During these highly unusual times, as coaches face challenges and obstacles different from anything they’ve faced before, we must keep our eyes on a specific goal: the social‐emotional and mental health of our student‐athletes.
As a head football coach and school counselor, I feel the weight of mental health issues daily. For me, the real pressure is helping students and my team “win the scoreboard within.” As school counselors, we are trained to deal with the social‐emotional/mental health of our students. Any coach who is also a counselor or holds a degree in any other mental‐health related field understands that you can apply that training to your coaching.
Here are the facts:
- More than 70 percent of students believe depression and anxiety is becoming a major problem.
- Between 25‐30 percent of high school and college student‐athletes report feeling various levels of depression.
Think about how many players you have on your team and do the math. Even more troubling is that these numbers represent only those willing to discuss it.
Depending on your area and resources, for many of our players, football is their primary outlet to escape what they face the rest of the evening after practice and the next morning. Many of our players will appear well because we see them at the height of their day being with the team. We do not always see what they deal with at home.
Most importantly, we don’t see the invisible battle they could be fighting within, especially now, when there is no escape. As coaches, we know our players’ strengths, weaknesses and skill sets like the back of our hand. If anyone mentions one of your player’s names, you can immediately say something about his athletic ability or personality. Those are important, but how many coaches know a given player’s mind and mental state at any time during the year? Do you truly know what each of your young men are mentally going through right now?
Winning And Losing: Player Perspective And Impact
Unfortunately, many players find their level of acceptance based on the scoreboard on Friday nights. You win, they tell themselves, “I’m a winner!” You lose, they tell themselves, “I’m a loser.” Think about that for a moment. “I am a loser” is different from “We lost.”
Student‐athletes often associate outcomes of events with their entire being. This is especially true of those who struggle with mental health. What we say about ourselves, bleeds into our existence and can influence our daily lives.
For those suffering with mental health challenges, winning is like ibuprofen. It works temporarily and can take the pain away from your mind. But it’s not a long‐term solution to a growing issue. When it wears off, the pain strikes again.
What happens when the winning stops? What happens when end their playing days? How can they learn to accept themselves for who they are and troubleshoot mental barriers regardless of outcomes? How have they handled this COVID‐19 crisis, when there is no outlet, no football?
Here are a few tools to help your athletes grow and confront mental health challenges some are facing for the first time and some have faced for years.
The No. 1 tool for me as a coach and a school counselor is incorporating mindfulness. It has helped our players gain wiser relationships with the way they process their thoughts and actions. We utilize mindfulness in a variety of ways, but most importantly, it helps coaches help players better understand themselves and increases our communication.
Mindfulness also cultivates a culture in which players openly admit vulnerabilities and insecurities. It helped remove the mask young men are taught to wear to hide “weakness.” Mindfulness has helped our players learn to be fully present and refuse to associate negative thoughts with every ounce of their being.
There’s a common phrase among coaches and players. “Where is your head at?” It’s a great question, but it’s often used in the wrong context. We make an effort to be intentional about asking players that same question throughout the week. But the key is, we ask it in reference to themselves, not their play.
Every day, our position coaches ask players, “How are things upstairs (mind)?” With many athletes playing multiple positions, this simple question is asked by many coaches with who players have different relationships. It helps us answer tough questions.
Are coaches getting the same responses? Did anyone of us see a change in tone or body language?
As head coaches, we have the best pulse on our programs, however, no matter how trained anyone is, it’s impossible to know the mindset of every single player on your roster 24/7. But we can know, or at least sense, the collective mindset of our program and identify players who need more one‐on‐one time to help them navigate their thoughts and win the scoreboard within.
That scoreboard within is where all coaches should be trying to win every day, but especially now more than ever. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this.
Just before practice begins, find somewhere outside to comfortably sit. Make this location your home base for your pre‐practice meditations. It is fine to change the location, but many prefer a single home base to practice meditation.
Athletes can sit on the ground, or a cushion brought from home, really anywhere they feel comfortable. As they sit down, they sit with their legs crossed or simply sit comfortably in any manner.
