Are Coaches Finally Ready to Have a Conversation About Your Athletes’ Emotional State?

(Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

With the high-profile struggles of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps among many others, are we finally willing to discuss what is really going on and take steps to help your athletes’? You may not be coaching Olympians, but your athletes’ face many of the same challenges and pressures that they do.

This issue affects both performance and the long-term health and safety of all your athletes’. As coaches and parents have pushed higher and higher standards of performance and set greater expectations on younger kids who happen to be athletes, there is a significant gap in giving them the tools they need to manage their stress and anxiety. Please believe me when I tell you that the solution to the problem is not that the athletes need to become more “mentally tough”, because this way of thinking makes the problem worse.

When we look back over the past decade or so at the types of self-help books which pervaded popular culture we see mantra’s of self-reliance, self-determination and bootstrapping. Whether it was the opining of the Tiger-Mom, teaching kids to have Grit, or telling everyone that the secret to success was practicing a skill for 10,000 hours, these ideas were everywhere, including the tech-millionaire who slept under their desk and spent 100 hours per week at the office before successfully selling their company which had never realized a profit and probably never would. We were told that this is what it took to become “successful”.

Layered on top of this was the increasing cost and demand of attending higher education in the US. Parents came to believe that if they just pushed their kids hard enough, they would get admitted to Harvard or Stanford and be set up for a successful life. The constant demands of more intensive schools, from charters to STEM, placed an increased burden on kids. When you layer on the expectation to win an athletic scholarship to help offset the astronomical costs, we have created a perfect storm for mental health issues among young athletes.

The twin challenges of academic and athletic stress have then run up against the modern adults’ anxiety and stress about helping their children be “successful”, never thinking too far ahead about who their kid is going to be as a 30 or 40 year old. Not worrying about whether they will be happy and well-adjusted, just worrying about an ill-defined idea about “success”. The anxiety and stress of being a modern parent and coach shows itself in many ways, but one of the most telling is whether you can let your kids express themselves without coaching them to the answer you want to hear, the “right” answer.

Kids are incredibly smart and observant, much smarter than most adults give them credit for. They learn very quickly that when their parent asks them their opinion, they need to answer in a way that fits the parents’ expectation. They start to tailor their responses based on what their “supposed” to say. There were thousands of times during my coaching career when I would ask a kid what they thought while their parent was standing within earshot and the parent would step in and respond “well, WE think…” on the athletes’ behalf.

This behavior isn’t limited to parents. I’m sure we can all think of times that we’ve observed coaches asking their athletes’ loaded questions and then cajoling them until they heard the “right” response. Coaches have a unique way of twisting questions to prompt the response that they want to hear, which is often a way of managing their own anxiety and stress or trying to validate their decision-making. The most prevalent example I can think of is the ever present “don’t be nervous”. I mean, give me a break, this kid has spent months if not years and hundreds of hours training for this competition, which will either validate them as a person, because most of their identity is based on this sport, and might determine where they go to college or even if they make millions of dollars, which they have been told will make or break them as adults, and your response to them saying that they’re worried or anxious is “don’t be nervous” or “toughen up”. You’re kidding, right?

Do you get nervous when your athletes’ compete? Do you get anxious before the competition or get angry when things aren’t going your way at the competition? Is your sometimes inconsistent behavior at competitions because you are in fact nervous, and you think that you’re not supposed to be? Trust me, I did the same thing for a long time, it was my go-to move at “big” competitions. The problem is, not only does it not work, but it also makes things worse, much worse, and the more often your athletes’ hear “don’t be nervous” from parents and coaches, the worse it becomes.

When the athlete continues to hear that what is going on in their head is wrong or bad, it creates an extraordinary problem. Who they are internally, what they think and how they feel, becomes increasingly disconnected from what they project externally. This disconnect creates a widening gap about who they are and what they believe. A lot of kids can mange this gap, up to a point, but as it grows, their stress and anxiety needs an outlet, which is why we often see often destructive behavior from elite athletes; from Michael Phelps and his struggles with alcohol, to Andre Agassi and his drug addiction, to Sha’Carrie Richardson and her use of marijuana, the list goes on and on and on. These are all acts of self-soothing and expressions of the struggle that they are having accepting themselves.

What’s missing for the athlete and their relationship with their coach and parents is authenticity. Can they be an elite athlete who does amazing things with their body and mind and also be nervous, anxious and sometimes feel like quitting their sport? Are they allowed to express themselves and their ideas and worries and not be told that they need to “fix” something? Better yet, can you as a coach listen to them and resist the urge to “fix” them and their thinking. Can you just hear it and offer your support? Can you honestly reply to them “I don’t know” when they ask a question that you in-fact don’t know the answer to or do you feel the need to make up an answer based on your gut reaction? Are you helping them or are you trying to protect yourself, your ego and your career?

Inevitably the disconnect leads to performance issues. The athletes often resent the sport and the competitions. When the car is off the road and in the ditch, coaches then suggest that the athlete change their oil, by seeing a sports psychologist, which can be very effective, because someone will finally listen to them without correcting them, but, the person who should have been working with the sports psyche all along is the coach. You spend more time with them than almost anyone and because they trust you, sometimes with their lives, every word you speak has an impact. Every behavior you show has an effect. When you really think about it, are your words and actions really used to support them or are they used to validate yourself. Are you guilty of having the same disconnect between your thoughts and actions as the athletes and are you projecting that on to them? Have you sought professional help to improve how you connect and communicate with your athletes?

Coaching is hard, often isolating work. Everyone expects you to have the answers to every problem and we often come to believe that we can “fix” any problem if we just coach hard enough. The reality is, you probably aren’t qualified to “fix” most problems and often by coaching everything up, we compound problems until they become untenable. The athletes you work with need your authentic support. You are the tip of the spear when it comes to managing athlete health, safety and performance. You are the person who can help them the most, by allowing them to say what’s on their mind without needing to “fix” it. What they really want is your unconditional support as people, whether they win or lose shouldn’t change how you support them. If you get angry when an athlete doesn’t perform up to your expectations and it changes how you speak or behave around them, they know, your support is conditional, and they can’t be authentic around you either.

Being an elite athlete and a young adult is significantly harder than it used to be. Training has become longer and more intense. They are expected to build their image into a “brand” that needs to give the appearance of perfection and that doesn’t allow them to express their opinion in case they offend people that they don’t even know. Their performance has direct financial consequences, whether they are a professional or an amateur, which creates pressure from their family to perform.

When coaches begin to allow their athletes to be authentic, which sometimes means just standing back and absorbing intense anxiety and stress, without feeling the need to “do” something about it, it will be a huge step towards helping them manage the unbelievable pressures of elite performance. Relationships get a lot easier and better when we allow each other to put down the weight of expectations and accept that high performance competition creates high stress and anxiety which needs to be talked about. When we teach athletes that being nervous or anxious is wrong, it doesn’t change the fact that they will still feel that way. It’s time for coaches and parents to deal with reality, not their projection of what they want to happen, but what is happening. It’s time to stop using ego and bluster to fake your way through hard situations and admit that you don’t have all the answers. It’s time to allow your athletes’ to be authentic and make your support unconditional, independent of their performance. It’s probably time for you to start coaching from a place where you are authentic too, you’ll feel a lot better.

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