Family, Journal, Resources

When (Not If) Sports and Mental Health Collide

We are entering such an interesting time in sports.

In a country that thrives on the yearly routine of sport seasons, instead we are facing starts and stops, and even the full elimination of seasons at the high school and college level.

As a coach’s wife who has lived this rhythm for almost two decades, facing this change is unsettling.

However, as a therapist who has had a front row seat to the stressors of players and coaches, the impact this could have feels potentially even more threatening.

In nearly 20 years as a coaching family, we have seen up close the mental health challenges that face many athletes and coaches. The grit and resilience athletes learn sometimes bleed over, becoming more of the mental and emotional narrative than is healthy.

And coaches (who may frankly need to win to keep their jobs) feel the pressure, too.

The pressure to keep going, never quit, sacrifice for the team, the game, the mission, and the family.

The sport becomes the identity. And, for some, it gets to be too much.

These are stories we hear every year —

Coaches developing chronic panic attacks.

Players suffering from depression or anxiety.

Coaches becoming physically ill due to mental distress.

Coaches and players struggling to navigate online criticism.

Players who cut.

Players who take their lives.

This may sound intense but they are not isolated instances and they are not once-in-a-career situations. This is reality. Mental health issues are not something that only happens to “other” people and “other” programs. It happens for all of us.

And, while a hyper-masculine, dig-in, or “be mentally tough always” culture sometimes contributes to concerns, the reality is that players and coaches are also just…humans. And humans occasionally have mental health concerns. Some of it’s genetic. Some of it’s environmental. And all of it is way more common than we often realize.

The reason I’m sharing this message now isn’t because it’s just now important. It’s always been important.

However, I do believe the impact of the coronavirus gives us a unique opportunity to insert mental health conversations into our programs if we haven’t had them there before. 

In the world of sport, where it’s sometimes hard to talk about mental health, emotions and self-care, the challenges of this pandemic may just allow coaches the opportunity to talk about things in a new way.

Let’s take this opportunity to insert some positive practices and mental health messages into our programs when people may be especially struggling. And then, hopefully the changes will also stay put when the world returns to normal.

Here are some tangible ways to embed positive mental health practices into your program: 

  • Use your character and leadership programs to teach about mental health, self-care, debunking stigma, etc.
  • Learn about and provide education around healthy masculinity (TalkspaceBe a Man)
  • Offer examples of athletes who have exceled in sport but also sought help for mental health difficulties (Michael PhelpsAthletes for HopeAthletes Get Real).
  • Just like you have a team policy about doctor’s appointments, have one about therapy appointments. Kids are more likely to seek the help they need if they know it is supported by the program.
  • Head coaches especially, educate your staff about the EAP programs offered through your employer. Your coaches are better coaches when they are physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. If they know you have mentioned a resource they are more likely to seek it out.
  • Know your local therapy resources. As a coach/coaching family you are asked questions about all kinds of things. Even if you don’t know exactly how to help your player or staff member who is struggling, at least you will know where to point them.
  • As a part of your continuing education, have your staff take Mental Health First Aid, suicide prevention training, or similar program. Even a simple ten minute Google search on “men and mental health” can provide valuable information and debunk common myths.

Our coaches and our athletes are so precious to us. And this avenue of sport is too powerful and positive to leave the impact to chance.

We already do such an incredible job of moving these young people toward health in so many different ways. Let’s take this chance to make them confident in pursuing their mental health too. We’re all only going to be better for it, no matter what our seasons look like.