Coaches looking for ways to improve athlete mental health

Sean Speidel | The Chronicle

When a player twists their ankle, they can go to a trainer and get it taped. But when they have an emotional issue they have nowhere to go. 

Mason provides athletic trainers to deal with players’ physical ailments, but many coaches have noticed that there is no one on the sidelines to provide mental help to athletes in a stress-filled situation. A study by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association stated that “Many student-athletes report higher levels of negative emotional states than non-student-athlete adolescents.” The scene is no different here at Mason High School (MHS). Mason’s student-athletes feel pressure to succeed in order to uphold the precedents of excellence that have been set before them. When athletes fall short, it can be detrimental to their mental wellbeing.

There is a growing emphasis on mental health in the academic setting. Many schools, including Mason, have multiple counselors and psychologists to tend to students’ needs. In the athletic setting, however, the coaches must play that role.

Mason girls soccer coach Andy Schur believes that focusing on an athlete’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. This past season Schur said that the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams used an online sports psychology program in order to strengthen their mindset. According to Schur, he’s still evaluating the effectiveness of the online program but he has seen some proof that it is working for some of his athletes.

“I think some of the young ladies on the team really bought in,” Schur said. “If it can help five or six kids, then I think it’s something worth looking into.”

While the online program Schur used did show some success, it does not offer a true interpersonal connection. A psychologist could do anything from aiding in a stressful situation to helping an athlete deal with some of the stressors that come with their athletic performance. These are all things that an online program could not accomplish. While the program did help the team, Schur said that having an in-person psychologist could be much more beneficial.

“I think we’ve got a lot of needs for the athletes and the coaches to have a mental health specialist that focuses on sports,” Schur said. “It’d be great if our kids can have someone a little more real and close to them to work with them on more of an intimate basis.”

Hope Squad advisor and assistant football coach Alex Beurket has a unique perspective. He teaches Psychology, works with mental health professionals in his role as the Hope Squad advisor and coaches football. Beurket believes having a counselor or psychologist working with student athletes would be beneficial.

“My general thoughts are that it would be a great idea,” Beurket said. “I support anything that is supporting the mental health of any of the students, staff, and people in the building.”

Due to Mason’s ongoing athletic successes, student-athletes feel mounting pressure to live up to the high expectations while also trying to reach a level of personal success. This increase in pressure to succeed can cause athletes to develop performance anxiety issues which can make them scared to play the sport that they love. Cross country coach Tom Rapp said that he believes an athletic psychologist could play an important role in relieving athletes of the anxiety they may be feeling.

“We put so much pressure on ourselves,” Rapp said. “I think sports psychology can play into that a little bit, learning that you are not defined by your sport.”

Rapp said that when the pressure and anxiety begin to build, the fun is taken out of the sport, so it is very important for athletes to be mentally prepared.

“The last thing I say to my runners right before a race is ‘have fun out there,’” Rapp said. “They need to relax, have fun, train hard, and have great mental preparation as well.”

Collegiate and professional teams are beginning to pay more attention to the mental well-being of their athletes. National Football League teams have sports psychologists on staff as a resource for their players. The Seattle Seahawks star quarterback even has his own personal psychologist. 

The United States Olympic Committee offers sports psychologists to their athletes, and several professional golfers have a personal psychologist to help them stay mentally sharp. Rapp said that seeing athletes on the professional level use a sports psychologist shows that going to a psychologist can be beneficial and should not be frowned upon in the world of athletics.

“It’s not a sign of weakness to go to a sports psychologist,” Rapp said. “ It’s a sign of caring for your own health and caring for your own performance.

Over the past few years Mason City Schools has been a leader in focusing on the mental health of their students. Beurket believes exploring the idea of providing counseling for student athletes would be another way for coaches to focus on the well-being of their athletes.

“With the resources that we have, I think we are in a great position to [implement an athletic psychologist],” Beurket said. “ [We could] be an example for other schools, areas, districts around the city, state, and country. This is something that could and hopefully be done to help people.”

Some MHS coaches have reached out to athletic director Scott Stemple about the idea of retaining a sports psychologist. Stemple has looked into the possibility of making a sports psychologist available to Mason’s student athletes through Premier Health, the district’s medical partner. Currently, Premier Health does not provide resources in the sports psychology area but according to Stemple, student athletes can utilize the mental health resources available to all students at Mason High School. In the future if Premier Health decides to add psychologists to their services, he would definitely want to take advantage of that service.

For now, student athletes at MHS can visit their guidance counselor who can arrange for them to meet with one of the school’s many mental health counselors, therapists or school psychologists. Even though some coaches would like to continue to explore the idea of sports-specific counseling, Stemple also agrees that student athletes need to take advantage of Mason’s many resources but at this time it is not realistic at this time to retain a psychologist for extracurricular activities. 

Many Mason coaches know that focusing on emotional and mental health are major components of running successful programs. In addition to coaching their sport and motivating their athletes to perform at a high level, they are aware that success on the field cannot be reached without athletes who are not only physically healthy but mentally healthy as well. 

Even though the conversation of adding a sports psychologist is still in the discussion phase, Schur still plans to do everything he can to provide a supportive emotional environment for his athletes. He is grateful for medical staff and trainers who help keep the athletes physically healthy. He knows that coaching isn’t always about on the field game strategies but strategies and tactics to help his student athletes experience a positive experience as they move forward on and off the field during their high school years.

“I appreciate Mr. Stemple’s willingness to look into it as an option for our school,” Schur said. “We will continue to help and support the players during their journey through the high school soccer program in whatever way they need us to.”