Medical professionals agree that about 20% of high school athletes and 30% of college athletes have or will have a serious anxiety or diagnosable mental health disorder that causes some degree of impairment in their sport performance and, more importantly, in their daily life. This is true at every level, high school, college and professional, and for whatever gender the athlete identifies with. We also know from the courageous testimony of athletes in every sport such as Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps and Kenley Jansen, the problem only becomes more prevalent and acute for elite athletes.
The reasons for the universality of the mental health crisis are easy to understand. The stressors and triggers for athletes include time demands, over-training, injuries, pressure leading up to the game and performance in the game, over-emphasis on winning, interpersonal relationships with coaches and teammates, issues with social relationships generally, self-image, self-esteem, intensive parenting and other issues at home. These factors can lead to loss of sleep, poor appetite and self-destructive coping behaviors such as using tobacco, drugs, alcohol, stimulants and PEDs, sexual promiscuity, eating and obsessive compulsive disorders and suicidal ideation.
With this issue more than any other coaches must remember the basic coaching tenet of, "we coach people, not sports." Coaches must know and recognize the signs and symptoms of the person's struggles and must take active measures to help the self-care of all of their athletes without crossing the line of diagnosing the specific issues or attempting any resolution of the problems. In short, with regard to specific athletes, a coach's job is to recognize and refer, not to solve.
Mental health issues have become so prevalent today and the consequences so serious that coaches at the high school level and above should be required to obtain a certification for understanding mental health issues similar to those currently required for First Aid/CPR, concussions and heat stroke. The necessity of coaches being proactive is illustrated by the fact that while as many as 1 in 3 college athletes suffer from a mental health issue, only 10% of them will seek help on their own. A high school athlete is still struggling with basic issues of self-identity so they may be even less likely to reach out to parents or medical professionals for help.
The NFHS has an excellent workshop on this subject and it or its equivalent should be a requirement for all high school and college coaches.
With regard to general team health care, here are some principles I recommend coaches follow:
A ritual I highly recommend that has helped build the self-esteem of everyone involved on our teams is called the Heartfelt Handshake. It is based on the fact that if two people each take one of their hands and press them together firmly for ten seconds or more and then very slowly pull them apart, they will still feel like their hands are together.
At the end of each practice and game, instead of a handshake or cheer, have the team divide into pairs. Have each person in the pair take one of their hands and press them together firmly and have them hold them together until each person has said something positive from their heart to the other person. The comments can be about how the person performed that day in practice or just something inspirational about the way that person acts outside of the sport. Time will only allow for one pairing each day, but be sure you change the pairings every day and that coaches are paired with players, as well as, other coaches.
After each person has said something to the other from their heart, have the two people slowly pull their hands apart. Then each person takes their hand and makes a fist with it symbolizing that they will hold on to what the other person said. Lastly, the person puts their fist over their heart symbolizing that they will put what was said into their heart to nurture themself and to be used to help others.
Try it. It's powerful!
Coaches should know the members of their team well enough as people to distinguish between normal growth mindset issues and more serious mental health issues. Many coaches at every level have learned that the 'win' of their willingness to do so was saving a person's life not just a game.
Peace and be well to you and your team.
Adam Sarancik is the author of an Amazon Top 100 Best Seller, Coaching Champions for Life - The Process of Mentoring the Person, Athlete and Player and its companion book, Takeaway Quotes for Coaching Champions for Life. Adam's newest acclaimed book is, A Ground Ball to Shortstop - How and Why Coaches See Their Game Differently Than Anyone Else.