Our ability to effectively analyze an athlete’s physical performance outcome has never been as advanced as it is today. But assessing an individual’s psychological homeostasis as it pertains to a healthy mental state in sport performance, is a far more difficult task. It’s absolutely critical for coaches to monitor their athlete’s well-being and have on-going conversations about the importance of mental health because at the end of the day mental health is mental performance!
Athlete’s don’t just step into competition and deal with their mental health concerns afterward. Their mental health concerns will be present throughout their athletic experiences. With that being said, I believe there are simple, yet effective strategies coaches can use to help put their athletes in the best psychological position for both their health and performance. For this article, I am going to focus on three of those strategies: defining what a mental health disorder is and how to prepare to help your athletes through its challenges; helping athletes accept sleep as a performance strategy and essential to their mental wellness; and how to collaborate with your athletes on monitoring their psychological health. But first, let’s define what a mental disorder is.
Defining Mental Health Disorder and Finding the Right Resources
According to the DSM-V (a reference book classifying mental health disorders), ‘a mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress or disability in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss such as the death of a loved one is not a mental disorder.’ This is important to know because coaches who have an understanding of what a mental health disorder is, will potentially be more effective in identifying what an athlete’s specific needs are. Perhaps more importantly, they will be able to help them in the long-run, during and after sports. But there are additional reasons why coaches need to stay up to date on these issues.
First, research in sport psychology suggests that athletes who have higher levels of clinical depression and anxiety are at an increased risk for injury. Furthermore, athletes that experience injuries preventing them from being able to compete are also more at risk for experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
As a coach, as well as you think you know your athletes, you can never be 100% sure as to how varying stressors affect their mental health. That being said, make sure that you have a go-to list of appropriate referral resources that you can connect your athletes to if necessary. This list of professionals can include psychiatrists, licensed therapists and various professionals within the field of sport psychology.
One way of finding these professionals is by using Psychology Today, one of the largest online directories for finding mental health professionals. Having these resources readily available helps reduce both the time & distance between your athlete and treatment, which is critical towards achieving successful outcomes. Rember, it’s not your job as the coach to act as the therapist, but offering these suggestions can be exceedingly helpful.
Now that we have identified what a mental health disorder is and how you can potentially help connect your athletes to the necessary professionals, we should identify an important area that directly affects an athlete’s mental health and how you can coach them in this area.
Sleep as Performance
You may have probably read some of the fantastic articles that have been written for TrainingPeaks discussing the importance of sleep and how to enhance sleep quality. As a licensed mental health clinician, I can tell you that one of the first things you need to evaluate when people are undergoing extreme psychological stress is the quality of sleep they are getting. If you can successfully help clients alleviate issues with poor sleep, their mental health improvement will be much more successful. High-performance athletes are no different, which is why I believe that it is critical for coaches to help their athletes commit to proper sleep hygiene. But just telling athletes to commit to high-quality sleep is like putting the cart before the horse. You can have all the science in the world backing up your coaching methods, but if athletes don’t buy it, then none of the cutting edge science matters. That’s why when I’m working with other coaches, I try to help them develop a sales pitch before discussing sleep science. One way of doing this is by labeling sleep as a performance.
In endurance sports, there are different strategies and tactics athletes can use to enhance their performance. The same can be said for sleep, and coaches should challenge their athletes to ‘perform’ their absolute best at sleeping. Another strategy you can use is to actually incorporate sleep into your programming. While all of us need different amounts of sleep, you should have conversations with your athletes about when they feel their ‘natural’ bedtime is, and how many hours they think they need to feel fully recovered.
In the same way you would program workouts or active recovery, coaches can collaborate with athletes on programming sleep into their training calendar. Coaches should also remind athletes that sleep is free, you can sleep just about anywhere, and no other artificial recovery method rivals the results of high-quality sleep. Now that we have established the importance of framing sleep as a performance, we need to explore how coaches can effectively track an athlete’s psychological stress.
Surveying Progressions in Mental Health
Like strength & conditioning specialists, sport psychologists and mental performance coaches love collecting and analyzing data. The more data you can collect, the easier it is to spot trends within training. So when coaches start collecting data in TrainingPeaks, they should also talk with their athletes about potentially monitoring their psychological and exercise readiness. This way, if coaches start to notice a decline in their athletes’ surveys, both parties can be proactive rather than reactive in terms of avoiding unnecessary stress.
In my professional opinion, there are six critical areas that reveal an individual’s exercise readiness and positive mental state: quality of sleep; soreness; stress; energy levels; mood; and social engagement. One way coaches can keep track of this is to have athletes fill out the following survey before all training sessions:
On a scale of 1 – 5, (1 being very poor, 5 being excellent,) how would you rate the following areas: How did you sleep? How sore are you? How stressed are you? How is your energy level? How is your mood? How is the quality of social engagement you are having with family and/or friends?
Make sure to keep track of the overall average and the individual ratings for each category. It’s important that we view health through both a macro and micro lense of focus. Also, before administering these surveys, make sure to collaborate with your athletes and explain the purpose of the surveys and why you are asking athletes to use them. Professionals within the field of sport psychology have found that unless there is a collaboration between athletes and professionals in regards to filling out surveys, athletes will be less likely to answer questions honestly.
If coaches are truly invested in ‘the mental game’ and looking for ways to create training advantages for their athletes, fostering an environment that is supportive of mental health hygiene practices is the next frontier in sport science. But even more important than developing an ‘edge’ as a coach, is making sure that an athlete’s health comes first. There is still so much stigma around this topic, but I truly believe that the next generation of coaches and sport psychology professionals will be on the forefront of this issue. After you finish reading this article, start incorporating these practices into your training paradigm and help athletes reach new levels in both health and performance!