5 ways to help your athletes with anxiety

written by Erica Quam

"I have an athlete who struggles with anxiety.  She's plugged into resources on campus...and I'm not allowed to know what's going on.  They can only tell me if she's okay to practice or not."

I hear from coaches who are navigating through mental health issues that come up with athletes every season.

It's common for your athletes to have negative thoughts:

"I'm really bad at this."  "Everyone else seems so happy."  "What's wrong with me?"  "I always screw things up."  "No one gets what I'm going through."

However, according to studies of college students in the US, Canada, and the UK...it's getting worse.  Anxiety is going up as students try to perfect, please, and live up to unrealistic standards.

Our ultra-competitive culture tells us we need to be constantly above average to feel good about ourselves, but there is always someone more attractive, successful, or intelligent than we are. Our sense of worth goes up and down like a Ping-Pong ball, rising and falling in lockstep with our latest success or failure.
— Kristin Neff

Why?

There are plenty of contributing factors...media, social media, expectations of other people...etc. 

For coaches, the WHY is less important than the WHAT. You can't change the why. You can do something about the what.

 

What you can do - in your role as a coach - to help each athlete with their own self-concept?

How your athletes perceive themselves is a key factor in their emotional well-being equation.

You may not give yourself enough credit as a coach for the impact you can have on an athlete and how they think about themselves.  You can make a huge difference!

You can't just coach the way you were coached...which is probably the way your coach was coached...and so on.

The athletes who are showing up on your campus are changing. Therefore, you also need to be willing to make some changes.

Here are ways you can help:

1.  PROVIDE AN OPPORTUNITY FOR EXERCISE

Compared to kids who sit in front of a screen for hours...your athletes benefit from regular exercise.  What's even better?  Being on a team around other people vs. exercising at home.

Self-concept is strongly linked to what they think of themselves physically...and what they believe about their body image. 

Exercise can help your athletes feel stronger, healthier, and more empowered.

2.  TEACH SELF-COMPASSION

What is this self inside us, this silent observer, severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us and urge us on to futile activity and in the end, judge us still more severely for the errors into which his own reproaches drove us?
— T.S. Eliot, The Elder Statesman

Kristen Neff studies self-compassion - treating yourself with kindness, openness, and acceptance. Her research shows that participants with higher self-compassion demonstrated greater well-being. This is a great alternative to perfectionism, comparison, and unhealthy striving.

Teach your athletes how to be more compassionate with themselves vs. being so hard on themselves for every mistake, mis-step, and poor decision. 

Your athletes are learning. 

Let them know, "You're not alone. Everyone makes mistakes."

Teach them how to talk to themselves with the same kindness they'd extend to a close friend. 

"You did your best today."

They might not come to you with this ability.  Help them be come more aware of when they're being overly critical when judging themselves.

[This may be a counter-intuitive approach for most coaches. You're supposed to set high expectations and standards. You're supposed to get the most out of each athlete...and not settle for anything less. Right?!]

Neff writes, "If you feel that you lack sufficient self-compassion...try to feel compassion for how difficult it is to be an imperfect human being in this extremely competitive society of ours."

When your athletes can cultivate more self-compassion, they'll be healthier, happier, and more effective.

3. UNPLUG FROM COMPARISON

The comparison game gets played out on more platforms and channels than you ever had to worry about growing up.  Research associates depression, anxiety, loneliness, and FoMO (fear of missing out) with social media...when a post doesn't get as many likes or they see teammates hanging out together and they weren't invited...and on and on.  

Your athletes have an “imaginary audience” (i.e., “Everyone is looking at me!”). 

As an athlete, there are even more factors to compare that seem unavoidable...height, weight, strength, speed, endurance.

What can you do about these things?

  • Provide opportunities for everyone on your team to improve.
  • Focus on individual growth and improvement.
  • Acknowledge small success each day.

I work with coaches and teams to help them create a positive team culture together.

You can't change the culture of athletics...and you can get really clear and specific with what's okay and what's not okay on your team.

4.  IDENTIFY THEIR SUPERPOWER(S)

Get good at spotting the unique strengths and abilities each athlete brings to your team.

Be proactive.

Bring it up and point it out...often!

Make it a game...for yourself.

- Maybe you have an athlete who is struggling to perform in competition yet is excelling in the weight room. 

Acknowledge that this is a great place for them to build from.

- You may have someone who is great behind the scenes...making sure everyone on your team is where they're supposed to be and doing what they're supposed to be doing.

Make sure they know that. Being good in this role may help them build confidence to step up in other ways.

- What about the athlete who is a little socially awkward...yet, they have the biggest heart and put it all on the line.

Find ways to reward that grit and persistence on your team.

Coaches get sucked into focusing on what's not going well.  Your default mode is to spot problems and find ways to fix things.

When you begin to look for positives and search for each athlete's superpower...you may be amazed at how your mindset begins to shift as well!

5.  COMPLEX-IFY THEIR IDENTITY

Susan Harter's research shows that self worth is rooted in 8 different domains: 1) athletic competence, 2) scholastic competence, 3) behavioral conduct, 4) social acceptance, 5) close friendships, 6) romantic appeal, 7) job satisfaction, and 8) physical attractiveness. 

If your athletes are putting all their time and energy into an area that isn't going well...then it's easy for them to have more feelings of unworthiness.

Help them recognize how they can shift their focus to other areas - so all their identity isn't wrapped up in one domain. 

That's why I encourage coaches to find out what each athlete on your team values.

Get to know their priorities - what's important to them...beyond the playing field.

Create opportunities where you can reach out and connect with your athletes on multiple levels.

Do things to help your athletes develop better self awareness like the DiSC, Strengths Finder, or even a Multiple Intelligence quiz.

If your athlete is struggling in one of those eight areas, there may be another domain you can emphasize or help them explore to help them gain confidence and feel more capable and inspired.

5.  GRATITUDE AND SERVICE

Give your athletes an opportunity to think beyond themselves. Even beyond your team!

When they feel they can contribute to something that's a larger cause, they may feel more positive, empowered, and purposeful. 

If they don't know where to start have them check out a non-profit organization like DoSomething, "a digital platform powering offline action - mobilizing young people in every US area code and in 131 countries. They can get involved in something that's important to them, select an amount of time to commit, and get specific on what kind of help they'd like to provide (face-to-face, online, making something, sharing something, etc.) 

As a coach, it can be a knee-jerk reaction to want to fix, solve, or manage the problems and challenges that come up for your athletes. It's tempting to try and help them make whatever we perceive it is go away. 

Instead, support them through this journey while they begin to understand their own thoughts, worries, and fears. Provide an environment where they can develop a stronger sense of self and healthy habits that will follow them through the rest of their life.

RESOURCES FOR COACHES: