Athletes: seen by others as pristine, physically gifted, and able to conquer it all. However, “athlete” is not their entire identity. They are more than the sport they play; they are human first and athletes second. Yet so many people in the world seemed shocked at the notion that athletes have feelings just like the rest of us. How can they struggle if they are supposed to be the most mentally tough people out there?

For years, we have idealized athletes, attributing them as “well-oiled machines” that just need to be “fueled right” to perform perfectly. Yet over the past few weeks, the media has begun to shed light on the importance of athletes’ mental health. In 2021, we are finally recognizing that athletes’ wellbeing is much more than just physical, thanks to renowned leaders, such as Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Drew Robinson, and many more, who are speaking out.

Culture of Athletics

Culture, and its many definitions, are ever-evolving. By one definition, culture can be understood as a term that encompasses the social behaviors and norms found in human societies. It may be the dominant knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, and capabilities within a group. We often think of “culture” as a large-scale phenomenon, amassed within continents and communities around the world. However, culture can also be formed on smaller scales as well– such as within sports teams, universities, or even professional organizations– and encomposses not only the overt (i.e. the things that you can see, such as dress and behavior), but also the covert, the unspoken rules within.

The culture within athletics can be seen through various lenses. From a social worker’s standpoint, one lens that has been particularly eye-opening is Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model. There are five components of this model: the Chronosystem, Macrosystem, Exosystem, Mesosystem, and Microsystem.

  • Starting with the outermost layer, the Chronosystem stands to represent changes over time. In the example of athletics, this may include things like how women’s sports have evolved, which sports are commonly played, and the various levels at which you can play (e.g. DI, DII, DIII, and NAIA).
  • The Macrosystem represents social and cultural values, which are shown through athletes’ uniforms, who can play what sport, and how we interact with a sport’s origin or its history.
  • The Exosystem is the indirect environment. For athletes, this can be seen through their parents’ places of work or their extended family members. The exosystem tends to focus on the layers of one’s life that the individual does not generally engage with, but affects them nonetheless.
  • The Mesosystem is how those in one’s immediate environment connect with an additional layer– for instance, how an athlete’s parents interact with a coach, or how the school can interact with the individual’s sport.
  • The last layer in the ecological model is the Microsystem. This is one’s immediate environment, which would mean the athlete’s team, school, or community in our example.

With all these layers combined, we can see how there is so much more to athletics than meets the eye. We think of sports as simple: go to practice, engage with the coach, do your workouts, and then you get to move on. However, according to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, there are many factors that can affect an athlete– community being a large one. The values and norms of the world can be what opens a conversation surrounding mental health, but the culture of an athletic team may be what emphasizes stigma. The culture of the university can make it hard for the athlete to access the right services. The culture of a player’s family can be what silences them. Knowing this, how we interact with our athletes as parents, teammates, support staff, and coaches CAN make all the difference!

Consider the Impact

There are a great deal of unhelpful statements that athletes often face within sports culture. Not all are meant to hurt, but often the impacts of words can be a lot different from their intentions. Here are just a few that I have heard myself as an athlete and from my peers:

There is someone stronger and faster than you that will take your place.

Feelings do not belong in sports.

You will never be looked to as a leader for choosing to take care of yourself. Everyone else has to stay here. What makes you the exception?

You cannot play at that level; your skills would be better utilized at a less competitive level.

Swallow what you are feeling, and get back on the field. It is not that big of a deal!

You are replaceable.

Deal with it on your own time.

What the h*ll were you thinking there?!

Your weight is too high. We need to get it down so you can be faster.

You SHOULD have done… (X,Y,Z)

Many athletes are already self-critical of their performance and abilities, and these statements often do more harm than good– they become yet another negative voice in the individual’s internal monologue.

Strengths-Based Coaching

Taking another page from the Social Work book, we find the strengths-based approach. A strengths-based approach to interaction emphasizes an individuals’ talents, assets, and– most importantly– strengths. The practice hones in on a person’s resiliency and sets aside their deficits or weaknesses.

