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Living the dream - and waking up to reality

Coaches face steep learning curve for managing student-athlete mental health

By Cathy Wright-Eger

NOTE: This story is excerpted from the Sports Science Institute’s soon-to-be released book, “Mind Body and Sport – Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness,” a comprehensive look at the student-athlete experience from a mental health perspective – from their relationships with faculty, peers, administrators, coaches and fans. The book will be released on and in late September.

Cathy Wright-Eger

When I was in junior high school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and a coach. I played sports, took specific classes – especially in college – and chose work experiences to prepare me to be the best teacher/coach I could be.

At 27 years old, after coaching at the club and high school level and being an assistant college coach, I landed my first NCAA Division I head coaching position and was living the dream.

But the dream has its unexpected twists and turns. Most coaches are well prepared to execute the X’s and O’s of their sport and to motivate their athletes. But dealing with the mental health side of athletics is something you generally have to learn on your own, and often on the fly. That learning curve can be huge.

What is the protocol if a student-athlete needs help with mental health issues? There is seemingly a policy for everything academic and athletics-related, but nothing in place for mental health.

I am not a prideful person, so if I don’t know an answer or how to deal with something, I ask for help. The first years I coached, I felt like that little bird in the book “Are You My Mother?” I just changed the words to “Are You My Counselor?” And I asked everyone: “Where do I send a student-athlete in need of counseling?”

The answer changed depending on the person I spoke with and the issue at hand. Over time, I felt like I was spending 90 percent of my energy and efforts with 10 percent of my student-athletes. As a recruiter who sat with families in their living rooms and gave them my word that I would be there for their children, I found myself slowly drowning.

Here’s an example of one month of my life as a Division I coach. The semester started with a parent calling after midnight, asking me to please go to the athlete’s apartment. The mother needed me there while she explained that the student-athlete’s father had committed suicide that night. It’s a night I’ll never forget.

The following week, one of the best freshmen we had ever signed asked for a meeting with her parents to discuss transferring because of lack of success. (After only one semester – really?)

The week after that, during a swim meet, someone screamed that one of our athletes was bleeding badly in the locker room. I left the contest and found the student-athlete was self-mutilating with a razor blade. I stayed calm, had someone call 911, got our student trainer to assist me until the paramedics arrived, and then continued coaching the meet.

When was I trained for all of this? Where in my training or my college classes did I learn how to identify and deal with these types of issues? I felt like coaching looked very different than it had when I began pursuing it as a career. I actually found myself wishing I had double-majored in counseling. I was confused, angry and mystified why there was such an increase in mental health issues the longer I coached. But no one talked about this part of coaching, no matter how many clinics I attended.

One of the most insightful periods in my 23 years of Division I coaching was in my 15th season when a small group of coaches decided to “get real” with some of the troubling issues our student-athletes were facing. Motivation, nutrition, training and recruiting were topics we’d discussed for years, but these were different.

It started with one coach asking if we ever had an athlete with an eating disorder. Of course we had all experienced and witnessed the affliction. We traded horror stories and shared how much one person’s disorder affected the entire team and coaching staff.

Then the floodgates opened. Did anyone have a “cutter” on their team? How about an athlete who had been sexually assaulted during their college days or before? Why were binge drinking and date rape at an all-time high? What about depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder? Addictions, prescription drug use, recreational drug use, divorced parents with opposing agendas – we discussed all of those, too.

It was a wonderful discussion – open, honest and educational. We put aside the fact that we all recruited against each other. For hours we shared stories on mental health issues (of course without disclosing names). We expressed how many of the issues were over our heads, and as coaches, we didn’t know where to turn for help. The team doctors and sports psychiatrists seemed to be part time and booked solid.

The bottom line is that student-athletes need professional assistance with mental health issues, and the coaches/athletics departments need protocols and resources to ensure that those student-athletes receive proper help when needed.

I am glad to know that so many athletics administrators and medical professionals are now devoting time and resources to an issue we coaches have known about and struggled with for many years. The X’s and O’s of student-athlete mental health and well-being should be in everyone’s playbook.

Cathy Wright-Eger spent 21 seasons as the head women’s swimming and diving coach at Purdue University before becoming an academic advisor there in 2008. She sent competitors to the NCAA championships in 20 seasons and compiled a .616 winning percentage in dual meets during her career. She was named the Big Ten Conference coach of the year in 1990. In 2007, Cathy helped manage the U.S. national team that participated in the Pan American Games in Brazil. The Ball State graduate coached her high school alma mater’s team for two years before becoming an assistant for two years at Iowa. She joined Purdue in 1987.