As we move through each school year, much of the ebb and flow of the intercollegiate tides can be unpredictable. What is predictable are the typical references to the time of year many of us know as “Winter Blues” or seasonal depression. While the January and February months are famous for making Spring break feel so far away, the dead of winter in regions like the Midwest and New England are well known for cabin fever. In these months following holiday break, naturally students (and teachers, admin and coaches) can find it difficult to get their motors going again. Especially for new freshmen, that 30-40 day taste of home can sometimes hurt more than it helps.
However, due to the culprit of seasonal depression, if we are not dialed in properly to our teams and athletes, there is a small but distinct window of opportunity for another fox to let himself in the mental health hen house. This opportunity is also known as October.
If you are a coach or parent asking what is so different about October and why you should care, consider this a valuable “heads up” and in advance, you're welcome.
In most colleges across the country, October means your athletes have now been on campus just over 30 days. The newness of preseason without classes and excitement of the transition have come and gone. Classes have officially become routine and midterms are on their way. At this point in the semester, this is where our athletes are actively carving out space in their heads for what their anticipated grade(s) may look like.
While your athletes might not be talking about it out loud, internally they are constantly calculating their odds of succeeding, floating or failing.
For Winter sport athletes, they are gearing up for life indoors for the next 3-4 months while preparing to stay on campus for holiday breaks as the rest of the population returns home. For Spring sport athletes, they have been on campus since school began and are engaging in monotonous off-season strength training, conditioning and practice sessions. This pent up energy is typically answered with zero to a few opportunities for outside competition.
Regardless of season, each has their own challenge. However, October is the halfway point for everyone and no class or sport will go untouched. As a college coach, in honor of Mental Health Month here are the 5 challenge areas your athletes will face in October and how to recognize and remedy them.
1. October Social Challenges
Social relationship building will continue to be a challenge in 2018 and beyond particulary for this generation because the majority of our young population's average daily interactions are through their smart phones. Popular culture has painted and instilled the image of college being a place that is overflowing with endless new people just waiting with outstretched hands to meet you. There is a strong expectation that opportunities will effortlessly and automatically present themselves in every corner of campus. When this does not occur naturally for your athletes within the first month and a half, the new life schedule will compound to slowly gnaw on their social self esteem which places a silent but gradual growing weight on their shoulders and minds.
Student-athletes are typically on rigorous schedules leaving less space for social endeavors, personal down-time or extra curricular activities that contain those crucial outside-of-sport networking opportunities. This can also have an effect on the athlete where their expectations in the social department feel dramatically unmet.
Social media tells our young people that "likes" on Instagram revealing activities of involvement and selfies are the defining factor of the real college experience. Those who have not met lifelong friends in the first 30 minutes, hours or days, no matter how introverted or extroverted they may be, will measure their worth based on social status, invitations to study groups, social events or virtual friend count.
The result: "I am not making friends as fast as I thought, something must be wrong with me, Coach."
Solution: As coaches, we must be sure to openly jumpstart dialogue amongst the younger players with your veterans. Ask questions to your returners in an open and relaxed forum about their early college experience and how long it took them to develop and nurture relationships with those outside the team or in their classes. Your younger players need to hear that your older players did not show up in a perfect package nor were they socially settled instantly upon their arrival to campus. Do your best to promote open conversations for questions and prepare yourself to be ok or accept players admitting they may not care for a class, a professor or even practice.
Listen and while it’s ok for you to start the dialogue for your team, let your athletes drive the conversation so they can find their own commonalities in their struggles. This will promote the understanding and acceptance that their experiences are normal and that uncertainty can be exciting and hopeful rather than anxious and negative. When your athletes recognize they are all part of a team where everyone shares common challenges, this will decrease anxiety, help them push through the social insecurities and weave their culture closer together.
2. October Athletic Challenges
This generation is one of immediacy and craves results quickly. Those athletes not seeing or feeling massive athletic improvement in the first 30 day will begin to show their true colors. Whether it is strength, skill or being a more attentive student of the game, this roller coaster is one they will take you on for the remainder of the semester if not addressed properly.
Your more naturally talented athletes may become frustrated while your repetition-based learning athletes may become more needy with requests for additional individual critique and one on one time. October tends to shine a light a little brighter on character and we begin to see our athletes reveal more of their typical natural behaviors. Ex. Those athletes you expected to possess rock solid mentality and emotional balance may be the first to doubt themselves while you may be surprised by the levels of resilience in others. Either way, this translates to the coach working overtime in assisting them with in building up self belief. This can be exhausting for both parties, but hang in there.
As a coach, also remember that this month many of your younger athletes are coming to the realization that their high school ponds were quite small. Experiencing constructive criticism on a daily basis can present its own set of emotional feedback from them. Without a fully established trust between the coach and the athlete, this is where conflict can come into play so we must build that trust as we give submit advice and lead.
Solution: Try bringing a past player back or have them Skype with the team to discuss their journey. Do your best to identify an alum or two that can engage your athletes on their personal specific story and history of growth. Of course, bringing back prominent players or stat leader alums from the program can be nostalgic, but for this particular message you will want to focus on exposing them to a former "worker bee" athlete who strongly exemplifies and lived the mission during their athletic tenure with your program.
