Breaking Down Barriers
To student athletes disclosing psychological distress to coaches
I recently watched this clip of Harry Miller, an Ohio State football player, opening up about his recent retirement from football for mental health reasons. Harry is now speaking up about his struggles to encourage others to seek help and find hope. It’s worth the 9-minutes.
In all honesty, when watching this, all I could think about was what seemed to be the turning point of his life. Before his junior season, he told Ohio State head coach Ryan Day of his intention to kill himself. In Harry’s own words,
“I am grateful for the infrastructure Coach Day has put in place at Ohio State, and I am grateful that he is letting me find a new way to help others in the program… If not for him and the staff my words would not be a reflection. They would be evidence in a post-mortem” - Harry Miller
Ryan Day has opened up about his struggles with mental health, and in 2019, created a foundation to address adolescent mental health. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if Ryan Day wasn’t his coach? Fair or unfair, I wondered if Harry would be around to share his story if Coach Day’s predecessor were still in charge.
As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of a study published in the most recent Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. It examined the barrier’s athletes face to disclosing psychological distress to their coaches, how coaches can set cultures that break down those barriers and further, how coaches can successfully respond to the athlete’s disclosure. Over the next two weeks, I’ll share the study’s insights.
In this week’s 3 point’s, I’ll discuss the barriers that athletes face to disclosing psychological distress, and how coaches can build cultures that break down those barriers.
1. The authors of the study described psychological distress as,
“the unique discomforting, emotional state experienced by an individual in response to a specific stressor or demand that results in harm, either temporary or permanent, to the person”.
Previous research has shown that student-athletes may be at an increased risk of psychological distress. In fact, an NCAA survey in 2015 found 30% of participating student-athletes reported feeling seriously overwhelmed during the past month. Student-athletes face many stressors that could potentially lead to psychological distress, including pressure to achieve, injury, maintaining eligibility, team or coach conflict, and time demands.
2. The study I’ll be sharing was conducted at the University of Toronto. The researchers interviewed 15 former Varsity athletes and 15 University coaches. While the study is limited in the number of participants, many of the findings align with previous research and provide important insights for coaches today.
In examining the athlete interviews, the researchers found 5 perceived barriers to disclosing their distress to their coaches:
An Emphasis on Demonstrating Toughness
“Student-athletes often internalized athletic toughness as a cornerstone in their athletic identities. As such, when athletes experienced psychological distress, they perceived it as a weakness and felt it was unwelcomed within the traditionally tough sport environment.”
Power Dynamic Between Coaches and Student-Athletes
“Student-athletes believed disclosure would result in coaches losing faith in their performance abilities, subsequently limiting playing time or opportunities to compete.”
Position on the Team
“Hierarchies were based on athletes’ individual athletic contributions, meaning athletes in more substantial roles, such as team captains or starters, felt pressure not to disclose distress in order to maintain their image as team leaders. Conversely, athletes who identified as bench players or underclassmen were also hesitant to disclose distress because they did not feel like valued team members and feared detracting focus from teammates who ranked above them on the team’s hierarchy.”
Poor visibility of distress
“Participants said that psychological distress was not widely discussed within the sport environment, which resulted in athletes initially being unable to recognize that they were experiencing distress. Once athletes identified they were in distress, the poor visibility of distress in sport led student-athletes to believe they were alone, resulting in feelings of isolation. As such, rather than initiating disclosure, athletes explained feeling that they should hide their distress.”
Previous negative experiences disclosing distress
“The athletes felt these experiences taught them that sport is not a suitable environment for discussing distress and instilled a mindset that coaches are not concerned for the psychological well-being of athletes.”
3. So how do we break down these barriers? The authors of the study recommended global cultural practices as well as practices specifically suited to address each barrier. I’ve formatted the study’s recommendations on a PDF for peak stickiness.
If you have found this beneficial, please consider sharing with a coach or colleague!
James E. Bissett & Katherine A. Tamminen (2022) Student-athlete disclosures of psychological distress: Exploring the experiences of university coaches and athletes, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 34:2, 363-383, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2020.1753263