A CALL TO COACHES – MAKE MENTAL HEALTH A PROGRAM PRIORITY (By: Katie Johnson, LISW)
In late April our local news outlet announced the resignations of 3 leading high school boys basketball coaches in our metro area. This area comprises a total of seven high schools. These coaches made their announcements within two days of one another and cited reasons involving time demands or family priority. These reasons are sound and insightful. I’m convinced, however, that is not the full story.
High school coaches from all over the United States are resigning from their posts. The explanations mentioned in many cases are echoing throughout the nation (and beyond) – year-round insurmountable time commitments, hostile parents, and “politics”. The culture of youth sports has been changing for years, and many high school coaches and school systems don’t seem to be enjoying the conditions.
IT’S (SORTA PERSONAL)
Permit me to share a story with you. I am a Coach’s Kid (CK). My dad has coached youth sports for various ages since 1974, but much of his time was spent at the high school level (1974 – 2017). Let’s just say he wasn’t home a lot. To many his full-time career was being an insurance agent. What we witnessed at home was simply Coach Johnson. Countless nights at our kitchen table over a spread of papers, glasses on, chin in hand, in frozen in “thinker” pose. Coach would pour over stats, manuals, rules changes, whatever was relevant to the game.
He continually gave of his time, energy, sweat, finances, and love. Every season he bought equipment using his own money. Thanks to the strong leadership and the help of many volunteer parents, the field was always immaculate under his watch. He attended sporting events year-round in support of each of his players, watching them grow and evolve as individuals and as athletes.
This is what drove him and many other coaches – the growth and development of student-athletes through sport. It is the long-time mantra of schools and coaches all over the nation and globe. And to compete, of course.
He would have continued this cycle, however the demands and treatment of a high school girls softball coach changed in ways that did not align with his personal coaching philosophy or well-being. This is a very personal example and here is how it relates to the sport social work field.
We know the predicament of the high school coach - full-time hours for significantly less than part time pay. The list of tasks is unending: trainings, meetings, camps, scouting, statistics, player development, etc. In addition to coaching responsibilities these individuals maintain full-time jobs while often having families of their own. They know the laborious conditions of being a coach and still they commit. Now we’re losing them.
As sport social workers, we see burnout occur when an individual’s output greatly outweighs their input resulting in unavoidable physical, emotional, social and psychological distress. Burnout that is evidenced by the ever-increasing number of coach resignations. The World Health Organization just made burnout an official diagnosable condition. It’s a thing.
For coaches, that burnout bell has been ringing. Demands plus relational stress between coaches and parents are bringing about a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. A social-emotional-physiological fatigue resulting in lowered interest in a role they have long enjoyed and a feeling of disconnect from their family members and support network.
I commend the coaches who are choosing their personal health and well-being over a job. I recognize it to be one of the most difficult decisions of their lives to step away. I know it was for my dad. Though he won’t admit how much stress the conditions caused him, or how difficult the decision. And while I don’t know the story of every coach, I’d be willing to bet many of them won’t - and don’t - openly talk about their level of stress.
HIGH SCHOOL vs AAU SPORTS Current high school coaches are seeing incoming players with years of participation in non-school affiliated youth club teams. Players enter high school sports already having paid their dues in club and travel sports. Many starting competitive play in their sport as early as 2nd grade.
On paper this sounds ideal for high school coaches, players entering their school programs with years of competitive experience. While there are gaps to fill and modifications to be made when a player transitions from one team to another, one coach to another, the greater difficulty appears to be merging the student-athlete and their parents’ (or caregivers’) expectations to the coach’s – and school’s - philosophy.
With club and travel teams, parents become acclimated to an extreme level of participation prior to beginning high school sports. Parental investment is high, having paid a steep tab of time and travel between practices, games and tournaments. It’s during this period, many parents adopt dreams of athletic success for their child. So, when high school sports begin, they tend to have often unrealistic expectations for playing time or even opportunities after high school. Based on socio-economic circumstances, some families may be depending on it.
Parents are putting a lot on the line, and it shows. We often observe parents who are hostile and verbally abusive toward not only coaches, but also umpires and referees. This unrestrained behavior can be attributed to a shortage in the athletic officials profession in states like Indiana and New York.
What is the story behind that red-faced yell or profane demand or firm finger point (or all of the above)?
EVERYONE IS STRESSED.
We hear it.
Coaches are stressed. They want their programs built and followed based on their philosophy. They want respect, trust and freedom to do things their way. They want all of this while managing their own daily obligations outside of their coaching role.
Student-athletes are stressed. Athletically they want to perform well, win games, stand out, meet the demands of their coaches, teachers, parents, fans – maybe even earn a future in the game. All of this while juggling academics, social and extracurricular requirements, family commitments and many developmental milestones.
Parents are stressed. They have spent countless hours driving an infinite number of miles over multiple years to support their child’s athletic endeavors. Well-intentioned or otherwise, they want their investment realized in their child’s play and performance. When they perceive a threat to all their efforts, irrational emotions take over.
Not to mention, all of this while balancing daily demands of a family.
So, is anyone speaking openly about this stress?
Coaches – are you including mental health and overall wellness in the building blocks of your programs and modeling it in your own behavior? Are you engaging parents in a mutual and collaborative way?
Parents – are you prioritizing your child’s mental health and overall wellness over sport? Are you allowing them to have a voice in their own personal and athletic development? Are you aware of the impact of your behaviors?
Let’s value our student-athletes and their growth by also valuing ourselves.
Understand a sport social worker can help navigate these conversations.