I have been in the mental health world, working with athletes and coaches, for over 30 years now. I have seen the cycle play out for many sports coaches. Coaches want to be there for their athletes as a mentor, motivator, disciplinarian as well as someone they can confide in.
But, do you really?
Do you really want to hear that they don’t have enough food to eat at home or that they are being verbally, physically, or sexually abused?
Or that they are cutting themselves before competition because they can’t deal with the pressure. Do you want them to tell you that they throw up after every meal because they have an eating disorder?
Do you really want them to tell you that they are having to find one reason, every single morning, why they shouldn’t drive off the bridge on the way to school.
Do we really want to be there for them in that way?
Coaches often avoid or ignore these conversations for many reasons. A few of the most common reasons are that they believe that it isn’t their role, or there are people that are better qualified to make those decisions, or they simply don’t know what to do.
Whether you like it or not, you are whom these athletes open up to and often go to for help. They may not have anyone they can tell or no one they trust as much as you.
The first and best thing to do is to shut up and listen. We as coaches get so caught up in teaching lessons, telling our athletes what to do, and trying to “fix” that we neglect listening to them. It’s safer to tell them what to do rather than listening to them and their struggles.
Listening in this way can be a powerful tool. It results in your athlete learning how to express and handle their emotions. This teaches them to be independent and resilient. It also builds a positive relationship with your athlete through better communication and respect.
We worry that we will open a lot of scary doors that are potentially very sticky and complicated and oftentimes it will. I personally feel that if you care about your athletes as a person, and you know they are being hurt or are in danger, the moral thing to do is to try to help them in any way possible, regardless of mandated reporting.
As a counselor, I have had to report abuse over 100 times and it was never easy. It wasn’t easy making the call but I know in my heart that I have done everything in my power to help one of my athletes be safe.
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