Congratulations, you have one of the most rewarding AND stressful jobs there are. You have signed up for long hours, off-the-charts number of steps on the deck, a swim style CDL license to cart large groups of kids around and being a savvy conflict resolution specialist with parents.
On top of that (and much more) your tremendous responsibility affects the mental health of your swimmers. This, I always took seriously as a coach. Looking back, I wish I would have had the expertise I now have as a parent and therapist to guide me in my young years as a coach. I want to share with you the following information, which may help, as you are working so hard to provide a positive and healthy athletic experience.
You are a role model, mentor and constant example of what it means to be an adult. It is easy to get lost in workouts, intervals, splits and meet line ups and forget how many young eyes are watching you. Your presence on and off the deck is undoubtedly carefully scrutinized. Not just by the parents who want only the best for their children, but your swimmers. Yes, in this world of social media, what you post on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram is on full display for your athletes to view. When you model things such as:
adapting and accepting change in a calm and logical manner, setting realistic expectations, celebrating success and learning from defeat, consistently supporting and encouraging one another, embracing diversity...your athletes will absorb these lessons like the chlorine that pumps through their veins.
You have power, a LOT of power.
Exercise has an effect on the brain much like an antidepressant medication. Most likely there is one or more athlete(s) swimming for you that is or has struggled with depression, anxiety or self-harm/suicidal ideation. When that young person chooses to come to practice their experience is in your hands. One practice may transform your athlete’s day from sad and desperate to hopeful and happy. I often credit my college swim coaches, Dave Clark and Paul Moniak for getting me through the hardest time of my life. At the age of 20 my boyfriend tragically died. Swimming for UW Milwaukee was truly a saving grace for me!
The culture of your deck and team impacts your swimmers significantly.
Laughter and humor have tremendous benefits in terms of mental health. Kudos to the coaches who find ways to turn thousands of yards per day while staring at a black line – fun!
What message do you send to the swimmers, parents, sponsors, coaches and teams you compete against? Do you encourage athletes from communities with financial challenges and diverse racial representation to join your team? Or does everyone on your team look like they are from the same family? Do you have policies in place to support athletes that do not have the financial means to be on your team? What kind of voice do your athletes have? Hopefully they are encouraged and given a platform to share their experiences, feelings and perspective which is received in a non-judgmental way.
All messages you send: verbal, body language, written, nuanced…. are internalized and open to the interpretation of each athlete. As my daughter says, when her coach expects her to be on time and put extra work in just as she does, it sends a message not just about high expectations (I can write an entire article just on that). It also shows the coach feels it is important enough to take time out of their own day and away from their family, because it is an investment in the athlete’s growth and development. Often praise and acceptance from a coach means the world to an athlete.
For some, you are the only person in their life providing validation, support and care. Currently I am reading the book The Do Over, by Karlyn Pipes (I highly recommend it) and she speaks to this. Many athletes I have talked with, or learned from, believe that their coach truly cares about them and their wellbeing. Even if the athlete has love and support coming from other adults, you are unique because you get to spend extensive time with these athletes. I say “get to” because this job truly is a privilege and having the lives of young people in your hands is something to take quite seriously. I personally loved being at sports when I was young because I felt safe and protected when I was there, which is more than I could say for my home.
If you learn about a situation with an athlete and you need to get them additional support, please do! Do not be shy about recommending a therapist or counselor. Such a suggestion might be best received from a coach. Reach out to your governing body, be it academic or club, they should have go-to resources for coaches regarding mental/behavioral health. Also, your local county has services. There are many anonymous crisis lines - call or text. Here are a couple:
Of course, you are always welcome to connect with me for feedback or resources, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In summary, when athletes have a strong support system, feel loved and cared for, and are given an environment to thrive in, it sets them up to be healthy both physically and mentally. There are so many factors that you can not control which affects athletes: the number of hours of sleep they get, the quality of their nutrition and hydration, academic challenges, the way they are treated by peers, medical complications…
What you can control is being a positive, optimistic, encouraging coach who truly listens to your athletes and validates their experience and feelings. You provide them with realistic goals and expectations that are beneficial rather than harmful. By creating a safe environment in which athletes can grow, make mistakes they learn from, and develop friendships, you are giving someone the opportunity to be well and healthy, not only physically, but mentally too!