HONE Athletics is grateful to Isaiah Day for this guest blog contribution to our library.
Isaiah Day (Licensed Professional Counselor) created Player Development to explore how great athletes become great people.
Both HONE and Player Development share the belief that mental health is vital in the athletic space. Thank you, Isaiah, for your thoughts and perspective on the topic of supporting coaches in creating atmospheres for their athletes to thrive in.
Creating a Culture for Communication
I walk into my first basketball team meeting at Covenant College. It’s held in a classroom, and I’m about the only player who fits into one of those tiny old student desks. We have guys in that room that will go on to make all-Conference teams, score 1,000 points over their collegiate careers, and play professional ball. I’m destined to ride the bench for four years. What could I possibly contribute to this program?
Though I expected to languish in the background, I ended up finding confidence through my time in this program. Without ever breaking out or becoming a star, I grew as a leader.
Head coach Kyle Taylor (now at Salt Lake Community College) was about building more than just a program of basketball excellence. By fostering communication from day one, he showed that he was about seeing all his players grow holistically during their collegiate careers.
By setting the tone and culture of open communication, encouragement, and support, he empowered his assistant coaches, team leaders, and players to all look out for each other and inspire each other to do well in all areas of life. That program has become a pipeline of coaches at all levels who also create empowering cultures, and who care about their players as people.
Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? How does a coach set that kind of tone, creating a stage for players of all skill levels to thrive and carry a philosophy beyond that one school or program? Let’s talk about your first steps to making this culture a reality.
Talk about life beyond sport
A middle school American football coach once saw one of his players biking up to practice an hour late with his gear on. Common practice might be to yell at him to hustle up, maybe run some laps as punishment for being late, and then pile on him the rest of practice.
Charley, however, had taken the time to get to know this particular player, and knew that he had a rough home life where his parents weren’t always able to be there for him. Turns out the player’s mom had not picked him up from school that day. He had hustled home, put on his gear, and biked straight to practice. What could have been a demeaning experience was suddenly an opportunity to empathize, show support, and praise this player for still showing up.
One step to establish a culture of communication is to welcome life onto the playing field. There’s a time and place to focus on playing the sport itself, but athletes like Simone Biles, DeMar DeRozan, and Naomi Osaka have shown that you can be elite in your sport and still be impacted by mental health and struggles in life.
Have open office hours, but also show interest as you are getting to know your athletes outside of that. When they do mention something about what’s going on off the field, follow up about that. It can be during warm-ups, when athletes are in the training room, or when you interact outside of team-specific activity.
Share your own life with your players. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, and your team won’t be your confidants or your counselors, but show that you also have life going on outside of the team. It’ll look different depending on the team and the level you coach at; some of the events that brought our college team closest together was being at our coach’s house, sharing life with him and with his family.
All of this establishes your athletes, and you, firmly as people, and they’ll recognize that. As you intentionally change your mindset, and model that life doesn’t stop when you start practice, communication will open up; not just between you and the athletes, but between themselves, and between you and your staff.
Read more about Coach Taylor’s philosophy on coaching at Player Development.
Promote Encouragement and Validation
The Ringer recently detailed how NFL teams have missed out on opportunities to connect with and sign important players due to a lack of basic communication. Stories abound about team staffers, or players, finding out about trades and team movement from Twitter instead of internally. This leads to a culture of doubt and disrespect.
As you open up communication, however, you now have opportunities to model what kind of speech you want in and out of games. Players, especially young players, pick up on how their coaches communicate, and you have an incredible opportunity to influence how your assistants, captains, and players all talk to each other.
Coach Speicher, in the above video, is one of the coaches from the Covenant College pipeline. He coaches high school girls basketball, and promotes powerful, encouraging communication throughout the team.
The important piece of his Circle Time exercise, even if you don’t implement it exactly, is that you and your players get reps of impactful, encouraging communication, both for situations in and out of sports. Just like with any other exercise, it’ll start by feeling awkward and overly intentional, and as familiarity grows, it will become second nature.
