I don’t need to tell you about the global mental-health epidemic. You are living it! As a parent, you’ve seen your kids affected. As a coach, you’ve seen your athletes affected. Chances are, you have experienced it personally. Global stress, anxiety, and depression are all on the rise.
It’s a very discouraging time to be a coach who wants to positively impact our athletes’ lives. We want to help develop resilient, selfless, and happy individuals, but instead, they are less resilient and growing more self-absorbed and stressed out than ever before.
Over the last 20 years in sports, we have improved every aspect of training for our athletes: better facilities, film and statistical analysis, nutrition, and coaching. Athletes are faster, stronger, and more skilled than ever—except mental health is declining. We can see it in simple ways every single day, in how our players respond to making mistakes, losing, and their lack of playing time. They struggle with adversity. We also see it in even more serious ways, with an increase in reported self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. All these are potential symptoms of a greater issue—relational poverty.
Relational poverty is the lack of support and connection that most individuals experience due to a multitude of issues in their families, schools, and society. Obviously, a big contributor is the rise of social media and smartphone devices. The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated this issue over the last few years. As Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry say in their recent book, What Happened to You, “Our ability as a people to tolerate stressors is diminishing because our connectedness is diminishing. This relational poverty means less buffering capacity when we do experience stress, and we are becoming more sensitized to anything that feels potentially threatening.” The mental-health endemic is not just due to added stress in today’s society; it’s also due to our diminished ability to manage that stress.
Facing this growing mental-health crisis can feel hopeless. We feel ill-equipped. We’re trying to make a difference, but it’s starting to feel impossible, as the range of issues and traumas that our players face is growing, along with our ordinary challenges of coaching a team.
How Sports Can Help Strengthen Mental Health
I’ve supported dozens of coaches in the last year, and frequently, one of them will tell me they feel like they must be their athletes’ therapist, not just their coach. While this can be overwhelming, people like world-leading trauma psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry gives us hope.
Recently, on my podcast, Coaching Culture Episode 231, I spoke with Dr. Perry about how sports can provide something even more beneficial than just physical activity; they offer community. If relational poverty is one of the key contributors to our societal problems, then connection is the solution. Our connection to other people is the key to buffering our current stress—and even healing from our past trauma. As Dr. Perry says in his book, “Our major finding is that your history of relational health—your connectedness to family, community, and culture—is more predictive of your mental health than your history of adversity. This is similar to the findings of other researchers looking at the power of positive relationships on health. Connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity.” Therefore, the greater our connectedness is to the people who care for us, the more adversity we can endure.
If we can create a culture in which every team member feels connected, seen, known, and loved, then we’ll make a world of difference. Creating this culture is at the core of the support we offer coaches in our TOC Mentorship Program, and that’s why this year, we’ve partnered with HONE Athletics. HONE provides a digital platform to help strengthen culture and improve mental health.
First, we receive anonymous feedback from players that allows us to keep a pulse on the team culture and how people are feeling about it.
Via their quick and easy mobile app, we’ll receive feedback on six different stressors:
- Time Constraints
This information will help the coach and I make potential necessary adjustments if needed. They may shorten practice time or add more active recovery if fatigue levels are high. Other coaches have realized that they need to invest in more 1-on-1s with players during the week or host an off-the-field “Team Culture Day” to give them opportunities to connect. We’ve even designed a classroom session and personal coaching session on time management.
The app itself provides suggestions from licensed therapists with experience in the sports world. In addition, the therapists at HONE are there to help provide mental-health sessions to the team if the coach feels it would be helpful.
As we use HONE to track the mental health and culture of the team, the data we collect provides valuable affirmation of the positive work coaches are doing for their team. However, every coach has also learned that with some in-season adjustments, their players’ experience and connection is significantly improved.
Coaches don’t need to be therapists to effectively support their athlete’s mental health. In fact, Dr. Perry’s research shows that most healing happens within a community, not in formal therapy. Find ways to survey the mental health and culture of your team, and then continue to build a culture in which people feel connected. Not only will your team perform better, but your players will enjoy the experience and become better people for it. For many, it will be a life-changing and healing experience.