Sports psychologist: 3 tips to leading during a crisis

Melissa White, a psychologist with Hempfield Area School District, talks to players on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 at Hempfield Area High School before they play against Greensburg-Salem in WPIAL football. (Photo courtesy of Tribune-Review)

Melissa White is one of just two mental performance coaches at the high school level in the state of Pennsylvania. She recently finished her second season as mental performance coach for the Hempfield High football team. White holds a doctorate degree in sports psychology and is a sixth-grade teacher at Hempfield’s Wendover Middle School.

She recently joined FNF Coaches to discuss strategies for leading during a crisis.

How can coaches serve as a calming influence for their players without downplaying the severity of the issue?

“This is a very stressful time for everyone, not just athletes and coaches. I think that it is important to keep the concerns about this pandemic real and in the forefront of the athlete’s mind. It is easy for us to think about ‘why me?’ or ‘poor me.’ But in the grand scheme of things, there are a lot worse things happening in the world right now than us not getting to play sports. That would be my upfront, more harsh response to athletes who have worked with the coach for a while and have good rapport with him/her.”

In what ways can coaches set an example for how to behave during this period of quarantine and social distancing?

“I think as a coach it is important to not encourage activities that go against the social distancing. Yes, we all want our athletes to continue to train and not lose this time, but if we pressure them to go and practice with teammates, then we are being part of the problem and not part of the solution. I also think that sometimes coaches forget how much of an influence they have on their athletes. Our athletes don’t want to let us down so they are going to go out of their way to make us happy. This may mean practicing with people they shouldn’t be around, or not being far enough apart, or even trying things they shouldn’t by themselves (depending on the sport).

“Coaches can therefore encourage home workouts. They may even be able to supply them with workouts that are easy to do at home with minimal equipment. Coaches could also set up a workout time and have the group video chat while completing even part of the workout. This holds athletes accountable, but encourages them to follow the rules and guidelines of social distancing.”

What are some strategies for coaches/players when they start getting overwhelmed by the stories of the virus spreading?

“The suggestions I have given to my athletes that I have been working with is to look at the present moment now and control what you can at this time. It is easy to get caught up in the racing thoughts … What if we don’t get to compete at all this season, and it is my senior year and I will never compete again? How will I ever get over this? Or even if you have a junior: What if we don’t compete at all this season, and then I am not able to be recruited and then I won’t get any offers and I won’t be able to compete at the collegiate level?

“These are all thoughts that are going through athletes minds at this time, and all we can do is to remind them that everyone is going through the same thing, and that we have to only take one day at a time. Positive psychology or a growth mindset will help this. Think instead, what can I be doing right now so that when I get to participate in my sport again, I will be as ready as I can be? If you keep that question at the forefront of your mind it will help to not get caught up in the downward spiral.”

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