Student-Athlete's in Distress
Responding Effectively to Support Distressed Student-Athletes
Last week’s newsletter discussed the barriers athlete face in disclosing psychological distress, and how as coaches we can break down those barriers. And in discussing briefly the case of Ryan Day and his relationship with Harry Miller, we were able to see the pivotal role that coaches can play in supporting student-athletes experiencing psychological distress. The tweet below is from Harry Miller’s mom and is further evidence of the role coaches can play in supporting their student-athletes.
The same study from last week’s newsletter also analyzed how coaches can most effectively respond to student-athletes disclosing their distress.
In this week’s 3 points, I’ll share effective and supportive responses to student-athlete disclosures, so that you and your programs can support your student-athletes in psychological distress.
1. Immediate Support (Initial Response to Disclosure)
“The most important thing is to listen to what they’re saying. … Allow them to disclose the problem and explain what’s going on with them.” (Coach, Rowing)
“Be reassuring that they’re not the only one’s out there. I think that’s one of the big things with mental health issues is that you tend to kind of question yourself as to why me … The first reaction I always have it to be very reassuring.” (Coach, Hockey)
Question (If Needed)
“After talking with [the athlete] and trying to get to the root cause of why he seemed to be pissed off … [by] digging in and asking questions, [we] finally got to the root [of the problem].” (Coach, Rugby)
“Figuring out what level they’re on in terms of their distress and if it’s something that they just need someone to talk to, or they need someone above me to talk to, or is it a, we need to go to the hospital kind of thing.” (Coach, Swimming)
“I recognize that I’m not an expert in this field, but I also recognize that as a coach, … I view my role as … the middle man to connect [student-athletes] with the people who are best suited to support them.” (Coach, Baseball)
2. Short-Term Support
The study found two primary support practices for athletes in the short term. The first is to work with the student-athlete to create a plan to manage the distress. By engaging the student-athlete in the process of creating a plan, you are also supporting their autonomy and supporting accountability with them.
The next short term practice recommended is to connect the student-athlete to appropriate resources. Further, it is important to understand that disclosing their distress to you was likely very difficult for them. So if talking to a mental health professional is the appropriate step, the most effective supporting practice is to offer to schedule an appointment with them, or even go with the student-athlete to the scheduled appointment.
3. Long-Term Support
The study identified six effective long term support practices:
Keep the athlete engaged with the team.
Check in with athlete on consistent basis.
Make yourself readily available for as-needed communication.
Modify sport-related demands.
Demonstrate patience and understanding in regards to the slow process of recovery.
Maintain athlete confidentiality.