In my nearly 20 year career as a coach I have tried hard to take many of the principals that make for a successful teacher and apply them to my coaching as well. One of the things they teach you when you go through school to become a teacher is that making a genuine connection with kids is incredibly important if you want to truly help them to succeed. Many of the connections I have made with my athletes have gone long after they graduated and are off into their adult lives. I know many coaches are fortunate enough to form these bonds and that I am far from an anomaly.
In the last few years especially, I have found these connections to be incredibly important. The pandemic has done things that many of us never before experienced in our lives. As adults we are having a hard enough time adjusting to the “new normal” and regardless of where your politics fall on the pandemic, I think we can ALL agree that the last few years have affected each and every one of us in some way. Today, though, I want to talk about mental health.
Forming trust in general is important to me. I want people to know that while, just like everyone else, I make a ton of mistakes in life, I try hard to have the best interest of the people around me at heart as much as possible. Trust is the basis for open conversation and I try hard to earn the trust of my athletes so that when those hard conversations come, they can come to me and we can talk. In just the past month, I have had some very courageous conversations with quite a few different young people ranging from high school all the way into their 30’s. Obviously I would never use their names, but I know that they each are such kind and caring individuals that if their situations can help others, they would do so in a second.
First, I have to say, we can’t all connect in the same way. The connections we make with some are so much easier than the ones we make with others. No one owes it to us to trust us to tell us about their personal lives no matter how hard we have worked to earn that trust. It is selfish of us to think that and if we truly care, we have to change that mindset. In the past nearly 20 years as a teacher and coach, I have seen parents who try so hard to make sure that their kids know that when there is something wrong, they can always talk to them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Just because your kids don’t always come to you with everything doesn’t mean that you are a bad parent. Just like when they don’t come to me it’s because I am a bad coach. The saying “it takes a village” is incredibly true, and parents who are thoughtfully building that village around their kids are incredible parents too because they know that they can’t always be there and that, at some point, they are going to have to rely on the fact that the village they helped to build around their kids will be. With these kids, I got to be a part of the village their parents helped to build and I was honored.
I won’t go into specifics with any of the young ladies I talked to as I don’t want to betray their trust. Let’s just say that for many of the young people right now, they missed a lot of their formative years both in school, and in the world due to the pandemic and that now more than perhaps ever in our lifetimes, kids need us to stop and recognize that. Things that we dealt with as kids that we kind of eased into, they were thrown into without many of the emotional and psychological constructs that we had as kids that helped us through things we faced.
Think about it this way, you are in 6thgrade, you go to school and playing with your friends at recess is the biggest deal of your day. Then, for the next two years you not only aren’t on the playground and in class with your friends to have fun, you have all of a sudden started puberty. You skipped middle school which are some of the most important formative years of your life. Then, the next thing you know, you are a freshmen in high school and thrown back into the lions den with all kinds of new thoughts and feelings that you may not even have known you had. You didn’t get to watch that one kid who matured faster than you go through it, so you had no example. Now you are in a classroom with all these kids who have also gone through it and have no idea how to handle what they are thinking and feeling. People are all expecting you to “act your age” but you truly don’t know how. You are a behavior problem for your parents and teachers when you had never been before and you are just as frustrated with it as your parents and teachers are. The relationship that felt so close with your parents, over night it seems, has become stressed and challenging.
What if you were a high school junior when the pandemic started? All of a sudden now you are making your transition into college and into a whole new world. Maybe you became incredibly close with your family during that time and, when you didn’t really get to see many other people, they were the people you relied on for everything. Now all of a sudden you are off to college and you didn’t get to gradually leave the nest, the nest tipped over and you fell out. Your new environment doesn’t feel like home yet, and while classes and your team may be going fine, there is just something missing that feels like such a big hole in your life that it distracts you from being the best you in other aspects of it. How do you deal with this all on your own?
How about being a college freshmen? You are nervous enough about being in college and then at the end of your freshmen year, not only does the sport you love get taken away for the year, but now with all of these 5th year seniors coming back along with a class of Freshmen that is really good, you are looking at an uphill climb to get to even play. School is stressful because online classes don’t offer the same supports you are used to from in person classes. Friendships seem distant because you can’t connect with people even on your own team in the same way because you don’t see them. Your coaches are stressed out with the madness that has happened with their rosters and your future, for maybe the first time in your life, doesn’t seem near as certain as it did just a few short months ago. You are expected to be an adult and make adult decisions that will affect the rest of your life, but when not even adults who have been adulting for decades have all the answers, how can you? Talk about pressure!
In talking with the young ladies that I talked with, I caught them in various stages of going through some depression and issues. From the girl who had just had an incredibly tough week to the girl that had been having a horrible year, to the girl who had such a hard time in the last two years that everything in her life had changed. For one girl, it was enough to sit and talk with Ryan and I at practice and be reassured that no matter what is happening in life, if she can have the courage to come and talk to us, to her school counselor, or to her parents, we can always find a way through it together. For another girl some text messages back and forth to assure her that she didn’t have to make that transition to college alone may have been helpful and hopefully opened up the line of communication to help more in the future. For another girl, it took making some pretty drastic changes to her life, leaving behind things and people she cared about, and seeking professional help before she ever felt comfortable talking about it. For yet another, it had been so long going through it that calling me sobbing felt to me like she didn’t know where else to turn.
I have to commend each one of these ladies. Talking so someone can be so hard. It can feel like no matter what you do there are no answers. It can feel like the world will judge you, or that you can’t talk to people because they will be disappointed in you. It can feel like losing people and things you care about is the end of the world, but I’m here to tell you that it isn’t. Your well being and mental health are all that is important to those in your life that matter. For my athletes, please know that I am always here to listen and to give advice. Please know that I will never judge and I will always have your best interests at heart. Please understand that doesn’t just apply to the hours that you are in the sand with me. I have athletes that are in their 30’s now that will, out of the blue, reach out just to talk. Sometimes I can tell they are lonely or sad and I love that they know that even decades after being my athlete, they are still my kid.
In 2022 the rate of suicide among college athletes is on the rise in comparison to prior years. Depression is happening with those around us whether we choose to pay attention to it or not. Parents, if your child seems off, find a non-confrontational way to talk to them about it. If they become combative about it, recognize that they are probably not processing it well. Encourage them to talk to their school counselor, or help them to recognize that there are other adults in their lives that they can trust and talk to as well. Take the time to take them for that one on one ice cream night just to hang out. Let them skip practice and surprise them by going to their favorite restaurant just to let them know you see them. Unfortunately kids have been thrown into a world right now that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to them. Let’s take time out of the normal grind and make a special effort to notice these kids, to show them we understand that things are hard right now and that together we can find a way through the hard. In the end, all that matters is their wellbeing anyway.