116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
My last column focused on the fact all athletes, not just the professional and high-profile type, can struggle with mental health issues, even younger competitors.
I believe the subject is so important that I have decided to address athlete mental health issues again this month. Specifically, how can coaches and parents develop tough, focused and resilient athletes who can enjoy their athletic experiences, even at the younger ages?
Bill Dean, CEO and founder of COSMH, LLC, works with parents, schools, organizations and their student-athletes to provide support, tools and coaching directly to families in creating a mental health safe environment.
He said every athlete is unique and responds differently to pressures. He looks at five areas of player development and said these areas should be a foundation for coaches and parents to create “consistency within their student-athlete. This will support meaningful experiences, patterns of action and overcoming obstacles.”
- Joy — How do we recognize obstacles and not let them steal the joy.
- Confidence — How do we build on positive moments and press on.
- Composure — Emotions will not be allowed to drive me far from balance.
- Focus — Know my plan, stay on point with my plan and avoid unhealthy distractions.
- Influence — Learn to be intentional with verbal and visual actions.
Dean said the five areas above can help reduce the anxiety surrounding athletes’ experiences.
Psychologist and author Brittany Patterson, a faculty member with the National Center for School Mental Health at University of Maryland School of Medicine, said in a recent TrueSport article that “resilience takes intentionality and practice. Because of this, we need to create space for talking about individual strengths that each athlete has, what factors contribute to resilience, and what it takes to develop resilience.”
Patterson listed several items parents and coaches need to know to best help athletes learn resilience on their own terms.
- Understand resilience. Mental, physical and emotional resilience are connected. As a coach, it’s natural to think about physical resilience, but if we don’t think about an individual holistically, then their mental resilience can suffer while their physical resilience seems to be exceptional.
- Feelings. It’s important athletes be able to identify their feelings in order to learn how to cope emotionally, calming strong emotions, such as heightened anxiety at the start of a race. This requires the athlete to acknowledge the feeling and apply calming strategies.
- Identity. Help athletes identify their internal and external strengths. Talk about how they use their inherent skills. Look at external strengths, including their support system around them.
- Goals. It’s critical young people develop goals they care about and create a plan to move forward one step at a time. Find and prioritize goals the athlete cares about, avoiding the sole focus on what the coach deems important.
- Healthy coping. Mental health comes through having healthy coping skills.
Dean said data is lacking regarding the age kids most often experience mental health issues as a result of their athletic experiences and how soon they recognize they have issues.
“What I would say is that we know resources and awareness are lacking at the youth level,” he said. “It is much easier to mask early on or cover up. I would offer my opinion is that every young student-athlete has an experience they will draw from. With the bad experiences, these can lead to increased mental health challenges or crises. With the good experiences, it can lead to healthy resilience, joy and focus as a student-athlete.
“There are studies that indicate sport specialization in young athletes can lead to increased burnout and injury, both mental and physical. So I would land in this area. Limit specialization, which is usually parent driven. Parents and coaches, make the tough and right decisions and focus on the joy of competition, sports and life.”
Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at email@example.com