So how do you model this yourself? Point out intent and effort. Coaches are often focused on the end goal of a score, a stop, or a win; let your players see that you recognize their intent even in their mistakes. Even if it becomes a turnover, tell a player “I see the play you were trying to make.” If they don’t rotate on defense quickly enough, “I noticed you trying to get over to help. We’ll keep getting reps in practice.”
Let them know that their efforts are seen, even if the result isn’t what you’re looking for yet.
As you do this, your team leaders, captains, assistants, will take their cue from you. From the top, you build a team that encourages and allows players to thrive and explore instead of living in fear of making mistakes.
Read more about Coach Speicher’s philosophy on coaching at Player Development.
Be Ready to Act
So now you’ve established a culture on your team where life, with all its struggles and victories, are welcome. Where teammates and coaches communicate and encourage. It’s amazing. Now real life will tend to intrude.
The American College of Sports Medicine notes that “approximately 35% of elite athletes will suffer from disordered eating, burnout, depression, and/or anxiety,” with just a slightly lower number for collegiate student-athletes.
This means that those struggles will start to come up in conversations. You might be the first one who hears about a player’s suicidal thoughts, or a player might come to your office when they are having a panic attack. What do we do with that?
First step is to know what is expected of you based on your organization and affiliation. If you are working in a school, or in the NCAA, what obligations might you have in terms of reporting or referring your athlete to a professional? If in a professional league, what is your organization’s policy regarding confidentiality of mental health, and what steps are required of you? How does that change if you are working with minors compared to adults?
All of that might be an excellent framework for what has to happen in the next few hours, but what about the minutes and seconds of crisis occurring right in front of you? That’s where reflective listening comes in.
Reflective listening will not cure, or fix, any of the problems the athlete is struggling with; it will demonstrate your caring empathy for what the athlete is experiencing, and support them in finding calm in the midst of their turmoil. Reflective listening is named because you are not necessarily giving your input, but just reflecting what you are hearing from the person in front of you.
Reflection of content: Summarize what you have just heard at its most basic level. This is re-telling the story that was just told to you. It shows that you’re paying attention.
- So you have a test, a huge project, and our game all on the same day, and that’s stressing you out.
- You’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not you belong on this team.
Reflection of feeling: Dig a layer deeper now; what emotion is your athlete feeling because of this narrative you’ve just heard? This demonstrates empathy, that you feel what they are feeling without being explicitly told. This can help them put a name to that big bundle of feeling they just can’t get a handle on.
- You’re feeling so overwhelmed with all you’ve got going on.
- I’m hearing that you feel inadequate compared to the players around you.
Reflection of meaning: The deepest layer is about what this all means in the bigger picture. What priority or value is the athlete showing you in this moment?
- It’s really important for you to take care of all your responsibilities, and you don’t think you can do well with all these competing deadlines.
- You really care about being an important part of this team.
As with all skills, reflective listening requires practice before you try to use it in a live situation. Make a habit of practicing with your assistants, or in other situations, so that you don’t freeze up trying to find the right words.
You’ll notice that these responses are generally pretty short. When combined with open-ended questions, the goal is to keep the other person talking, with your reflections adding some nuance and helping them make some meaning of what they are going through. Your job is not to fix the problem, or even necessarily to have them feel 100% better when they walk out your door.
You don’t need to go through all three types of reflective listening, either. Some people will respond perfectly well if you just summarize your way through the conversation (reflections of content); some people might need you to really dig and help them make sense of things (reflections of meaning). Keep in mind that your job is not as a counselor, either. This does not have to be your primary skill set. Sometimes, all you need is to be with them in finding a little stability so that they can get to a professional or another trusted individual.
Reflective listening is not the only way to support your athletes when they are facing a crisis or need a listening ear; this is one tool that you can add to your kit, for when the culture of communication you’ve created leads to real life crashing in on our carefully curated sports life. Just like someone’s first game, it may be scary at first, but the only way to grow is to step into that arena.
Hear Sam Bowman talk about mental health as a collegiate athlete.
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