Courtesy: Emily Klueh, Athletic Mental Heath Counselor at the University of Michigan
The sport of swimming is changing and adapting, from high volume training programs to US-RPT, questions of what dryland to use from lifting vs HITT vs yoga and Pilates, managing technique and good body position to getting work done throughout the season. Over the past few years, these significant changes have created challenges to achieving and maintaining physical, emotional, mental and for some, spiritual balance. The increasing discussions regarding the “change of the athlete mentality,” has resulted in many coaches feeling overwhelmed with what to do, who to talk to, and what to implement to advance their athlete’s abilities and talents.
Despite the changes and adaptation, the core values of hard work, drive, passion, determination, and dedication for excellence and success stand strong across the sport. The question is: What does this look like in today’s athlete? From a mental health perspective, the tough-it-out mentality is shifting, rightfully so. Athletes are recognizing that happiness, positive relationships, and being mentally fit contributes to achieving goals in all domains of life. Allison Schmitt’s interview at Nationals, simply stated, “it’s ok to not always be ok”. So, how do coaches find that balance in their many roles and responsibilities as an ally, support, advocate and motivator.
I spoke to coaches and administrators regarding this topic at a recent conference with The Nashville Coaching Coalition called, The Coaches Forum. How can coaches and administrators emotionally, mentally, and physically support, motivate, and ‘push’ their athletes to not only be successful in their sport, but also successful in life without crossing the line? There is no simple, one line fix all response. The reason for this is individual difference. So what can you do…
1) Define role, values, and positive culture each year for your team. In regards to roles, as previously mentioned, coaches wear multiple hats. They are seen as motivators, mentors, supports, authority figures, leaders and the list goes on. One underlying core role that a coach carries, which is often in question, is how to motivate/encourage their athletes to push further than the athletes push themselves? This is often a tight rope-balancing act. When coaches take the time to get to know and understand their athletes, coupled with creating positive culture and values, we see athletes and coaches thrive in and out of the pool. In getting to know your athletes, you notice what kind of motivation positively improves results.
Modeling is huge as it relates to an athlete’s development. If a coach or administrator is able to model the values and culture of their team verse telling the athletes to follow certain rules and standards, it creates stronger cohesion.
Creating a positive team culture using values and strong leadership is critical. In the presentation at the Coaches Forum in Nashville, I referenced coach John Beilein, University of Michigan Head Basketball Coach. He is open and up front about his shift in coaching style from coaching athletes first to coaching people first. He builds his culture on a strong value system that acknowledges the individual differences that each player has and he invests in them as people first and ballplayers second.
2) Notice, Acknowledge, and Listen. When discussing coaching, the most common question I receive is how to actually put these things into practice. What it boils down to is building relationships with athletes. Jon Urbancheck and Jack Roach have continued to be the leaders of this approach. If you ask many national team athletes who are some of the most influential coaches in their lives, these two names are commonly referenced. Urbancheck and Roach have made positive impressions on athletes that they have coached directly, as well as those who have travelled with them for national team events and competitions. They understand that if you invest in getting to know your athletes, then you can notice when something is off-balance and adjust, have a conversation, get them help if needed, and provide a level of care that often athletes desperately look for in their coach. Urbancheck and Roach were incredibly successful at helping athletes achieve several sport and life-specific goals; with coaching some of their athletes as teens, young adults and into adulthood, they have been part of pivotal successes and accomplishments for many. Knowing your athlete not only allows you to recognize when they may be struggling, but also helps you coach that athlete better.
Being coached by Jon Urbanchek for many years, he knew how to push me further than I could push myself some days and took time to know me for me, which was invaluable. Time and time again, you hear of top level athletes talking about these types of coach-athlete relationships that helped them achieve success in their sport and in their life.
Notice when something is off, acknowledge that you recognize it, and listen when they want to talk.
3) Change the conversation and view of mental health and well-being. We all struggle at some point, some more than others. Life is hard and we all fluctuate along the continuum of well-being. The more we can talk about working on our minds and our bodies like we do to stay physically healthy, by eating well and getting stronger, the quicker we are to learn coping skills and become more resilient. As I was always told by my coaches, and still believe today, “A happy athlete is a fast athlete.” This doesn’t come without struggle, failure or hard times, but if I loved what I was doing and felt valued, then I was able to push through those struggles and work towards my goals.
In this, I talk about two concepts
A) Open door policy.
B) Build a network. Knowing providers in your community and building relationships with them can ease a coaches mind on not knowing what to do if one of their athletes is struggling. This allows you to have a referral source. If those providers do not have openings more often than not they will help you with another referral. This also helps you feel as though you don’t have to be the counselor or feel helpless in knowing what to do next.
4) Take care of yourself: Know your limits. Acknowledge and respect your level of comfort in having conversations with athletes. Use your newly found networks and search for resources to address things you are not comfortable addressing or that you may not have the answers to. Coaches are often overworked and this ensures that you are taking care of yourself; finding your balance promotes individual wellness and improves coaching.