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Mental Health: Educate & Support Coaches

Written By: Anna Heller


Entering the two year mark of the COVID-19 Pandemic, it’s no surprise that we now face an epidemic when it comes to mental health and overall wellbeing. In the sports world we’ve witnessed highly respected athletes such as Naomi Osaka, Kevin Love, and Simone Biles open up and continue the conversation around protecting and supporting athletes and their mental health. As a swimming coach, there’s no denying that we need to foster athletes' mental health and wellness. At the same time, we need to start the conversation surrounding the overall mental wellbeing of coaches.


I want to put a spotlight on the current system and the role it has played in coaches’ (and staff) mental wellness. Currently, there is an old system at play. One that conditions those within the system to remain in their roles, stay quiet, put your head down and forge ahead with the status quo. The system within collegiate swimming is built so that the swim coach is just that, a swim coach.


As a society, we have outgrown this system. The way we as humans live and interact with one another has outgrown this system.


In coaching, we are beyond the days where we are just the coach who focuses solely on the physical preparation of student-athletes, preparing training seasons, studying the physiological science behind the sport, talking “shop”, and coaching practice.

Every coach knows there is so much more to our careers than this. Depending on where we work, coaches often have to wear many hats including: recruiting coordinator, director of operations, strength & conditioning, alumni relations, equipment manager, communications and social media lead, academic and compliance liaison, nutritionist, and above all psychologist.


When it comes to our work with student-athletes, we are on the front lines. Meaning, weekly we have 20 hours of exclusive access to our student-athletes. Within these regulated 20 hours, we are expected to accomplish: practices, meetings, team travel, and competitions. During this time, we are consistently building relationships and gaining the trust of our student-athletes. We are getting to know them beyond just knowing their pace to reach their goal times.


If you’re a good coach, your athletes feel comfortable around you and have trust in your program. These same athletes have grown up in the age where social media is a constant, perhaps a generation considered “over-sharers” and “perfection posters.” A generational dynamic that both coaches and athletes must take into account and better understand when communicating.


Our athletes have begun to trust us so much that it’s likely we are the first person they come to when they need help. Yet, are we as coaches, fully prepared for this access of information to their lives? For example, are we prepared to help the student-athlete that opens up to us about their eating disorder, their history of self-harm, their history of being abused, or any other serious situation?


As a coach and mentor of this generation, I understand it is a part of my job to take on this role. In my opinion, it is a privilege to be someone so trusted. It’s how we respond and support the student-athlete after receiving this information, that is our responsibility. But what type of support are coaches given to handle these situations, and how much is too much for us to take on?


This is why I want to be a voice for coaches, in order to better support ourselves and our student-athletes.


I know coaches who go home after a day at work, worried sick about their athletes. Feeling unsure of what to do, not sure how to help, even wondering if the help they’ve given is enough. Because of this constant worry and stress, there have been many amazing coaches who have made the decision to step away from this career. Feeling like coaching is a 24/7 job and feeling little to no support in situations such as the one described above.


We are losing too many good people in the profession. But have we asked ourselves: Are the coaches in our organizations or programs supported, educated and prepared to handle and follow protocol in situations such as these? Things seem to be set up so we just clock in, coach, win, repeat. Where is the support system in place?


No one has prepared or properly educated us on adapting to the holistic needs of our student-athletes (as well as our own needs). Those of us on the front lines need help, education, and support. How can I be at my best as a coach, to help my student-athletes compete at their best, if I’m taking on some of their weight too?


This is like pre-flight, when the flight attendant tells you, “in case of an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first and then help others”. But where or what is our oxygen mask? Organizations need to start providing and mandating basic education on specific topics related to the holistic care of student-athletes. We are at a time in history where people are talking about mental health. We’ve had to sit in our feelings for two years and everything has surfaced, now it’s time to address these feelings. Our society will not go back to the way it was and we need to be prepared.


I know many people will read this and say okay coach, well that’s on you to… “set better boundaries” or “turn your phone off when you go home”, or “that’s not our job”. In my opinion, we are past this point. The student-athletes expect it from us and it’s time for organizations to take notice.


And if you’re a coach saying “that’s not our job”, while comfortably going home at night not worrying about a student-athlete after they have just told you they are, for example, self harming; then I am truly concerned about the humans that are working and leading in our profession and in sport.


I understand it’s a tough balance to strike. Building strong relationships with our athletes, and being able to go home at night and leave work at work.


I don’t know what the right answer is yet, but I do know that the wrong answer is sitting still and waiting for something to happen. In order to create longevity in careers around coaching and sport, it’s time to start looking inward at the system. It’s time for organizations to start protecting their people. We need to be proactive so we can build a new and more supportive system that starts at the top and trickles down supporting everyone within.


Below is a list of ideas and resources to move this conversation forward.


Steps Toward a Solution:

  • Education from the top down, having discussion and meaningful conversion regarding a variety of topics:

    • Student-Athlete Mental Health First Aid

    • Anti-Racism Discussion & Education

    • Safe Zone Training (LBGTQ+ Education)

    • Title IX Training

    • Education & Support for coaches on how to compartmentalize their work and how to better take care of their own mental health

  • Have discussions with your staff, head coach, sport admin, and leadership about getting new support systems into place and implementing educational topics

  • Have actual meaningful conversations (with colleagues, swim coaches, other sport coaches)

  • Listen to podcasts

  • Attend educational webinars


Discussion Questions:

  • What topics do you wish you were better educated on to support your student-athletes?

  • Is there a stigma around the mental health resources that maybe draw student-athletes to go to coaches first before a psychologist?

  • If you work on a staff, do you ever think about who may take on a lot of the psychological weight of your team?

    • Is it one person more than others? Is it support staff? Why is that?

    • What other factors do you think play a role in this?

  • How do you think we should go about educating in order to best serve our student-athletes?

  • Have you done any self education?


Resources:


  • Currently in her 3rd season as an Assistant Coach at the University of Arizona

  • Head Coach for the Seychelles at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

  • Spent 2 seasons at SMU as an Assistant Coach and 1 season as a volunteer assistant at Texas A&M University

  • Has worked with multiple Olympians, World Championship Medalists, and NCAA All-Americans

  • 2017 3rd place NCAA Finish with Texas A&M

  • 2017 SEC Team Title

  • Coached for the Hillsboro Heat Swim Club in Hillsboro, Oregon for 3 years

  • Swam at Oregon State University (2008-2010) and Texas A&M University (2010-2012)

  • 2012 Big XII team championship

  • Was an NCAA Qualifier and OSU school record holder

  • 2012 US Olympic Trials Qualifier


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