Coaching in 2023 has its challenges, and it’s not uncommon to hear people say that it used to be easier. With parents pushing boundaries, student athletes increasingly busy with extracurricular activities, and the ever-present social media frenzy, the pressure on coaches and athletes is higher than ever. Additionally, the “post-Covid fallout” has added another layer of stress and concern about the mental health of our young athletes. Despite these challenges, coaching is still the best part of my day.

Athletes require positive role models in their lives, and coaches can effectively fill that role. Unfortunately, the mental health of high school athletes is often overlooked, despite its critical importance. A student athlete’s success on the team and their overall well-being depend on good mental health, making it an essential component of modern coaching. It’s vital that athletic directors prioritize this issue by actively discussing it with their staff. We are facing a crisis that demands our attention.

…rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression have seen little change since fall 2020 and remain 1.5 to two times higher than identified before the COVID-19 pandemic. – NCAA – 5/24/22

At 27 years old, I began coaching boy’s varsity basketball with limited knowledge of teenagers beyond my own experiences. Back in the 1990s, discussing ‘feelings’ was not something athletes did often. However, having since raised two teenagers of my own, I now have a greater appreciation for the social and emotional needs of high school athletes.

The pandemic has been a very challenging time, and few positive outcomes have resulted. However, one potential silver lining is the heightened awareness and focused conversations surrounding teenage mental health issues. The isolation, anxiety, and sadness that young athletes have experienced during an already challenging developmental period in their lives have brought attention to a once-taboo subject.

Promoting Good Mental Health

In 2021, I advocated for the XC/TF Boosters organization at my high school to invest $300 in a sports psychologist. It proved to be one of the most valuable investments we ever made, benefiting our cross country athletes, parents, and coaches tremendously. We were fortunate enough to have Dr. Stephen Gonzalez from Dartmouth College speak to our teams for a couple of hours one Saturday morning in October.

That experience was a turning point for me. I became acutely aware of the significance of good mental health for high school athletes. I firmly believe that emotional distress and anxiety about racing are major obstacles to unlocking an athlete’s full potential. To address this, we began incorporating specific phrases to guide our mental attitudes throughout the season, such as “stay out of the bucket” and “relax, breathe, believe.” It’s crucial for coaches to equip their athletes with effective strategies for handling the stress of competition.

Reducing pre-race anxiety:

  1. In the days prior to the race, it can be beneficial to visualize your success. Using all five senses to vividly imagine the experience in your mind can help prepare you for the race ahead.

  2. It’s important to focus on the team aspect of the race. Remind athletes that they are not alone; they are surrounded by teammates and coaches, all working together towards a shared goal.

  3. Keep in mind that you are racing with other runners, not against them. The presence of other talented runners can be a valuable opportunity to push yourself to new heights and elevate your performance.

Mental Health and High School Athletes

The high school athletes we work with have numerous responsibilities and commitments, including school, homework, athletics, work, clubs, volunteering, and social lives. In my experience, it’s a rarity for athletes to have a full eight hours of sleep each night or even a chance to sit down for dinner with their families. As coaches, it’s our responsibility to stay vigilant to the signs of mental fatigue and stress.

Mental fatigue can present itself in a number of ways, such as irritability, disengagement, withdrawal, decreased motivation and enthusiasm, or overly emotional responses. When these symptoms arise, training plans may as well be toilet paper. An exhausted athlete is unlikely to perform well or adapt well to the physical and mental stress of a workout.

Fostering Good Mental Health

  1. To support your athletes’ mental health, it’s important to approach them with compassion and understanding, and to let them know that it’s okay to ask for help.

  2. Help your athletes prioritize their time by suggesting ways to balance their commitments. Maybe they can cut back on a part-time job or focus on one sport or club at a time.

  3. Establish structure in their daily schedule by suggesting regular meal times, bedtimes, and other routines to create predictability and efficiency.

  4. Encourage your athletes by highlighting their positive qualities and accomplishments, and shifting the focus away from negative thoughts.

  5. When creating training plans, consider the team’s schedule outside of athletics, and adjust during transition periods such as “back-to-school” week or final exams.

  6. Remember that as coaches, we are not psychologists. If you have concerns about an athlete’s mental health, it’s important to involve their parents and seek additional help when needed.

Coaching is often compared to parenting, as both involve guiding and supporting the growth of individuals. As coaches, our ultimate goal is to see our student athletes happy, fulfilled, and successful, both on and off the field. We strive to create a team culture that fosters a sense of belonging and support, like a close-knit family. And, of course, we want to achieve victories and win championships. However, I believe that true success in sports is the result of building a safe and encouraging environment where athletes can develop and thrive. When we prioritize the well-being of our athletes, we create a strong foundation for success in all aspects of their lives.





One response to “Mental Health of High School Athletes”

  1. David A. Avatar
    David A.

    I’ve seen a lot of this lately. It’s worse than it’s ever been.

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