You may know that it’s important to help an athlete bounce back from injury feeling stronger and healthier than ever, but when was the last time you applied the idea of emotional and mental resiliency to all your athletes?
Psychologist and author Dr. Brittany Patterson is a faculty member with the National Center for School Mental Health at University of Maryland School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry where she supports the mental health efforts of clinicians working in schools with young people from traditionally marginalized communities and under-resourced communities. “Resilience takes intentionality and practice,” she says. “Because of this, we need to create space for talking about individual strengths that each athlete has, what factors contribute to resilience, and what it takes to develop resilience.”
Here’s what you need to know as a caregiver, coach, educator, or trainer to best help your athletes learn resilience on their own terms.
“When you face hardship, resilience is the ability to recover from that adversity,” says Patterson.
“Mental, physical, and emotional resilience are connected, and they influence one another,” she adds. “As a coach, it’s natural to think about physical resilience, but if we don’t think about an individual holistically, then their mental resilience can suffer while their physical resilience seems to be exceptional.”
Patterson explains that there are many strengths that influence feelings of happiness and ability to thrive—and that can help young athletes. “For example, humor is such a phenomenal strength, one that helps people emotionally because they can see the silver lining or make light of a difficult situation,” she says. Patterson recommends using the VIA Character Strengths survey to see more strengths, or even have older athletes use the questionnaire to determine their own strengths.
“Research shows us that people who are using their strengths daily feel happier in the long term: they feel more rewarded, they feel more in their flow, and they have a greater ability to thrive,” she adds. “And for many young people, sports may provide a primary venue for them to really show and develop these strengths.”
“As coaches, we can actually do harm when we’re not aware of what people need to feel as though they’re thriving, and excelling,” Patterson notes. “We have to make space to get to know, holistically, each and every one of our athletes. If we don’t, then we run the risk of demanding the same thing from every person we ever work with, which is an extreme disservice to those athletes because each is unique with diverse skills and strengths to grow. Make consistent space to talk to your athletes —and listen.”
“Resilience and mental health are related, but they’re different,” Patterson adds. “And the stigma around mental health can be the barrier to a life-saving intervention. Right now, we are seeing an increase in suicides in certain populations, including the youth LGBTQ+ and African American communities. As a coach, it’s so important to normalize talking about mental health. If an athlete is injured, of course we’re willing to connect them with all the resources they need. That should be the same for mental health.”
“Knowledge about mental health distress and knowing what mental health symptoms look like is also an important opportunity to encourage resilience,” Patterson says. Our athletes can’t focus on physical resilience when mentally, they’re in immense pain. Using a mental health survey for children and teens, like this one from Massachusetts General Hospital, can help you, your athlete, or your athlete’s parents, determine whether an athlete might benefit from the support of a professional.
Athletes may not know how to seek help for themselves, whether it’s finding a physical therapist to help with rehab from an injury or finding a counselor to talk to about feelings of hopelessness. And as a coach, you’re not expected or equipped to take on all those roles—but you can help them seek help.
Patterson uses the acronym ASK when discussing youth mental health with coaches, teachers, and parents.
- Address stigma: “If we can’t talk about mental health, how are we going to encourage young people to talk about mental health? So that’s the first thing: address stigma. And the way to do that is get more education for yourself and then share that information with others in the community serving your athletes”
- Self-help resources: The ability to use technology is a strength amongst this generation of youth that we should leverage. A wealth of resources promotive of well-being and help-seeking are free and publicly available through apps, websites, and text hotlines. “Ahead of encountering the mental distress of our athletes, we can support their resilience by preparing and sharing helpful resources with them. It will also help us as coaches to know where we can send them for help, both professional and more informal,” Patterson says.
- Know when to get help: “There comes a point where professional assistance is needed, and we have to know when the challenge is no longer in our lane,” Patterson explains. No coach is expected to be a therapist, but we’re expected to understand that mental health professionals exist, are helpful, and quality intervention is effective.
Patterson recommends taking time on a monthly basis (at least) to bring mental wellness into your process for developing young athletes. Whether that is discussing Simone Biles’ decision to prioritize mental health during the 2021 Olympics, learning about Michael Phelps’ experiences with depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bringing in a mental health professional to explain when therapy might be beneficial and what a therapy session looks like, or just having an afternoon discussing each athlete’s strengths, your efforts will contribute to the holistic growth and wellbeing of young athletes
As a coach, you may be reading this and thinking that you barely have enough time for regular practice…and squeezing in time for mental health is not going to get you to Nationals. But mental wellness can be performance-enhancing. “When athletes feel better, they perform better,” says Patterson. “So many more athletes have the capacity to do amazing things when coaches take responsibility for checking on the whole athlete, not just the physical pieces. People are much more likely to reach a goal when they’re motivated, not when they’re shamed, or guilted, or encouraged to avoid their emotions.”
Another acronym Patterson loves to use with adults invested in the positive development of youth is FIGHT—after you’ve ASKed, it’s time to help those athletes FIGHT, and you can foster the skills to help them do so.
- Feelings: It’s important for athletes to be able to identify their feelings in order to learn how to cope emotionally. Effectively calming strong emotions, such as heightened anxiety at the start of a race, requires the athlete to acknowledge the feeling and apply helpful calming strategies. It’s hard to develop these calming skills when a person is blocking emotions or trying to avoid them.
- Identity: Help athletes identify their internal and external strengths. “Talk to your athletes about how they use their inherent skills,” Patterson suggests. “But also, look at external strengths, which include the support system an athlete has around them: Who’s in your athlete’s corner? That list can be a powerful tool to help your athlete feel supported and know who they can reach out to for help.”
- Goals: “It’s critical to help young people develop goals that they care about and to create a plan to move toward them one step at a time,” Patterson says. The key here is to find and prioritize goals that the athlete really cares about—avoid sole focus on what the coach deems important.
- Healthy coping: “Mental health, or mental resilience, comes through having healthy coping skills,” Patterson says. “Often, people find unhealthy ways to cope with unwanted feelings, like binge drinking or smoking. But you can help athletes find healthy ways to deal with hard emotions.”
- Thoughts: “Self-image is a big struggle for athletes,” says Patterson. “We need to help athletes develop more positive thought practices, rather than comparing themselves to the stars on the team or people on social media. Help athletes learn to affirm themselves and their strengths every day.” Also, encourage them to “unfollow” media that is negatively affecting self-perceptions and emotional wellbeing.
Takeaway: Positive relationships with coaches and other caregivers can be important sources of resilience for youth, and prioritizing strengths and mental wellbeing will enhance your impact. Just because someone is physically well does not mean they’re emotionally or mentally well. The key things we can do to build emotional, mental, and physical resilience are all related and important to developing healthy young athletes.