The Mental Health Impact: How to Lead in a Crisis

High school athletes across the country have dealt with months of bad news — from school cancellations, to lost sports seasons, to isolation, to uncertainty about the future. There’s no finish line in sight, so coaches have to continue to find ways to lift their athletes.

Kevin Bryant, CMAA, holds the unusual distinction of being both a mental health expert and a district athletic director. It hasn’t been the best spring for the President of Thrive Athletic Consulting and athletic director of Redmond School District in Oregon.

“All of the research shows us that the state of mental health for athletes in this country is significantly challenged right now,” Bryant said. “It’s showing that there is major depression and anxiety around the country.”

Bryant spent the summer working with coaches to adjust the athletic calendar for the fall sports season in addition to counseling athletes who were struggling with mental health issues. He offered these tips for coaches who are tasked with leading during a crisis.

Stress the importance of exercise.

“The No. 1 thing, regardless of what happens for the rest of the year, is they have to be physically active. That has been linked over and over to having a positive impact on depression. Most high school kids don’t even think of the impact of exercise because they’re so into the activity. Very few think of it as something that helps them relax and relieve anxiety.”

Don’t let players break their routines.

“When we started back up in June, some of the kids were totally out of shape. They had checked out because they didn’t think the season would happen. The baseline was really low. We don’t know how quickly things will change, so we have to encourage the athletes to stay engaged.”

Focus on the present.

“One of our baseball coaches closes all of his emails with ‘Next pitch’. That’s all we can do. The positive things we tell the kids about focusing in the moment apply to this situation. Every play matters. We have to put that in action every day without looking too far into the future.”

Focus on social-emotional learning.

“One of the major ways coaches can continue to have an impact is through social-emotional learning. It’s something coaches have provided forever. That social-emotional connection to an adult that cares provides hope. The players love being out on the field with coaches and teammates. Now that those opportunities have been curtailed, it’s even more important that coaches are in touch with kids.”

Be authentic.

“If coaches can do anything, it’s being authentic and real. The other way comes across as you always thinking everything is flowery, rosey and great. This isn’t great. This sucks, and it’s horrible. However, we can’t live life that way every day. Be authentic. If you have kids at home and you’re teaching them, share it with the players. It’s not fun. They can relate to that.”

A Coach’s Mental Health

It’s easy for coaches to spend so much time focusing on their players’ collective mental health that they ignore their own health and happiness.

Bryant believes it is imperative for state associations and administrators to consider that contribution when deciding whether to continue to pay coaches if there is no fall season.

“The challenge will be how many districts won’t be paying coaches,” Bryant said. “Coaches are at it year-round. I know that in our district we’ve made a commitment to pay coaches whether there is a season or not. There are districts that are not planning on paying coaches.”

Bryant’s biggest concern is that if coaches are not paid, they will be less engaged with athletes who are in need.

“That will impact the social-emotional connection,” Bryant said. “I feel like coaches will be less likely to provide that connection if they’re not paid.”