It was halftime at a basketball game my senior year in high school. I wasn’t myself. We were winning, but I couldn’t get out of my own head. My anxiety had touched the classroom, but never the basketball court. This was new.
I was trying with everything in me not to have a panic attack. My coach noticed. Our team went back out onto the court, but I couldn’t focus. My thoughts wouldn’t stop. The frustrating and confusing thing was that my thoughts had nothing to do with the game. I wasn’t nervous about my jump shot; I was nervous that my mind was going to combust.
At the end of the game I waited until everyone left the locker room, and then I broke. I wept. And then my coach walked in. He sat down, and all he asked was, “What’s going on, Nay?”
He wasn’t upset with me for my disappointing performance; he didn’t avoid me out of frustration; all he did was enter into my struggle with compassion. He chose to believe something else was going on, and something else was. That moment in the locker room has stuck with me because I felt cared for and supported.
Each year, there are new athletes who come into a program with different struggles, different personalities, and different backgrounds. It can be challenging for a coach to balance those differences while creating culture and structure, and pursuing success. As I was praying about what to share specifically with coaches about mental health, three words came to mind: acknowledge, validate, and follow through.
Acknowledge the elephant in the room at the first team meeting. Add mental health into the team talk so that they know it’s something the coaching staff values, sees and cares about. Take note that almost everyone in the locker room has struggled with, currently struggles with, or knows someone who has struggled with mental illness. Fill this conversation with compassion.
Validate that the struggle for mental health is real and that providing a supportive, safe environment is a priority. Shame can be powerful and can keep people silent about their struggles. When a coach validates an athlete’s experience and brings the conversation about mental illness into the light, shame cannot stand.
Follow through on the words you say. Actions are stronger than words. If you have said your office is a safe place for them to come when they are in crisis or need to talk things through, be certain it is safe. Are you checking in with your players? If one of the players needs help, is there a plan in place?
Ultimately, let’s look to Jesus as our example. He is the true and better coach. Consider how He acknowledged and validated others’ pain, how He invited people into the light, and how He followed through on what He said He would do. Jesus never changed His message, but He met people exactly where they were in their struggle. Think about how He has compassionately met you in your struggles. Take that feeling of empathy, and keep moving towards your players.