Experts from Prevention Strategies and USCAH Address the Power of Resilience Among Student-Athletes

women's soccer player sitting on the turf

“Everybody’s competing to win. [Student-athletes] are driven to be perfect. They’re afraid to fail in the area and there is certainly a lot of external pressure to that,” said James Borchers, MD, President and CEO of the U.S. Council for Athletes’ Health. “You [now] have individuals that have not developed the skillset to be able to deal with those pressures.”

Dr. Borchers and Jeffrey J. Milroy, Dr.Ph, Director of Programs for Prevention Strategies, joined moderator Farah Gilani, LPC-S, Clinical Solutions Consultant at Mantra Health for a discussion on resilience and improving the mental wellness of student-athletes on campus, which you can watch here.

Defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change,” resilience gives student-athletes the ability to bounce back from a loss, an unexpected injury, or other unforeseen obstacles. How can athletic directors, coaches, athletic trainers, and other athletic leaders teach resilience to student-athletes and help them thrive when faced with adversity?

Recognize the Unique Needs of this Generation

Unlike generations before, the Gen Z population is heavily influenced by the things going on in the world and are more likely to embrace societal change and address social issues like climate change

“When things happen, they do feel more burdened by it than generations [before them],” Dr. Borchers explains. “They want to work towards making the world a better place.” While this is certainly a good thing, this can add pressure and stress on student-athletes who are already overburdened with responsibilities. 

This generation wants to be included in conversations. Rather than simply advising, athletic leaders, especially coaches, should focus on bringing athletes into the process, giving them a voice and listening to what they need to be most successful. This may require a change in communication style. 

“Coaches can [practice] a lot more listening, a lot less talking,” says Dr. Milroy. Using shorter, more impactful statements rather than giving longer, impassioned speeches can be more effective, Dr. Borchers explains. By listening intently and with empathy to athletes, coaches have the opportunity to gather information, practice active listening, and better assess the mental health needs of the athletes. 

Empathy in sport can keep athletes connected and enhance athletic performance, all while reminding athletes that they’re not alone, that their experience is shared by others. You can utilize the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)’s Sport Science Institute’s empathetic response training video to get started. 

Prepare Student-Athletes for Failure 

Athletes aren’t going to win every game, every match, but that won’t stop them trying. While there’s nothing wrong with the desire to win, perfection is unattainable – and student-athletes need to be reminded of this fact. 

Coaches can introduce student-athletes to mini-hardships and help student-athletes cope with hardship in practice, outside of practice, and during games or matches. Rather than forcing an athlete to do pushups or run when a mistake occurs, ask them to express their feelings. Let them know that their frustration and embarrassment is not something to be ashamed of, but simply a part of the experience.

It’s also important for athletic leaders to demonstrate resilience. When a coach loses a game, how do they respond? Athletes are young and vulnerable and they will model the behavior they witness. This is why coaches need to practice healthy mental health habits and work on their own emotional response to a loss or hardship. 

Failures are bound to happen, but they’re not personal failures, and in sport, this needs to be acknowledged. “The failure is going to be there,” Dr. Milroy explains. Student-athletes need to know that they have the support, the resources, and the community available to overcome these challenges. This can start with hiring and making sure that each member of the athletic department is prepared to create a supportive environment. 

Building resilience is “a marathon, not a sprint,” says Dr. Borchers. It won’t happen overnight. It takes time and it requires ongoing learning for coaches, athletic staff, and others involved in the athletic program.

Make Mental Health a Priority – and Build in Collaboration

“People want a great experience and they want to win,” Dr. Borchers explains, but far too often, measurements of success in sport are tied to winning and athletes in college are young 18 to 22 year olds who don’t necessarily have the skill set to handle loss.

Athletic departments are generally siloed from other departments on campus and this is a problem, as they typically handle problems in insulation, rather than working with other campus departments to solve them. If it continues this way, Dr. Borchers says sport will fail. “It will fail because this generation and the people to follow are not going to accept it.”

Athletic leaders have a unique opportunity to reimagine the way they’re working – and make concrete changes to build a better program for the future. This requires a new approach and a new way of thinking. The best athletic directors and coaches understand this and are making mental wellness a priority. 

It’s far too easy to leave mental health to the clinical experts, but we all play a role in supporting the health and well-being of college students. You can lend an ear when an athlete is having a difficult day, but you can also train yourself in identifying signs and symptoms of mental distress, so you can take action and intervene early. 

Athletic directors can take initiative to build committees or host regular meetings with cross-campus stakeholders that focus solely on student mental health. They can also foster more collaborative relationships between on-campus and off-campus resources – including the counseling center, health center, student affairs department – which will help improve the student-athlete experience on campus.

“The goal [is] to support [student-athletes] and meet their needs [so they can get] back to what they love, which is the competition,” says Dr. Milroy. To win in sport, athletes must stay mentally focused, but they can’t do that if they’re battling anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. 

Improving Mental Health Access for Student-Athletes

When a student-athlete has a mental health concern and needs support, where do they go? Is therapy or psychiatry available to them? What resources can they easily access? We need to protect college athletes' physical and mental health by equipping athletic departments, coaches, and students with the proper tools to build mental wellness.

At Mantra Health, we're dedicated to providing the resources and proper mental health care for collegiate athletes, so they can withstand everyday failures, anxieties, and other mental health challenges. 

Watch How to Redefine and Reimagine the Power of Resilience and Improve Student-Athlete Mental Well-Being here and join us for the next webinar in our student-athlete webinar series on July 11, 2022. RSVP here.