Simone Biles was all set to continue her domination of global gymnastics at the recent Tokyo Olympics. But suddenly, a statement came from Team USA that she had withdrawn from the team final, and her status was uncertain for her remaining individual events.
As amazing as her fellow athletes’ performances were in Japan, this quickly became the biggest story of the 2020 Olympics and shined a bright spotlight on athlete mental health.
Despite Biles taking a stand with Michael Phelps and many others sharing their struggles in the profound documentary The Weight of Gold, there’s still a stigma around this touchy subject. In this article, I’ll share a few pointers for how to offer your athletes the emotional support that they may desperately need and, if their situation exceeds your expertise, how to refer them out to an expert for help.
Let me start off with a caveat: I am not a licensed professional counselor or sports psychologist, but I’ve learned a lot from my co-author of The Leader’s Mind and Champion’s Mind app collaborator, Dr. Jim Afremow, in this area. Another great practitioner is Michael Gervais, whose podcast, Finding Mastery, is a must listen for anyone interested in mindset.
Mental health struggles affect many.
Now back to the topic at hand. While the Biles situation highlighted the crushing burden that many pro athletes bear in their pursuit of excellence, it’s not just the pros who are more worried, pressured, anxious, and depressed than ever before. In two surveys conducted by the NCAA, researchers found that mental health concerns among college athletes – ranging from sleep disruption disorders and acute anxiety all the way to self-harm and potential suicide risk – have increased by between 200 and 250 percent since the start of the pandemic. It appears that the uncertainty and unanswered questions surrounding COVID-19, combined with canceled races and limited access to practice facilities, have caused and amplified mental wellbeing concerns among student-athletes in every sport.
The same is likely true of the athletes you coach. Whether it’s the elite who are targeting podium finishes in Kona, Leadville and other prime race destinations, or those with more introductory-level goals, they could well be struggling to cope with the combined pressures of work, training, racing and more. While a physical limitation can often present itself in fairly obvious ways like technique compensations, slower splits or lower power output, the ill-effects of mental and emotional distress are typically less visible.
How will I know when an athlete is struggling with their mental health?
From a purely athletic standpoint, a mental health issue might manifest as missing sessions, reduced motivation or increased emotional volatility. Other warning signs include undergoing a drastic personality change almost overnight, when a client who was once very verbal suddenly goes silent, or if someone’s behavior becomes detrimental to their goals and the atmosphere of your training group.
Such scenarios can be somewhat daunting to you as a coach. On the one hand, you have certain expectations of your athletes and want to hold them to high standards that support the pursuit of both sporting progress and positive life change. On the other, you might be concerned that you don’t have a background in psychology, psychiatry, or counseling, and so have no business meddling in their affairs. Maybe you worry about saying the wrong thing and exacerbating the issue or turning them off to the degree that they go elsewhere for coaching services.
I’m not a mental health professional, so what can I do to help?
Breaking the ice on the topic of mental health does not require a PhD or years of experience as the prospective benefits of you intervening generally outweigh the potential pitfalls. Often, the best way to begin is by simply asking a couple of open-ended questions.
Again, you don’t need to go full-on Charlie Rose and become a master interviewer. Rather, you could something like, “I noticed you’ve seemed a bit down lately. Is there anything going on that you’d like to share with me?” This way, you’re not being overly intrusive and are leaving it up to them to share only to the level that they’re comfortable with. Sometimes it can be useful to connect their mental state back to a specific behavior, without assigning blame. So maybe you state, “It wasn’t like you to miss training all last week. Are you doing alright?”
The worst that can happen is that the athlete clams up or gives you a monosyllabic answer that doesn’t reveal anything. In which case, leave it alone and if the emotional and behavioral irregularities continue, try again in a few days. You could also get proactive by sharing some coping tools with your training group. Of course, I’m biased toward the Champion’s Mind app, but it isn’t the only useful resource out there. Other platforms like Headspace and Calm can equip your clients with skills like breathwork, mindfulness, visualization, and other mental techniques that will help them weather the storm when life gets tough.
Bringing in a local sports psychologist or counselor to speak to all your athletes – whether in person if COVID restrictions allow or virtually via Zoom or Skype – is also a great way to draw attention to the importance of mental health. If this professional is also available for individual or small group consulting, then all the better.
To take this one step further, you could compile a list of online services and phone numbers for resources that help people work through disordered eating, body image issues/the comparison trap, depression, and other mental health challenges. Encourage your athletes to reach out and team up for support when they need it, rather than burying their heads in the sand. And let them know that as much as you’re there as a coach to develop their physical capabilities, you’re also a listening ear if/when they need one. Sometimes simply knowing that they’re not alone and have you in their corner fighting with them can be enough.