Coaching for Mental Health During Lockdown

These are tough times. Without school and sports, the increase in sedentariness and decrease in peer connection has created a problematic psychological cocktail.

A member of our neighboring community recently lost his life to suicide. To suggest that any one thing led to his tragic passing would be an insult to the complexity of this deep, talented, and unique young man. But this unique young man’s experience should guide our next steps as a community.

In the words of a local parent and family friend of the young man who passed, “this should be more than a wake-up call, there should be alarm bells going off.”

Massachusetts General Hospital warned us in June that the pandemic would be hard on the mental health of young people. In August, the CDC pulled together data acknowledging the increase in mental health concerns. By the end of September, Healthline was reporting that depressive symptoms were three times higher during COVID lockdown.

Sedentariness is regularly associated with symptoms of depression. Without sports, without practices and off-season workouts, without even the daily travel up and down school stairways and halls, student sedentariness is on a dramatic rise. Lack of peer connection is also a concern. Loneliness and depression are so intertwined that researchers in psychology often have difficulty studying one or the other – the two psychological states “frequently co-occur.”

Coaches, we are all doing our best. We need to remember to have humility in the presence of setbacks, courage when times get tough, and significant amounts of forgiveness and patience both for those around us and within ourselves. And we need to remember that our athletes need us now more than ever.

We have an opportunity to be an additional beacon of hope during these trying times. So many are already doing so much. If you are hoping to continue this meaningful work, here are a few strategies that might be helpful for your team.

  1. Encourage activity during remote learning.

Kelly McGonigal, in her book The Joy of Movement, notes that within one week of becoming sedentary (fewer than 5,000 steps per day), there appears to be a 31% decrease in life satisfaction. On the other hand, research is regularly coming out of reputable institutions like Harvard Medical School which highlights the mood-boosting impact of exercise. Get creative in the way you distribute training programs, and know that there is no shortage of resources in the at-home workout arena. We have been compiling easy at-home training videos all year on our YouTube page – check them out and cut/paste to create circuits for your team. You might also create Rep, Distance, or Consistency challenges. Pushups in a day (reps), miles walked over a month (distance), or number of consecutive days willfully breaking a sweat (consistency) are all starting points to increase the focus on regular exercise within your team.

2. Create opportunities for one-on-one connections.

Team meetings via Zoom are fine. It is nice for students to see the other members of the team, but in many cases that is what their entire day looks like. Another Zoom meeting might not be the appropriate method for connection – that is, unless the Zoom meeting is one-on-one. Coaches, try setting up office hours in 10 minute windows. Visiting with students in a more personal setting will not only lead to greater connection, but give students space to discuss real concerns, should there be any. Have a few basic talking prompts, nothing too creative or exceptional, just enough to get the conversation going. If you’d like to talk about mental health specifically, here are some safe conversation prompts. Although it feels like one more thing to add to your plate, you might be surprised by how enlivening these one-on-one conversations can be.

3. Model healthy self-talk.

Ask athletes what they are looking forward to, and encourage them to do so without saying “I hope.” Looking forward should not be a list of items people hope will come to fruition. Model healthy self-talk by avoiding comments like “I hope we play our season” or “I hope we see our friends soon” – while that might be true and is healthy to admit, the conversation should not linger there. Instead, encourage athletes to look down the road at things they have control over. Use the prompt “what are you excited to do?” For example, “I am excited to get stronger this year” or “I’m excited to learn how to play the guitar” can lead to healthy action, empowerment, and a sense of purpose. Encourage them to focus on outcomes which are under their control.

Make it manageable, and keep going. This is meaningful work.

4. Create a Leadership Ladder of influence.

Identify team leaders, invite them in a small group meeting, and begin to break down the roster into groups. Assign each leader to a group and ask them to reach out to everyone using a similar model to the strategies explained in items 2 and 3. Remember that the only true objective is for teammates to connect individually. Relieve them of the burden of excessive responsibility – no one needs to bring up mental health directly. Leaders do not have to create anything special, they are not in charge of someone’s else’s wellbeing, they are just connecting with each teammate for a few minutes, maybe once or twice a week. Remind them not to skip any rungs on the ladder. These small moments can go a long way.

5. Practice Gratitude.

Though it may seem hokey, research and practice suggest that cultivating gratitude can be helpful. Cultivating gratitude has a documentable influence on stress and mental health. Gratitude has been referred to as a “parent virtue,” influencing other virtues through its enhancement. Dr. David DeSteno of Northeastern University (Boston) has demonstrated the impact of gratitude on honorable behavior, among other positive influences. The Greater Good center at U.C. Berkeley has a number of proven strategies for cultivating gratitude, which can be as simple as saying “thank you” more often. Try it. It works. 

As we move through these steps it will be important to pay attention to what’s not working and be willing to adjust. Another Zoom meeting at the end of a long day might not be the right choice. If students are not responding to a daily pushup challenge, adjust. If strategies do not work out the way you intended, try something else. Do it without judgment, acknowledge good intentions but don’t just stop there. We have to be honest in the evaluation of our strategies and design for better outcomes. To do this, we should remember that we don’t always have to be “right,” but we should operate thoughtfully, have humility when things don’t go as planned, forgive ourselves and those around us, and be willing to adapt.

Make it manageable, and keep going. This is meaningful work.

We still have a few tough months ahead. Things will get better, there’s no doubt about that, but we still don’t know when that will be.

In the meantime, let’s take an important step forward. Together.