When placed onto a sports team, it is easy to see where one’s talent lies. Athletes are often looking to grow, and we model our skills after those we admire. Yet coaches will often say things along the lines of, “You can’t do ____ because you are not tall enough, strong enough, or fast enough”, followed by “Well run faster. Work harder!” Being put down and yelled at is hardly motivating. For some of us athletes, we are not as physically gifted as our peers. But what we lack in our physical abilities, we make up for with a burning desire to succeed and a keen eye for the game that we play. We play smarter, not harder.

So why do our team leaders often lean into this wrongful coaching style? Likely, it’s because it is familiar and easier to do. It requires more effort to operate from a strengths-based approach because it asks you to invest in your athletes as humans. It creates a relationship that highlights connecting, listening to learn, and understanding players’ motivations.

Not everyone wants to be the best or most talented on the team– some athletes just want to have a purpose. Their purpose may not be as a starter, but a supporter on the bench. We all have different motivations as humans. Athletes bring their personalities, their unique skills, and their “humanness” to their roles on the team. Let’s help foster our players’ authentic selves through strengths-based coaching. When someone feels comfortable enough to bring their authentic self to the team, you may be surprised at how confident they become in everyday life!

Humans First, Coaches Second.

So how do we, as coaches, lean into our relationships with players and still reach desired outcomes? After all, we need to be tuned into our wins and losses because that is what gets us hired and keeps us employed. The reality is that numbers drive business.

Whether it is a friend, a motivator, a leader, or a decision-maker, coaches have a number of hats to wear, and it can be a lot to balance. The role you have as a coach can be incredibly difficult, and as athletes. We know there are tough factors to take into account. As a former athlete, fellow coach, and therapist, I find the best way to balance your roles is to lean into who you are as a coach and bring your authentic self.

Athletes want to see you as a human first and coach second. They want to be walked through the thought processes behind your decisions so that they can understand and respect what you decide. The humanness that a coach brings to the game models so many skills that carry weight both on and off the field (or court or mat or pool) for their players. It’s important to be mindful of this when communicating with them.

Be the Difference – Where to Go From Here?

Many athletes consider their sport as their “escape”– where they go to forget about their worries, struggles, and what is happening in their world. Many of us have role models, people we go to for support during the hard times. For some athletes, their coach is the best role model they have in their life. A coach can often make or break the entire sport experience, just as a boss or coworker can greatly influence one’s work experience.

Throughout all levels– whether at a middle school, high school, club, DI, DII, DIII, NAIA, or professionally– a well-rounded support staff is necessary for best outcomes in our sports teams. We already tend to athletes’ physical needs by providing strength & conditioning coaches, athletic training, and more. However, few schools and professional teams recognize the need for mental health support as well, let alone allocate funds for it. Many college athletes are encouraged to utilize their on-campus mental health services, often bogged down by the general student body. Not to mention, the schedules that athletes hold tend to limit access to these services, especially when most offices are open 9:00am-5:00pm. Further, we establish emergency action plans for when an athlete is severely injured and requires a higher level of care, yet many teams do not plan for the instance that an athlete has a mental breakdown or becomes suicidal.

Athletes’ voices have long been silenced by the stigma surrounding mental health. Life is challenging, confusing, and sometimes very difficult– for anyone. Athletes are more than the sport that they play. A defenseman may also be someone’s brother; a gymnast may be a partner; a goalie may be an aunt. Athletes are expected to wear a number of hats in their lives, and when we fail to see their roles beyond their positions on the field. We place them at risk of not being seen or heard as people. So, fellow coaches, let us rally around our players. Dig into the interpersonal relationships we form, and model our “humanness”. Choose to coach your athletes from a strengths-based approach, rather than a distant toughness. Together, we can create a lasting change in sports culture. After all, we are human first and athletes second.

Craving More? Check out these videos:

ESPN- The Mental Health Journey of Drew Robinson

Netflix Docuseries- Naomi Osaka

HBO- The Weight of Gold (Following Mental Health Stories of Olympic Athletes)

Netflix- Athlete A

Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.