I just finished reading Kate Fagan’s book What Made Maddie Run. One of my player’s goals this summer is to read this book, so I read it too. The book uncovers the months leading up to a college freshmen’s decision to take her own life. It is unsurprisingly heart-breaking, but also invaluable to getting coaches to develop empathy and steps to helping players suffering from mental illness.
Transitioning to Higher Competition and Commitment
The longer players stay in athletics, the stiffer the competition becomes, and the higher the price of commitment becomes on the athlete. Along this continuum, the original joy and passion for playing the sport often erodes. That does not mean that sports are necessarily joyless. There are many athletes that thrive on competition, and for them the stress is a healthy addiction. The media celebrates these athletes as champions and heroes. They are the Tom Brady and Michael Jordan types. On the contrary, there are also athletes that begin to view the sport more as an obligation rather than a passion.
As the commitment level increases, coaches should be mindful of athletes reestablishing their attitude toward the sport. Transitioning from town level to club sports or middle school to high school involve the athlete spending more time and energy than they originally were investing. The jump from high school athletics to college athletics is even more intense. New friend groups emerge on campus, the academic structure is radically different, and an adolescent is often separated from his or her family and community for the first time. As a consequence of these simultaneous transitions, athletes are confronted with making difficult choices about where their time goes. One choice is to quit playing the sport altogether.
Obligation Versus Passion
The financial well-being of coaches is dependent on the athletes. These coaches are mindful of all that is encompassed in the transition, but they also have a job to do. Most coaches do whatever they legally can do to help their athletes gain a competitive edge. Some coaches even apply illegal methods to gain a competitive edge. And much of that means stripping the athlete’s precious free time. Not surprisingly, many freshmen collegiate athletes compare playing a sport to having a job.
Growing up playing a sport was a choice, but as a result of the daily commitments to dieting, training, and extracurricular decisions it eventually becomes all-consuming. The author Daniel Pink has done extensive research on the psyche of people as it relates to autonomy. He wrote in his book Drive about misplaced goals. “Failing to understand this conundrum – that satisfaction depends not merely on having goals, but on having the right goals – can lead sensible people down self-destructive paths.” Many collegiate athletes make the choice to walk away as a result of decreased autonomy in their lifestyles. Other athletes want to quit, but see too much of their identity wrapped up in being an athlete.
Coaches need to pay attention to the athlete’s body language. The mentality that a sport is an obligation is devastating to a player, and eventually trickles down to the team as well.
Awareness of Mental Illness
One statistic jumped out to me regarding mental illness from What Made Maddie Run. “Some 28 percent of female student-athletes and 21 percent of males reported feeling depressed, while 48 percent of female student-athletes and 31 percent of males reported feeling anxious. Approximately 14 percent said they had seriously considered suicide, with 6 percent saying they had attempted it.” On a twelve-person team, that indicates that half the team is anxious, three to four players are depressed, and two have seriously considered suicide.
In Maddie’s case, as I was reading I really believe her coach was fair in his approach with her. He gave her a week off and continually encouraged her. Even with her mother in attendance at a meeting where she intended to quit, Maddie stayed on the team. The issues that Maddie had went way beyond athletics. Her tragic death might have happened even if she quit the track team.
If anyone in her life could have convinced her to seek professional help, it may have saved her life. Coaches are not mental health professionals by any means, but they can be mental health advocates. Simply being aware of the statistics will help me better develop empathy for athletes that I am around going forward. As coaches who spend so much time with these athletes it is critical to communicate. Seeking and receiving help is normal, smart, and will serve student-athletes past their academic or athletic careers.