There’s been a lot of talk about athletes and mental health lately. Professional and Olympic athletes have felt safe and comfortable enough to pause big dreams or forgo them all together to speak up. But what about our athletes who don’t have as much life experience and emotional maturity?
Are we giving them the grace and opportunity to say “I’m struggling”?
As a coach’s wife, one can almost grow numb to it because it is all too common. As a parent, I’ve seen it happen at the 4 to 6-year-old recreational level. Athletes put enough pressure on themselves. We need to stop adding to it. Whether our athletes are high school or college age, the unspoken toll of the pressure we place on them is very real.
As a mental health therapist myself, I have seen what the unrelenting pressure of two parents can do to their child. Parental expectations often cause athletes to turn to "vices" in desperate attempts to numb or escape said pressure.
Our athletes are taught that have to perform perfectly in school to get into the right college or get a great job. Athletes are also taught they have to put in extra time on the field in order to be better than the teammate waiting to take his or her place. When you add in social media making them feel like everyone else has it all figured out and life is perfect. They literally don’t have a second to breathe.
Pressure From Culture
Quotes like “where there’s a will, there’s a way“ or “the best don’t rest” create a culture where admitting mental health struggles is seen as being weak. They often think that if the other players are showing up, then they should be able to as well. If they aren’t willing to “put in the work”, there will always be someone behind them ready and eager to take their place. “Tough it out.” “You don’t deserve to be here if you’re not willing to work hard.”
This type of culture makes it difficult for athletes to differentiate between a good work ethic and pushing themselves too far. The coaches and athletic trainers can detect a physical injury. But most of the time, the players need to be able to say “I need help.”
No one is a mind reader.
What We Can Do As Coaches' Wives
Culture changes require buy-in from parents and coaches. As coaches' wives, we have the opportunity to be the gentle voice of acknowledgment when things get out of hand. You know your team, but it's worth considering if a question from someone other than the players might carry more weight for those groups. But, if you aren’t comfortable doing that, here are some other things you can do.
Practice what you preach. Try your best (for you and coach) to keep from overextending yourselves. You can’t pour from an empty cup.
Don’t assume that it’s not happening on your team. While it is hard to find statistics for high school and college levels, it’s estimated that 35% of professional athletes struggling with mental health issues such as eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety. It is safe to assume they are out there on our teams and they are struggling. These issues don't begin at the pro levels.
See your athletes for all of who they are. While everyone else sees them as numbers (grades, SAT scores, game stats, etc.), be the one that acknowledges their hobbies and interests outside of school and sports.
Don’t be hard on yourself. There are a lot of kids on the team. Even if you had nothing else going on, you still couldn’t keep up with all of them. But, if you do notice something out of the ordinary, a simple nonjudgmental acknowledgment will go a long way. Consider saying something as simple as, “Hey, I noticed you stopped participating in (insert beloved hobby here)” or “I noticed you haven’t been eating as much as normal at team dinners. Just know that if you’re going through something, I’m here.”
The most effective thing I found as a mental health clinician is just to let your athletes know you care. All it takes is knowing they’ve got one person in their corner to give them the strength to keep going or even ask for help.