By Alex Campanella
The demands on the modern-day student-athlete are enormous. The combined pressures of sports, academics, work, social life, and more can create a crushing burden that causes or exacerbates mental health issues. In this article, I’ll explore why collecting subjective mental wellness data can help performance staff and sports coaches better serve their athletes, and the need to begin from a place of trust.
The Forces Driving Change in Sports Culture
Simone Biles’s experience at the recent Tokyo Olympics, the HBO documentary The Weight of Gold, and Naomi Osaka’s extended break from tennis illuminate that even when elite athletes are performing wonders, they can still be struggling mentally and emotionally.
And yet a lot of coaches continue to question the validity of such struggles and instead emphasize physical, technical, and tactical qualities while downplaying or simply ignoring the psychological element of performance.
However, there’s an increasing amount of data indicating that student-athletes have a greater need in this area than ever before. An NCAA survey of 37,000 student-athletes showed that issues like depression, anxiety, worry, and many more are all up between 200 – 250% since the start of the pandemic.
COVID-19-related cancelations, shutdowns, and so on have acted as an unfortunate but very real amplifier for student-athletes’ mental health concerns. Part of the problem could well be that with seasons shortened, tournaments canceled, and practice facilities shut down, the outlet that college-age athletes used to have was removed.
As a result, those who were already struggling with their mental health lost a valuable coping tool, while many whose issues were just under the surface saw them bubble up and become more apparent.
The Need for Subjective Data
While coaches and performance specialists can make assumptions about how COVID and individual scenarios like a student-athlete’s parents getting divorced, losing a loved one, financial concerns, and so on impact a player’s performance and overall wellbeing, it’s difficult to connect the dots without gathering some data.
Collecting subjective mental wellbeing data doesn’t just provide greater context for programming alterations. The very fact a team collects it can be enough to demonstrate to athletes that this is a people-first environment in which their wellbeing is prioritized above wins and losses. It would be foolish to suggest that what the team does on the field doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing.
A common argument made against collecting subjective wellness information is that it’s inferior to objective or hard data. There is some validity to this, but we need to remember that even the latter is still widely open to interpretation. Meters, watts, and other quantifiable data units can be very useful, but they’re indicators, not absolutes. And they’re also just small pieces of a very large and complex puzzle. Both objective and subjective data sets allow us to ask smarter questions and make more informed decisions as we try to understand athletes better.
Certain coaches can be reluctant to ask their athletes to complete more surveys, but if forms and other collection mediums are designed thoughtfully, require minimum input, and aren’t repeated too much, survey fatigue can be avoided.
The Power of Trust
Such a process will be more effective if there’s open, candid, and caring communication between the athlete and their coaches. Trust doesn’t happen accidentally but is actually the product of careful and diligent relationship building. If athletes feel valued, cared for, and known, there’s a far better chance for appropriate levels of disclosure and vulnerability than if they feel like they’re just a cog in a giant winning machine.
This starts with the head coach recognizing that yes, I am here to make you bigger, stronger, and faster, but I’ll also be a caretaker, a mentor, and a developer of capable, confident, and competent human beings.
Whatever a mental health survey might indicate, it’s what happens next that really matters. When the follow-up starts with a conversation to find out what’s going on, continues with connection to helpful resources, and includes an educational component, there’s a pretty good chance of a successful outcome. Particularly if everyone pulls together in the same direction and puts the athlete’s mental health first.
An Athlete-Centric Continuum of Care
Mental health and wellness data trends can be utilized to get a multidisciplinary staff on the same page to provide an athlete-centric continuum of care. It’s helpful for the sports psychologist to be made aware of the situation, certainly, but the S+C coach, chaplain, head and assistant coaches, academic advisor, and other experts can also pitch in to help an athlete who has a mental need.
This isn’t to say that an individual’s private information will be shared all over campus frivolously or with a lack of security, but rather that when an issue arises that might require additional resources, these people are notified so they can step in and lend their expertise.
It can also be effective to present insights to the athlete, along with recommendations for what they can do to help themselves. For example, if an individual hits predetermined thresholds a certain number of times in their survey responses, an athlete management system (AMS) can present educational materials, helpful apps for mindfulness and breathing, and contact information for counseling and psychology resources on campus, online, and in the local community. These can help the athlete cope with the pressure they’re feeling and take the steps needed to get help when they need it most.