Mental Health First Aid Training for Strength Coaches

TAGS: counselor, empathy, mental health first aid, mental health training, student athletes, mental health, student, struggle, suicide, stress, strength and conditioning, kids, coaching, athlete, strength, strength coach

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It's time to talk about mental health training. As an industry, we often talk and write about student-athlete welfare, but we're mostly still flying blind in regards to mental health training for our students. In this article, I'll attack this issue in very simple terms as well as share the best practices I've learned over the years. I don't speak from any level of authority, but I do have over 20 years of mistakes and heartbreaks. I've also learned from others who are way smarter than I am, and recently, my university tackled the goal to get the entire athletic department certified in mental health first aid.

When I started out in this profession, I don’t think many, if any, strength coaches focused on mental health. I've been asked, “How have things changed in 20 years?” Dealing with mental health must be at the top of that list. I truly believe that we as an industry are finally starting to admit that we don't toughen kids up by insulting them (I made this mistake as well as many others). We toughen people up by learning about and from our students. This is a hard pill for many to swallow, including myself. Empathy is more important than disrespect.


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The first thing we need to understand is that we are not therapists. Anyone who has coached has been asked the following question: “Coach, can I speak to you after the lift?" At this point, I usually dread the conversation. I want to help and do what I can for my athletes, but I'm pretty sure that whatever the student is about to say won't be an easy conversation.

For me, I've heard everything from “I tested positive for drugs” to “my mother has cancer,” and “I’m transferring, and I don’t know who to tell first.” My all-time least favorite is “My boyfriend or girlfriend cheated on me.” My rule of thumb is to be an ear for these students in their times of need. Remember, when someone comes to you, he or she is doing it because he or she respects you.

My advice now comes from years of mistakes. First, listen. Second, ask how the athlete is doing. This is where my advice fades to being a human. At times, we must know that this issue is out of our scope of practice, so we should contact a therapist. Most of these conversations are pretty easy, and the student just wants to let off some steam. That is totally fine. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with being an ear for someone, but we must also pay attention to warning signs.

Vitalii Krasnoselskyi © 123rf.com

Vitalii Krasnoselskyi © 123rf.com

Suicide

Growing up, I listened to tons of great heavy metal music. Much of it dealt with death and suicide. To this day, I still think that Lights...Camera...Revolution! by Suicidal Tendencies is one of the finest non-conforming genre (great mix of trash and funk/punk) albums. But we must understand that words matter, and we shouldn't be throwing the word suicide around lightly. This is a very serious topic, and it has been discussed ad nauseam in this country, but little has changed around this topic. On the contrary, things have gotten worse.

If you're part of an athletic department, please form a care team. Have people from academic support, athletic training, and strength and conditioning get together and discuss what is going on with the students. If a student is routinely late to lifting and his or her grades take a sharp turn down, this should be discussed and we should have more eyes on this student. We must treat mental health the same way that we treat physical health. I remember someone at the CSCCa Conference sharing how he would have his athletic trainer stand next to his students with sickle cell disease. Why are we not doing the same with mental health? If we know a student is struggling, have members of your team watch out for that student.

Once we see a problem, what should we do? Refer out! I can’t say this strongly enough. Know your weaknesses. We must be building relationships with students, and at times, that does mean listening to problems that they're having, but we should also know when it's no longer our job and find a professional. If a student needs help, you're better off referring out than trying to solve the problem and doing something wrong. Again, just as we do with an athlete's physical health, we must do what we can do until someone smarter than us arrives. Universities should have facilities and professionals to deal with these issues, so use them.


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In my previous position, I had a student tell me that one of her teammates was having panic attacks. The first thing I did was to ask if the teammate was a threat to herself or anyone else (I realize this is a judgment call). The student told me she wasn't. Knowing that she wasn't seen as a threat meant that I had a little time. I told the young lady to give me 24 hours. I then went to our counseling center (I had already developed a relationship with them and you should, too) and asked what I should do. They asked me if she was a danger. I told them that I didn't believe she was, but I couldn't say for sure.

We came up with a plan. At our next team lift, a counselor came to the last 15 minutes of the lift and talked to the team about stress. I had told the counselor which athlete they were looking out for, and they watched the athlete during the talk and made sure they spoke to each athlete one-on-one for a minute. They concluded that there wasn’t much they could do unless she was a threat or she came to see them. The young lady ended up transferring, but at least we had eyes on her and watched out for her best interests.

If you know someone who’s struggling, reach out to them. Be a better person and watch out for your friends, even when you think they're fine.


If you or a loved one needs help, reach out to these resources.  All hotlines listed below are available 24/7 and are confidential unless otherwise noted. In case of an emergency, call your local authorities.

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