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Why are so many of athletes struggling with their mental health?

Why are so many of athletes struggling with their mental health?
August 11, 2022 | | 5 min read

We are experiencing a mental health crisis amongst our young athletes.

I am tired of reading about the suicides of young athletes. Stanford soccer player Katie Meyer took her life on March 3rd. Wisconsin runner Sarah Shulze passed away on April 13th. Robert Martin and Jayden Hill also took their own lives in the last four months. What is causing these athletes to make this desperate choice? Is there something coaches can do to help prevent it from happening?

We need to look at the demands placed on athletes.

The increase in demands from being a high school athlete to playing post-secondary is huge. Playing a university sport is a full-time job.I think that all involved need to make sure athletes understand what they are signing up for. I have seen many athletes who decide early on it is simply too much.

Money is the source of the problem.

When money is involved pressure is sure to follow. Coaches, ADs, etc. are often reliant on their team’s performance to stay employed. Their paychecks, mortgages, and bills get paid based on the performance of their players.So everyone is incentivized to do more to ensure the team’s performance will keep them employed. More meetings, more training, more practice, and pressure to perform through injury.

This doesn’t include the other challenges athletes face daily outside of their sport:

  • the demanding workload of their degree.
  • Parental pressure
  • figuring out how to live away from home.
  • the challenges of navigating social media.
  • navigating the world of name, image, and likeness opportunities.
  • having a social life.

It is easy to see that they have a lot on their plates. What can coaches do to help them maneuver the demands of being an athlete in 2022?

What can we do to lessen stress and help our athletes navigate the demands placed on them?

1.) Teach them mental performance skills.

Teach them how to monitor their Self-Talk, understand stress and its impact on performance and mental health.Imagery, meditation and mindfulness are all skills that will help them perform better as athletes and they are all transferable to help manage their mental health away from their sport.

2.) Help them learn time management skills. 

I would have a hard time managing the demands placed on athletes and I have 48 years of experience organizing my time.At 19, I would have been in deep deep trouble. Coaches can take the time to teach their athletes how to organize their lives. This could help them from feeling overwhelmed. This could be as easy as a to-do list for the week and each day. This is a great tool for me.

3.) Allow them to take a mental health day. 

Credit for this idea goes to Taylor Harris the coach of the Fort Lewis College women’s team. Coach Lewis offers his athletes two mental health days a semester.No questions asked.This shows his athletes that their mental health is important. I will be doing this with my team next year.

4.) Assess if all the work your team is doing is effective. 

Three years ago I started to learn about Tactical Periodization and really started to assess if all the practice, workouts, and training were paying off in performance.We have cut practices down to 90 minutes and altered the physical and cognitive demands to allow for more recovery.In this case, less has been more. Our play has improved and we have been playing our best basketball in March, not early January.

5.) Build in some fun. 

Sports should always be fun. Take time to enjoy the time you spend together. Dodgeball, Wiffle Ball, Handball for warmups are great ways to help your athletes have some fun at practice. I know the stakes are high but there has to be fun built into the daily routine of practice.

6.) Be vulnerable. 

Share the challenges that you are experiencing. Showing your athletes that it is ok to share their feelings and struggles is an important step to normalizing the challenges of mental health. Model what we want athletes to do when they are experiencing challenges.

None of this will get better unless we start to change how we treat our athletes!

Thanks to Jason Payne for writing this. He currently coaches basketball and writes about how coaches can help teach Mental Performance Skills to their athletes. If you’re interested in reading more, check him out here!

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