lights in the weight room get turned off?
As coaches, it is important to have an identity. I hope each and every one of you will take the time to build a solid life foundation outside the gym. Who and where will you be after the last rep?
As departmental leaders, we need to take this same approach with our athletes. I know that every campus has a different structural arrangement for mental health support and counseling services. As a caretaker, you should be involved in that dynamic. We should be educated on signs and symptoms of mental health problems and be able to help within our departmental systems in guiding our young people in the proper direction for help and support.
When we speak of the idea of mental health outside the arena, as strength coaches, how can we help? What can we do to not only help build our student athletes up physically, but what can we do to help fortify our young people mentally? What are we doing to help prepare them for when the lights go off? What are we doing to help solidify their identity outside of athletics?
There are many strategies to embrace in order to build this foundation. We need to carve out time to talk to our athletes about what is going on with their lives. Talk to them about school, their major, their career choices, family, and what they do on the weekends.
Unless you are a singular sport strength coach and get to travel and go to every practice with your team, chances are the personal exposures you get with your athletes is very limited. If you get to travel with your teams, there is plenty of time to strike up conversations about what is going on in their life. If you only see them in the weight room, maybe you get them to come in early for some soft tissue work, stretching, prehab activities, or maybe you even drop into the training room if they are doing things in there. Create the time to visit with them outside of their scheduled workout time to get to know them better. Take an interest in their lives, not just in their training.
Another way to help in their mental health game, is to keep things in perspective. We are in the business of improving performance. To improve performance, one must do something one has never done. You must lift more, run faster, jump higher. We all know this to be true.
However, if we stick solely to this mind set, we must guard against self-defeat. Any veteran coach knows that in training, there will be ebbs and flows. With the calendars and training schedules we keep, there will be times to train hard, and times they are off. How much strength and fitness will they lose during this down time? Did they lose significant strength due to a prolonged season, perhaps an injury?
And let’s just face it, at some point, an athlete just reaches his or her genetic ceiling. Once an athlete matures, huge jumps in personal bests can start to wane. It is up to us to let them know it is ok. I’m not saying it is ok to sit back and allow lack luster effort and eliminate new goals, I am saying that we need to let our athletes know that we understand that not every day has to be a “Sports Center Top Ten” day.
I would rather have a “B” effort on a consistent daily basis over time than an “A” effort once a month. Let them know it is ok to be good. They don’t always have to be great. Sure, we always want improvement. We always want “better.” My point is, it is ok to let them know that a good day is a good thing. If we have a down day, we will live to fight another day. It doesn’t mean we accept a bad day. It doesn’t mean we let it go unnoticed. It means we recognize it and point out what we have to do to fix it.
When that athlete comes back from a bad day and has a good day, let them know about it. Let them know that the good effort and outcome sticks out as much as the bad effort and outcome. Do they need to meet goals and objectives in order to be successful? ABSOLUTELY! Are they going to stub their toe along the way? No question!
We expect our kids to do great things. For some kids, it is hard to meet expectations. They don’t always understand what it takes to be successful. We expect great results because that is why we recruited them — to be good! We always expect them to throw the great pass every play, to catch the ball when it hits them in their hands. We expect pitchers to throw a strike every time. We expect our shooters to make every free throw and every three pointer.
That doesn’t always happen. There are fumbles along the way. Errors in the field. Double faults when the match is on the line. Those moments occur in training too. Do we want them to occur? I know, dumb question, but they do. Let’s face it, kids don’t show up to do poorly. They want to win. They want to be successful.
In this day and age, the expectations from themselves, family, friends, teammates, coaches and fans are higher than they have ever been. Social media is always there to catch every success and every failure. There are moments in every training day for kids to do great as well as make mistakes. We need to take every opportunity we can to correct the mistakes and set a positive path. Not every mistake is the end of the world. We can teach them how to get that error behind them quickly, make the necessary corrections and make the next opportunity successful.
I was told at a coaching clinic once, by a coach with decades of championships under his belt, that mental toughness is defined as “the ability to move on to the next most important thing.” It has also been said that champions must have amnesia and forget about a bad play. I think it is more than that. Not only do they have to shake it off, but they need to be able to focus on the next rep to make sure it is good. We have that capability in our workouts to correct bad habits, to correct actions that lead to poor outcomes, and to build resiliency in our athletes by putting them in a position to be successful. We can make a huge impact on mental toughness.
Don’t ever ask a kid to do something they can’t do. Some people, no matter how much they train, will never be able to dunk a basketball. Some people will never run a 4.3 40. Some people will never be able to run a 6 minute mile. However, whatever they CAN do, we can ask them to do it well. Demand their best effort. And if they stub their toe, if they have a bad day, if they have a bad lift, we can put them in a position to focus on the next most important thing — the next rep, the next day, the next workout.
Lastly, one more thing we can do is to reflect on their accomplishments. For many years I used the phrase “Good enough is never good enough.” So, if one of my athletes said, “well that was good enough,” I always corrected them. I would respond by saying, “Good enough means you are settling for something that is really not good. Now let me ask you, was that effort or that output good, or is that all you felt like doing today?” They know the truth and will go back and make things good.
At the end of the training week, or the training month, or the training cycle, I always thought it was good to go back and reflect as a team on how much was accomplished during those times. It was important to let them know they accomplished something no matter how big or how small. If it wasn’t up to our standard, we had to make some changes to reach that standard. It is a good idea to continue to point out accomplishments over time to let them know not only are they getting better, but that they are being noticed doing so.
It is amazing what will happen to their outlook, confidence, and persona when they hear, “Good job!” or “We can win with that effort.” It arms them with confidence to accomplish what they want to accomplish and achieve the goals they want to achieve. It builds a habit of putting focus on the next most important thing rather than dwelling on the mistake and beating themselves up over it over time.
The area of student athlete mental health is a growing area that we will hear more and more about in the coming years. Our goal at the CSCCa is to embrace this growing area and educate our membership on how we as coaches can be a powerful force in moving the needle toward better mental health for our coaches as well as the athletes they impact.