There’s no question that athletic departments around the country are starting to address mental health on a larger scale, but what does this look like in practice? How can we train coaches, athletic directors, and other athletics leaders to better understand mental health, while ensuring that athletes are receiving individualized care?
In order to improve the mental health of student-athletes, we must look beyond the athletes themselves to consider the greater role of coaches, athletic directors, staff, and other members of the community. This is something we discussed in our latest webinar Strengthening the Player-Coach Relationship to Improve Mental Health.
The Role of the Coach
“Coaches don’t have to be clinical psychologists, but they have to be aware,” says Joe Valerio, Former NFL Athlete; Senior Director and Regional Client Service Operations Officer at Willis Towers Watson, who says he, himself, had a coach who knew that every player was motivated differently. “He spent as much time coaching us on the field and off the field.”
Mental health literacy is a key component, says Stephen Hebard, PhD, Chief Innovation Officer at Prevention Strategies. “What is anxiety, depression, substance abuse? What are the implications of trauma?” He asks. “You don’t need to know the criteria in the DSM (a standard classification of mental disorders), but having a sense of how depression shows up in athletes is really powerful information.”
Deborah Wardlaw, Director of Athletics at Columbia College, says that coaches should be “mindful, patient, and proactive” to figure out what’s going on with a student. As an athletic director and administrator of the college, she believes it’s just as important to support coaches with education and professional development so they can understand and practice mental health best practices, she explains. If you can have a mental health counselor in the building, that can be extremely powerful, but even if you can’t, she suggests building a unique partnership between athletics and the counseling center.
Mental Health Best Practices
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health at the university level, because every campus is unique and has its own set of systems and processes, but there are best practices which can be implemented into every athletic program.
Dr. Hebard suggests the four mental health best practices established by the NCAA Sports Science Institute:
- Providing access to licensed mental health professionals
- Establishing emergency and non-emergency action plans
- Implementing confidential mental health screenings
- Creating a culture that supports mental well-being and resilience
We also expanded on these best practices in our new white paper Taking a Team Approach to Mental Health: Best Practices for Collegiate Athletic Departments, which includes contributions from industry experts including Dr. Hebard, Deborah Wardlaw, Director of Athletics at Columbia College, and Erin J. Reifsteck, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, among others.
Recommended Mental Health Resources
While there are many different leaders, organizations, and associations leading the way on student-athlete mental health, it’s important to seek out evidence-based education, training, and resources, which aims to provide the most effective care available.
Here are some evidence-based resources to check out:
- Coaches Assist – you’ll find three different handbooks (including Managing Student-Athlete Mental Health and Coaches Handbook - Managing the Female Athlete Triad), along with training for coaches
- Hilinski’s Hope Foundation – this includes the Hilinski’s Hope Game Plan, created in partnership with NCAA Sports Science Institute and Prevention Strategies
- NCAA Sports Science Institute – we recommend checking out Mind, Body, and Sport and Mental Health Best Practices.
In his article The State of College Athletics, Alex Auerbach, PhD, MBA, Director of Wellness and Development for the Toronto Raptors, argues that resources aren’t enough. In order to create a supportive culture of mental wellness, we must work together to change the system. He provides specific recommendations, including making coaching healthier and redistributing the power within athletics.