Student athletes are living in a world where stressors and modern-day adversities have become much more prevalent and overwhelming. We can no longer overlook the importance of balancing self-care with sport pressure.
Mental skills such as breathing, performance-enhancing self-talk, imagery/visualization, and journaling practices need to be intentionally taught. When a student athlete understands how these skills connect with them and their day-to-day lives, they develop the toolsets necessary to become high-level achievers. More than achievement, people learn to balance the demands of performance in school and sport with necessary basic human needs for healthy development.
Mental health, as we have learned, is not something to be overlooked by parents and coaches. The masks we wear, or armor, as researcher Brené Brown calls it, have become too thick for our own well-being. Everyone is battling some serious stress without the knowledge or support they feel they can access. Stress from internal or external sources is something all people carry, but when you add the demanding schedule and performance demands of a student athlete, their capacity becomes full without healthy skills for coping.
In order to support common day mental health needs and awareness, coaches should consider how they include people development strategies into their day-to-day in addition to coaching the technical and tactical aspects of sport. Coach Mike Krzyzewski shares this point: “A common mistake among those who work in sport is spending a disproportionate amount of time on ‘x’s and o’s’ as compared to time spent learning about people.”
There is certainly an understanding of why traditional team building or bonding ideas have been challenging in the past few years since the onset of Covid-19. However, more can be done in holding time for simple conversation without hidden agendas and checking in on how the athletes are managing and balancing. The follow-through from those conversations can be some of life’s greatest lessons in developing leadership, integrity, discipline, and eventually self-empowerment. But we need to be ready to listen.
For each coach or sport parent, it is strongly advised to create a referral list of professionals who can support the unique needs student athletes face. Some of those might be athletic trainers and other physical recovery professionals, in addition to sport dietitians and sport psychologists for either mental health or mental coaching needs. Finding people whom you trust and who can build professional rapport with the student athletes you refer is always a major starting point, so taking the time to ask questions of them to learn about theoretical orientations to the work they do helps when making a warm introduction to your student athlete.
The main point here is to be proactive in training and support. Teach first, then redirect second (or maybe even third after you have taught the same thing again!). Practice self-regulation skills so that modeling composure and resilience is the example and the spoken word. Seek to understand rather than just to be understood, while awareness of the power dynamic continues to be sharpened and improved. Mental skills are meant to be practiced, so get to work!