Student athletes today not only deal with physical injuries, but also mental stress that comes in many forms. For some, it’s the pressure to succeed on the field, while others struggle with the mental aspects of injury rehabilitation, while still other student athletes find it difficult to successfully navigate the sport retirement transition. Unfortunately, even though there is more attention directed to mental health these days, many kids still do not seek mental health assistance for fear of having the stigma of looking weak attached to their name. The good news is these reservations can be resolved by means of good coaching, a supporting team environment, and athletic directors/league operators fully invested in making sure mental health support is afforded in the same way as physical injury rehabilitation.
While many coaches talk in general terms to kids about mental toughness as it applies to on-field success, rarely do these conversations expand to include the many additional mental stressors kids experience while competing in sports. Performance anxiety, working successfully with teammates, juggling classes and sports, living up to team/school/community expectations, gaining/losing weight, rehabilitating from injury, and living life as a role model are just a few of the more common issues student athletes deal with on a regular basis. Some athletes manage to successfully juggle all their responsibilities quite well, but others struggle and feel overwhelmed and lacking the coping skills needed to succeed. One common question I receive from student athletes seeking mental health support but fearful of negative consequences is the following: How do I approach the coach about mental toughness issues…without looking mentally weak??
No pain, no gain!
Although we are seeing a positive, changing paradigm as it applies to sport mental wellness today, there are still some coaches, parents, and student athletes who ascribe by the old thinking that pain and discomfort are simply mental toughness challenges, not reasons to seek medical and/or psychological attention. “No pain, no gain,” is a previously popular sports mantra that pushed athletes to fight through pain and mental duress, and to only remove themselves from games when absolutely necessary. In some instances this way of thinking may have elevated athletes to achieve personal and team goals, but it’s also short-sighted to not think many of these same athletes likely compounded and/or worsened their stress and injuries by not getting the medical/psychological attention they needed. Today’s way of thinking appears to be changing toward a safer, healthier way of attending to injuries and mental health issues by responding sooner, but we still have a ways to go in order to normalize the importance of professional care.
The next steps
As we continue to develop and improve safety measures for student athletes, it is equally important that we expand the scope of our attention to include the psychology relating to how coaches and kids identify and respond to sport injuries. How do coaches impress upon kids the importance of speaking up without fear of negative future consequences, and how do kids gain the confidence needed to report stressors and injuries without worry they will lose their position, or be viewed as a weak athlete? A few ideas for developing a healthy dialogue with coaches and kids include the following:
- Discuss sport safety as much as X’s and O’s. Obviously coaches should focus on developing sport skills and game plans to help student athletes perform at a high level, but this doesn’t have to come at the expense of having ongoing discussion about the risks relating to sport injuries and mental illness. It is important for coaches to talk openly about safe training measures and common stressors student athletes may experience, as well as the realities student athletes face by not attending to these concerns.
- Be clear about protocols for student athletes who think they might be mentally or physically suffering. Telling kids that reporting injuries and/or mental stressors is one thing, but actually showing them what to do and how to do it will really drive home this lesson. Make sure kids know signs and symptoms to look for, methods for letting coaches and trainers know about their concerns, and options available to them should they experience mental or physical distress.
- Assure student athletes they won’t lose their spot because of psychological concerns or injury, nor viewed as weak for speaking up. Remember, many athletes today still ascribe to the idea that pain and injuries are simply barriers to work through, not signs that an athlete might benefit from medical/psychological attention. Student athletes will experience far less anxiety when coaches talk directly about how it is a sign of courage and strength, not weakness, when athletes speak assertively about their concerns relating to sport injuries and/or stress. This message can be strengthened by ensuring that kids will not lose playing time because of an unforeseen injury or need for mental support, a philosophy that used to be the norm in sports.
- Emphasize long-term safety over short-term game success. Student athletes not only play below what they are capable of when dealing with elevated stress or injured, but they also run the risk of long-term, permanent damage when they ignore signs that clearly warrant medical attention. Coaches can help by driving home the point that kids are not hurting the team by asking to be removed, especially if removal prevents a long-term injury or mental illness from developing.
While it might seem like the only way to toughen up as an athlete is to play through pain, the reality is that it makes far more sense to properly address stress and injuries than to ignore them. While pushing through obvious injuries and psychological hurdles might make great sports movies, the reality is that athletes who ignore physical/mental pain increase the risk for long-term (and sometimes permanent) serious health problems. Help athletes understand that while it is important to play hard, it’s even more important to play smart by addressing injuries in a timely manner.