They must sit upright, with a sense of relaxed authority, not too relaxed, but not too stiff either. Next, they gently set their hands in their laps if their legs are crossed, or gently on their knees if they’re sitting on a bench or chair. Hands and arms must be relaxed. Take a moment to simply be, and bring the mind to be as still as the body in this moment. Once a comfortable feeling of stillness is reached, slowly close the eyes as gently as possible.
Slowly begin to breathe in and out for about 5‐6 seconds at a time, in through the nose and out the nose or mouth. Allow the inhale to happen naturally without force, and allow it to make its journey into the body and settle where it sees fit.
Next, when the inhale has settled, slowly exhale through the nostrils or the mouth with gentleness and without force. When the chest begins to relax, comeback to the inhale and repeat the cycle.
After a few repetitions, it’s common to take a deep breath, allowing the inhale to make its way deep into the body. Take advantage of it, and when it settles deeply, hold briefly, and identify the feeling, comfort, and energy the inhale provides, and allow the outbreath to make its way back out of the body.
Begin with this exercise for a couple of minutes and try to add a minute or two each week.
Players I’ve worked with find this meditation brings them closer to the game, reduces stress, and blocks out negative self‐thought. This can be done while walking or sitting and can be worked on throughout practice as well.
Grab a football, and hold in your hands effortlessly. Whether you are walking or sitting, toss the ball lightly from one hand to the other, gently allowing the weight of the ball to come to rest in each hand. As you go back and forth, when you are ready, bring your attention to the way the grip or laces feel on your fingertips as you release and receive the ball in each hand. While you release the ball, also listen for any sounds that may come from the football leaving one hand and into the other.
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Next, hold the football with both hands, and observe its texture, color, and shape. Look at any symbols, logos, or odd marks on the ball, and simply observe them with curiosity.
Last, gently close your eyes and begin rotating the ball in your hands, bringing your attention to the way the football feels. How does the grip pattern feel? Is it smooth, rough, or in between? Notice if you effortlessly begin to grip the football the way you normally do when you throw it. You can also slowly add your inhale/ exhale meditation to this. When ready, open your eyes and feel where you are presently.
Goal Setting And A Model For Mindfulness
A tool that has been great for us during this pandemic has been the I.A.A. Model for Mindfulness, which stands for Intention, Attention and Attitude. It was created by Dr. Shauna Shapiro, Professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University.
We utilize the IAA model to build weekly goals and mindsets for our program, for players individually and the program as a whole. We now call it I.A.M., replacing Attitude with Mindset. This can help you build, even when you’re virtual, and has been a great tool to keep our goals in mind and provide players with obtainable goals to look forward to.
Intention – Intention sets the tone and conjures the vision for what is possible and all we strive to accomplish. The intention to accomplish a goal provides confidence. Intention does not mean that every goal will be obtained, but it provides a map showing the way. If we don’t have an intention, we cannot begin. Going somewhere unintentionally leaves us lost. Forging intention is the first step toward accomplishment. It reminds us of what is most important in that moment.
Attention – Attention is present‐ moment awareness of everything happening around us, internally and externally. When we give something our full attention, we can better assess the situation around us and the emotions, feelings, or sensations within us. We must use tools that encourage present‐moment awareness. Attention does not simply mean seeing something; it means to view, evaluate or do something with a calm and collected alertness. Without giving our full attention, we cannot truly obtain our intention fully.
Attitude Or Mindset – Whichever word you select, Attitude or Mindset defines how we choose to approach our intentions and how we give attention. Our attitude should be consistent or compatible with our intentions. It’s important to remember that we are in full control over the attitude we bring into each situation. Most people allow their circumstances to dictate their attitudes, rather than purely observing the experience for what it is. To “have an attitude” isn’t a bad thing. It’s something that we must pay attention to and we must consciously decide to bring the best attitude for the present situation.
Marcus Mayo is head football coach and school counselor for Northwood (Md.) High School. He is also author of Mindful Quarterbacking: A Playbook For The Quarterback’s Mind, which is available on Amazon.com at http://bit.ly/mindfulqb.
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