By Jim Davis, EdM, MA, RSCC*D
The weight room can be one of the most powerful learning environments in all of athletics. For 9 months each year (an offseason), dedicated educators create cultures within a “classroom” full of novelty, goal-directed behavior, hard work and fun. Time after time, young people report learning valuable lessons in the squat rack, or between sets of bench press. In this setting, motivation is high but pressure is far lower than in-season sport environments; the opportunity to teach is great.
In the weight room, there are countless opportunities to supplement the social emotional learning (SEL) taking place in other areas of the school. Those lessons are extremely valuable. In a similar vein – and perhaps more important now than ever – coaches have the opportunity to positively address the mental health concerns of student-athletes.
One certainty of the student experience is that mental health issues will arise, and they will be varied. Some will appear as low level anxiety and some will be far more serious. The strength professional should not step outside his or her area of expertise, but will acknowledge their role in supporting the mental health of those they coach.
With multiple decades of experience, it seems that there are three key ideas for a coach to consider: Prevent, Embrace, and Connect.
In the greater conversation of mental health, the strength coach’s superpower is prevention. There are countless opportunities to empower young athletes through strength training. It is one of the few platforms in all of sport where, if the student shows up every day and works hard, they will improve. It is then up to the coach to frame the improvement appropriately. As an athlete lifts more or runs faster, that quantifiable growth should be celebrated. In healthy strength environments, students are reminded that they are the ones who did the work. The improvement belongs to them; they own their results. And if they dedicate themselves similarly in other areas of life, they can author similar improvement.
Empowering student agency can play a major role in the prevention of mental health concerns, and prove to be an important factor as a student navigates lower levels of stress and anxiety.
The other powerful form of prevention comes through engagement with a supportive community. Whether it is a full team cheering on a max squat attempt, or the spotter who supports a teammate on every rep, a weight room culture that teaches young people how to support one another has the potential to create countless positive moments and meaningful relationships. This cannot be overstated. These relationships are valuable in prevention and essential when supporting mental health concerns down the road, should they arise.
When mental health concerns do arise, students should be 100% clear on the idea that the weight room is a supportive environment. To do so, coaches should be explicit about the idea that their strength coaches embrace the conversation of mental health. It is not a topic to be discredited in pursuit of an archaic sense of toughness. And it is not a topic to be ignored.
We regularly use the phrase “are you strong enough for a tough conversation?” hoping to relieve the typical tough guy hesitancy to these types of conversations.
We often hear coaches say that students “know they can come talk if they really need to,” but the truth is, that’s not what we’re hearing from the kids. Reports from the field say two things: 1) that athletes often trust their coaches and believe they are cared for, but 2) do not believe that mental health concerns are something they’d feel comfortable discussing with a coach. In order to embrace the conversation, the messaging needs to be explicit.
Feel free to take a “coach-like” approach; for instance, we often say with a smile, “Look, I don’t want to hear about it every time you get a bad grade on a test or you didn’t get a response on snapchat… but if you’re ever having a really tough time, know that I’m here for you. We’re a team, that’s how it works.”
Make it authentic. But be explicit.
Connection has two meanings. The most important one will fuel the “prevent” and “embrace” ideas – make connections with members of the team and coaching staff. It’s not enough to coach athletes, you have to make human connections. Strength is a business of both results and relationships; neither is sufficient on its own. Connect.
Hopefully the other part of the “connect” idea doesn’t come up as often. When an athlete is truly in need, when you notice something alarming (significant changes in mood and behavior or indicators of self-harm) or when they come to you with a serious concern, the coach’s next step is to connect them with the appropriate support. The coach should be supportive, but it would be inappropriate for a coach to do the job of a therapist. There are a variety of legal issues at play, but the most important (and most ethical) step is to connect the young person struggling with significant concern with the appropriate professionals.
Connect: Coach Resources
Keep an eye out for the 5 signs of depression:
- Change in personality
- Decline in Personal Care
If there is an immediate concern (threatening self-harm or indications of recent self-harm), contact school officials and other parties as dictated by local policy. Do not be afraid to call 911 in case of an emergency.
Power of the Platform
Strength coaches have the power to change lives. In the case of mental health, there are countless young people being empowered (and concerns avoided) through positive weight room cultures. Coaches should hold tight to step one: prevention through empowerment, community, and fun.
In that empowering environment, coaches should be explicit about the fact that they embrace the conversation of mental health and that their door is always open. In certain cases, coaches should use their connection to a student to connect them to professional support as needed.
Coaches, we hope you’ll accept the challenge to go Beyond Strength and support your athletes in all areas of their lives. The true power of the weight room environment is the one conducting it… it’s you, Coach.
If you need support or would like to talk shop, reach out any time: CONTACT US