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Mental Health of Student Athletes Depends on Positive Coaching


The importance of the mental and emotional aspects of participating in team sports can easily be overlooked. In a highly competitive environment, the combination of pressure placed on oneself, in addition to external pressure from coaches and teammates, can be detrimental to the athlete’s mental health. Coaching approaches that acknowledge these pressures and seek to support the physical and emotional health of student athletes are key. These principles and values are of constant importance for Berkeley High School (BHS) sports.

Competitive team sports provide not only exercise and physical conditioning, but also strong social bonds amongst teammates. Accordingly, sports have the potential to be extremely beneficial to mental health by reducing the incidence of anxiety and depression. However, certain negative coaching tactics, and the unhealthy team environment they engender, can have adverse effects on the minds of teenagers. These effects are heightened at this stage in the lives of student athletes, as young people can be especially vulnerable to negative influences.

Mental health issues have been linked to biological, genetic, and environmental factors. The ability to either exacerbate or alleviate these issues in athletes lies in the coaching approach and the team dynamic it fosters. Distinguishing the line between being demanding and causing serious damage to a player’s self-esteem is crucial to establishing a healthy team environment. Building a climate fueled by trust and open communication is the first step in promoting a more positive and successful team. 

Athletes often carry some level of fear in terms of whether or not they will perform adequately. This fear can be healthy to a certain extent, motivating athletes to perform to the best of their ability. However, when accompanied by coaching tactics that employ intimidation or humiliation, athletes can run into some serious issues. Such tactics could be excessive criticism without proper instruction, unnecessary negative comparisons between players, and threats of reduced playing time. These methods instill in players a fear of failure that can lead to performance anxiety. The thought of missing that last shot or causing a turnover becomes daunting and ultimately inhibits players from reaching their full — especially when under pressure. 

Shima Dixon, a sophomore in Academic Choice (AC) and member of the BHS varsity girls soccer team, has been on the receiving end of various coaching styles throughout her career as a student athlete. When explaining her experience with fear-based coaching during her time on a former club team, Dixon said, “I was terrified for games; all week I would be thinking about it.” When this fear and anxiety surrounding a sport builds, it can extend into other facets of a player’s life. Dixon said, “There were times [when] I would want to be injured just so I didn’t have to deal with that.” Over time, fear-based tactics run the risk of sending athletes into a spiral of self-criticism that increases the likelihood of quitting their sport altogether.

Sports are just as much a mental activity as they are a physical one. Confidence is one of the driving qualities of a successful player. Unfortunately, many competitive athletes coached through intimidation and comparison come to base their self-worth on their performance. This coaching system reinforces the idea that players are only worthy if they outcompete a teammate or opponent, and are worthless if they don’t. Negative comparison, used by a coach who may intend to motivate one player to emulate another, builds distrust instead. This kind of atmosphere discourages athletes from both working as a team and celebrating each other’s successes. 

Constructing the foundation for student athletes to thrive, both in the physical and mental aspects of their sport, is an ongoing and dynamic process at BHS. The BHS Athletic Department is working to standardize constructive interaction between coaches and students with the implementation of Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) workshops. Robin Vegt, co-athletic director of the BHS Athletic Department, said, “PCA’s mission is all about coaching in a positive way; in a carrot approach as opposed to a stick approach.” Vegt explained that positive reinforcement prevents students athletes from experiencing feelings of inadequacy. 

Moving forward, the BHS Athletic Department is also looking to reestablish the Student Athletic Leadership Council, which was disbanded a few years back, as a regular platform for students active in BHS sports. “All the leaders from each team can come together and meet to discuss shared issues and set tones that we hope to become common culture across BHS teams,” said Vegt. This way, athletes would be able to congregate to share their unique perspectives and work hand in hand in the hope of bettering each other’s experience with BHS sports. 

In the end, performance is a reflection of instruction. The goal should always be continued self-improvement, as opposed to striving towards some elusive and ultimately self-defeating ideal of perfection. Rather than blaming athletes for their mistakes, coaches can and should foster an environment where their players feel comfortable to grow and learn. Players will then be able to experience the support of their coach and teammates, and build their confidence along with their skills.