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Simple Ways to Encourage Mental Wellness in Athletes

BY Carrie McCusker

Coaches are uniquely positioned to not only create great training plans but also help in the creation of good mental health patterns in their athletes.

It’s more important than ever to help athletes reduce overall physical and mental stress in their lives. Chronic stress has been shown to have deleterious effects on various physical systems including immune health and metabolism. Plus it has a clear connection to the emotional and psychological state including mood, interpersonal relationships and overall quality of life. 

Consistent aerobic exercise time and again reduces the intensity and duration of a stressful state, thus promoting improved mental health. 

Coaches are in a unique position to go beyond simply creating well-thought-out training plans. They are additionally poised to facilitate the creation of good mental health patterns in their athletes. This is accomplished by a four-part approach that results in the reduction of stress and enhances the quality of the coach/athlete relationship. 

The areas of focus are: active listening, framing issues, fostering intrinsic motivation and finally, finding solutions together through goal setting.

Active Listening

Active listening is essential when communicating with athletes. The coach must be attentive and listen thoroughly without distraction. The overall goals of this skill are to absorb information, understand point-of-view and retain information from the conversation. Try to regularly ask clarifying questions, offer encouragement and visualize what the athlete is talking about. Listen deeply to comprehend feelings and emotions so the athlete can fully share where they are coming from. Active listening requires a coach to set aside bias and come in with a clean slate. Encourage athletes to use their training log. Adding daily subjective comments will help round-out your overall understanding of the athlete’s mindset and attitude. 

Framing Issues

Psychologists have found that the way we frame issues or positions influence how they are perceived. If you have a stressed athlete who having difficulty balancing daily life and mood, seek to re-frame the situation. Here is an example: an athlete’s race was canceled and now their training and effort feel wasted and pointless. 

By reframing the situation they can set a new goal and further develop the fitness and skill they already have, to reach a new ability level. Reframing takes an athlete who felt a lack-of-purpose to an entirely new place, where they are motivated and excited.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivators are those that come from outside of a person. For example, racing to gain admiration from others, striving to win awards, or exercising lose weight to improve body image due to societal pressures, are all types of extrinsic motivators.

Intrinsic motivators come from within the athlete and promote behavior because of personal satisfaction. Intrinsically motivated people require a lot less pushing. Those who train because of passion and an internal drive, often stick with sport longer and develop healthier relationships with their training. Both motivators can be useful, but it is important for a coach to understand an athlete’s intrinsic motivation. In years of coaching, we’ve found that lifelong athletes are almost always intrinsically motivated, and benefit from adding extrinsic motivators at the right time in their training.

Finding Solutions

With active listening, framing situations and encouraging intrinsic motivation, coaches promote an environment for finding solutions in partnership with athletes. Solutions include developing personal goals, restructuring mindsets and perhaps rebuilding schedules. A well-built training plan in this situation is responsive to the athlete’s mental and physical needs and can reduce stressors allowing for better mental health. 

Quality coaches who care about the mental health of their athletes should work to reduce stress through active listening, reframing, and developing intrinsic motivation. Develop solutions as a team so as to ultimately make athletes and coaches happier. Relationships built in this manner are more likely to weather the myriad of variables that fluctuate in both athletes’ personal lives, and the rapidly changing world that we live in.

About Carrie McCusker

Carrie McCusker is a level 2 TrainingPeaks coach and a lifelong athlete who enjoys bringing individual attention to every level of athlete. You can find her on Strava and Instagram or check out her coach profile at TrainingPeaks.

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