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Change of Mind

Coaches can create a safe, nurturing space to talk about emotional health

by Tony Rehagen

As an undergraduate at Elon, David Wyrick competed in basketball and track and field. Like many of today’s coaches and athletics administrators, he came up in a time when talking about mental health in the locker room was strictly taboo. But today, as director of the Institute to Promote Athlete Health & Wellness at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Wyrick is watching that culture of silence slowly begin to thaw. And along the way, he has gathered these tips for athletics departments looking to start that conversation.

Talk about it.

Tell your team about services available on campus. Invite an outside educator to do a presentation on mental health. Promote a culture of care-seeking. The coach sets the team’s culture, and talking openly about mental health frees students to do the same.

Teach students to talk about it.

Even if you’ve opened your door, student-athletes might not come to you. Because you won’t always be the one they turn to, show them how to be good bystanders for one another. Teach them that if they notice consistent behavioral changes in a teammate, they should encourage those students to seek help or, when necessary, seek help for them.

Know what to look for.

Review the NCAA Mental Health Best Practices at ncaa.org/mentalhealth. Learn the significant red flags to look for and where to send students for help.

Soften the tone.

When coaches are doing their jobs in practice and competition, they use a direct style of communication. But outside of competition, that style can be harmful. Coaches need communication strategies that are more nurturing and guiding. When students feel they are major players in the decision to seek help, they are more likely to stick with it.

Promote self-care among coaches, too.

College athletes aren’t the only ones who need to be mindful of their mental health. Coaches are often the worst at taking care of themselves. Administrators need to encourage coaches to take advantage of resources available on campus.

Ease up, when Needed.

Burning the candle at both ends to get a leg up is common practice in sports. But it’s not an advantage. If you see signs of fatigue and exhaustion among your athletes, or if they’re not focusing or understanding plays, maybe they’re not getting enough rest. Give them time to regroup.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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