I was working twice a week with an athlete who was struggling, mentally and emotionally. One of her coaches (we’ll call her Martha) was not a fan of mental training or anything “Psychology.” Hard work was her answer. The athlete was fourteen-years-old and training for an advanced level. Multiple times she had reached the point of quitting; her fears had literally taken over her, she cried often, broke down in practices with the red face and panic, and was terribly scared to do certain skills. In fact, she could not keep up with her teammates for months and her coaches were at a loss. If this girl had a future at all in the sport, she needed intensive mental training. So, we were doing that.
Fortunately, this young athlete “bought in” and is now very successful in her career. But it was months of commitment to train her mind, apply tools, and create new perspectives. All the pressures and expectations, especially from Martha, had added to her emotional struggles. I advised cutting back a little on her regular team training, only because her schedule was so tight, and she needed to increase the mental work to make progress. Martha blew a fuse. “She needs to finish her assignments today!” she yelled at me one day in the middle of a mental training session. (That was uncool.) It was clear to me that Martha did not trust the process. I was unnerved, but I realized she didn’t understand that physically, the athlete would never advance without learning to manage her thoughts and feelings. Plus, she didn’t feel safe and that was the larger issue. I briefly acknowledged the outburst, then walked away…
A few months later, this brave athlete had gone through a complete transformation. Where she’d been confused, she was clear. Where she had dreaded competition, she enjoyed it. Where she had been unraveled by nerves, she became focused and deliberate in her performances. This young lady was not only brave and persistent but amazed us all. She had a great competition season. Her confidence bloomed. And I am pleased that, not long after that, she earned a full scholarship to a great academic university.
THE QUESTION: WAS IT WORKING?
Were the regular practices with her coaches helping her reduce her fears and regain her skills? No. They were not. Was Martha supportive of the athlete’s emotional well-being? Not in this situation. It’s so hard for some coaches when the mental and emotional issues are considerable. Coaches are not required to be trained in psychology or understand emotional issues. I suggest continual professional development for all coaches, and always include a psychological component that teaches human behavior. Meanwhile, it’s imperative to be openminded and trust the athlete’s emotions are real (just like a broken bone) and something is seriously wrong.
In an emotional spiral with an athlete, would you be able to ‘trust the process’ in order to create a safe feeling and support that athlete?
It will take time, it may take four weeks, eight or twelve, to overcome certain issues and employ new habits. Deep fear or anxiety bids us to be patient, so the athlete can feel more at ease in learning and applying the tools. If you are concerned about the team environment, then a mindset of learning through the struggle is needed. Because no one can change from “struggle” to “control” in a split second. No one can feel confident and manage their fears in a week. It is a p-r-o-c-e-s-s.
Martha, later, saw the progress…and was surprised.
This article is from a section of CHAPTER 5: “I Won’t Be Too Hard on You” in my new book: Focused and Inspired: Keeping Our Athletes Safe in a Win-at-All Costs World.