Many student-athletes deal with emotional and personal issues in their daily lives that have the potential to develop into significant psychological crises. The ability of the coach or supervisor to recognize the signs that indicate a potential problem will allow that individual to make appropriate contact with the athlete and guide him/her to the right place for help.
Coaches and others who provide direction and support to athletes are likely to be familiar with the stresses and disappointment that frequently occur after a poor performance, not getting a starting position or even getting cut from a team. Many times, however, adults are not aware of things going on in the athlete’s life that can have a significant emotional or psychological impact.
Events that have the potential to cause a significant emotional response are called critical incidents. Situations such as poor performance in school; family issues; emotional response to injury; injury or death of a friend, teammate or family member; and natural disaster are examples of critical incidents that can have deep and long-lasting psychological impact.
Coaches and supervisors are often in a unique position to identify an athlete who has suffered a critical incident. Because they spend hours each day with student-athletes, coaches have the opportunity to get to know them on a more personal level than the majority of adults with whom they interact. It is common for young people to internalize their feelings and not share those thoughts with their parents.
Coaches have the opportunity to observe athletes’ behaviors and interactions with other teammates during practices, games and team social gatherings without them necessarily being aware. The combination of knowing their athletes personally, along with opportunities to observe and interact with them, places coaches in an excellent position to identify an athlete in emotional crisis.
The first step in providing support and assistance to an athlete who may be in crisis is to recognize that a problem exists. It is normal to expect strong emotional and psychological reactions from an athlete when a teammate, family member or close friend is seriously injured or killed or something like a natural disaster takes place. These particular events are easily identifiable as critical incidents. It is common practice for administrators to notify a critical incident stress management (CISM) team and mental health professionals to provide counseling and support.
The ability to recognize that an athlete may be in crisis becomes more of a challenge when the issues causing the stress are personal, occur away from the team environment and the young person keeps things to himself/herself.
To some it may sound obvious, but one of the most important things to recognize with athletes is change. Many times, the way the coach becomes aware of a potential problem is from other teammates who may be affected. Changes in personality, demeanor, interactions with peers and general behavior may be brought to the coach’s attention by things other athletes say. Some of those comments might be similar to the following:
“Coach, John is really being a jerk this week.”
“The last couple of days, Mary has been crying in the locker room before practice.”
“Coach, you know how Ramon won’t stop talking? He hasn’t said anything for three days.”
These type of statements can be indicators of underlying problems or crises.
Coaches are also in a position to be aware of changes in an athlete’s ability to focus, concentrate and remember things they need to remember. Missing meetings, suddenly being late for meetings or practices, forgetting assignments and sudden changes in performance or work ethic can all be signs that something is wrong. The existence of psychological crisis can also manifest itself in dangerous behaviors that include increased alcohol or drug use, self-mutilation or injury and talk of suicide. A coach who is in tune to who his/her athletes are as people is in an excellent position to recognize many of these behavioral changes.
If a school leader believes that an athlete is in crisis, it is important to take appropriate action to get the young person the help he or she may need. The coach or supervisor can follow the general principles of psychological first aid to initiate a conversation with the athlete.
First, make contact with the young person and engage them about the situation. Ask questions and give the person time to answer. Second, make sure the athlete is safe and comfortable. In large-scale emergencies, it may be as simple as providing a blanket. In a personal crisis, it may be sitting in a familiar place like the gym or locker area. Third, help the athlete to stabilize. Wait with him or her until the emotions are under control and the athlete knows where he or she is going to go.
After everyone is stable and somewhat calm, collect information about the immediate needs of the individual in crisis. “What do you need right now?” is an important question. The answers may be simple, but it helps the person regain control. Answers like “I just need to get my stuff from my locker” are not uncommon. And finally, when necessary, connect the athlete with the appropriate social support and collaborative services. It is always a good idea to make sure the individual knows he or she can come back to see you if desired.
One very important point to remember is “don’t go it alone.” Administrators and coaches are not mental health professionals. One of the most helpful and accessible resources is the school psychologist. Whenever you deal with a student-athlete in crisis, you should make sure a supervisor or administrator is notified. They have access to district and community social services and mental health resources to assist the young person in crisis.
Additional information and resources can be found at:
International Critical Incident Stress Foundation http://www. icisf.org/.
National Child Trauma Stress Network http://www.nctsn.org/.
Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care http://ubhc.rutgers.edu/tlc/.
International Trauma Center http://www.internationaltraumacenter.com/.
U.S Department of Veterans Affairs Psychological First Aid Field Guide. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/materials/manuals/ psych-first-aid.asp.
David Middlemas, Ed.D, ATC, is a professor in athletic training and sports medicine at Montclair (New Jersey) State University. He is certified in psychological first aid and post-traumatic stress management from the Center for Trauma Psychology in Boston, Massachusetts. He also is founder and chair of the CISM team for the Athletic Trainers’ Society of New Jersey, providing crisis intervention and psychological first aid services for practicing athletic trainers.