These figures can be immensely helpful in the process of unearthing athlete concerns or drawing out questions they may not attempt to approach you with. This exercise will be a vital set of bricks to lay in your cultural foundation. For your athlete to see and interactwith a living example of what kind of commitment and time is required to develop over four years, will be far more effective than urging your them to "be patient" or consistently reminding them how different they will be when the graduate. Try not to speak in terms that are too far out in time. Their need for immediacy provides them a bit of a blind spot and prevents them from looking anywhere beyond next week. As a result, we must be nimble and scarce with our references to "later in life" or "when you get a real job". These phrases simply become white noise so use with caution or eliminate them if possible.
If you are a newly hired coach and have less familiarity with the alums you have an extra set of challenges getting to know your current athletes. However, consider researching someone local or within the academic community who has overcome a challenge over time. Do some legwork to bring them in to speak with your team about their story. Often gratitude and service can help adjust your team's perspective and help them see more of what goes on outside their own radius.
3. October Physical Challenges
While some athletes negotiate the physical part better than others, the triad of physical challenges for all athletes in October includes sleep, nutrition and hydration.
The average athlete in October is not getting enough sleep, drinking enough water and eating habits tend to be poor. This triple threat is typically something we as leaders preach about in the beginning of the school year but as the semester moves on we forget that it becomes more difficult for the athletes to balance and regulate. As we go deeper into their schedule and timelines, their own self care will fall to the wayside. These are the athletes who begin forgoing a snack before practice because they do not have time and will suffer from low energy. These are the athletes you hear about who are staying up in the library until 2 am and then waking up for weights at 5 am and then heading to class after.
Energy and fall weather attribute so much to your training sessions so being mindful of this can be helpful. Practices for inclement fall weather provide less natural Vitamin D from the sunlight they aren't seeing, so often when practice "feels slow" for us as coaches, chances are, it's dragging for the team as well.
Physical ailment from current or pre-existing injuries will show their scales as October arrives. Nagging injuries are being nursed consistently 6 days a week ranging from tight quads to sprained ankles and ongoing rehab for ACL or longer terms injuries. By October, those watching from the sidelines are officially familiar with their role of observing and while it feels much like the team is moving on without them, we must we must stay on top of these athletes.
Sleep, Nutrition and Hydration: Add a meditation into the first 5 minutes of practice. Incorporating deep breathing can serve as a reset to the day. During these times of temporary rest for the mind, remind your athletes of the benefits of sleep and how it affects their performance, mood and energy level. Repeating the benefits in a meditative, calm state may also help with retaining the message. Nutrition and hydration are just as vital so if you have the resources and capability, invite a professor or athletic department nutritionist to come in and re-charge the team with some new methods of managing diet and water intake better.
Energy and Weather: Talk to your athletes about intentional efforts to manufacture their own energy and help them recognize that practicing slow will lead to slow starts in competition. This will help them understand that coach cares more concerned about preparation than simply complaining about the glacial pace of training.
Physical ailment or injury: Identifying and keeping the motivation and attention up for your injured athletes will be crucial. Helping maintain their focus on their short terms goals with journals or a short weekly meeting can make a world of difference. Elect one or two players as leaders to rotate checking in from a peer to peer perspective so they may be able to assist your staff in understanding more about what the athlete is facing, but may not be to sharing as openly. Work with your athletic trainers and staff to parrot the same language and be supportive while fostering an environment that challenges them in other ways even with physical limitations.
4. October Cultural Challenges
With student-athletes being a subset of the regular population they are expected to handle and balance more. From an emotional standpoint, October also brings in what I like to refer to as the "Post 30-day conflict period". This is the period where your older players who chose to live together on or off-campus suddenly realize that seeing one another 16 out of 24 hours is taking a toll and straining teammate relationships and friendships. Your younger players are now in the thick of October and are trying to figure out how to make it with a roommate or roommates they dislike or are incompatible in lifestyles or schedule. Being half way through fall semester can also bring new challenges within the team when athletes are spending so much time together on buses, out on the practice field, in the locker room, at meals and in study hall.
Solution: Culturally, this is where you as a coach must take the lead. Making your athletes aware in advance of this trend and helping them understand that you SEE their challenges and recognize them will assist them in feeling better equipped to handle this timeframe.
Consider a October "catch-up" dinner or meal where your athletes can share with you their experiences, any doubts and goals. This is a perfect opportunity to be proactive in your pursuit of preparing your athletes for the month of October. Not every team is the same but as this generation requires information and appreciates being in the know more than we ever did, we can get ahead of these October Challenges.
5. Last, your own mental health as a Coach is equally as important.
Just as the students are experiencing the effect of their timelines, by extension we as coaches are as well. October is also a time to be aware of your own mental health.
Remember, so much of what we experience with our team, talk about and learn is compounded with both positive and negative. Their homesickness, their doubt in their skills, their stress over perfection and insatiable desire for immediate results are all parts that get thrown into our workload as leaders. Absorbing this on a daily basis takes it toll and the majority of coaches I know who are willing to talk about it, seldom have time to initiate solutions. Remember, our vibe, presence and demeanor is viral which makes it all the more important for us to take care of ourselves.
When we absorb and exhibit the symptoms of October, our athletes feel it as well. Just like our athletes, we need to know that we are not alone.
Solution: As coaches we must also be aware of the list above from 1-5 in order to be our best for the month of October and beyond.