Just Ask

food for thought

In the past few weeks, five college athletes have taken their own lives.  

Katie, Robert, Jayden, Sarah, Lauren all succumbed to an overwhelming moment they could not endure.  As a coach, as a father, the tributes circulating on social media prompt sadness, grief, and fear.  And another realization never far from my mind.

They could have played for me.

When we hear about the rapid increase in teen depression, anxiety, and self-harm it seems like our young people are growing up in foreign world.  If you were born before 1985, they most certainly are.

I am old enough to remember when phones were still attached to the wall, I was the family’s remote control, and we had to wait for pictures to be developed before we could find out if anyone liked them.  We played Mario Kart on Friday nights in Andrew Hussey’s basement without a screen in our pocket to notify us of what the cool kids were doing instead.  It was truly a different world.

The book What Made Maddy Run opened my eyes to what it’s like to be a teenager in today’s world.  Author Kate Fagan tells the tragic story of Maddy Holleran, a 4.0 student and 800m state champion who struggled with the transition to college athletics and ultimately took her own life before her second semester of college.  We had Fagan on the podcast to talk about Maddy’s story and the mental health challenges our student athletes face on Episode 138 & 139.

As a coach, I find myself caught between hopefulness and helplessness.  I am hopeful that sports can provide an outlet, a safe haven, a place of love and acceptance.  At the same time, I feel helpless, never feeling confident that what we are doing is enough.

The good news is that the research makes it clear - our efforts to connect matter.  Immensely.

Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey co-authored a book called What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.  After unpacking the brain science behind trauma’s effect on the brain, Oprah challenges us to see the other person:

When you’re able to really see another person, that’s true compassion, and extending yourself in compassion to another human being changes the nature of our relationships, our communities, and our world.

Jordan Nicholson, a sports psychologist and counselor at the University of Mississippi, echoes this sentiment.  She cautions that too many talented athletes have grown up surrounded by people who care only about what they do and not who they are.  

Julie Amato, a sports psychologist at Elite Mindset Sports and Princeton University, says most all we need to treat student-athletes as “humans first and foremost.” 

“We need to ask about their life outside of sport, show that you care about them and are invested in them regardless of how they perform athletically.” 

If you’re wondering how your athletes are doing, just ask.

Every couple weeks I try to check-in with each of our players with a simple message: “Catch me up to speed since we last connected. What’s the best and worst of your current state of life?”

Sometimes this leads to a longer conversation, most of the time it does not, but it reminds our players that they are seen, and that we care about their life outside of basketball.  

Vanderbilt lacrosse player Cailin Bracken recently wrote a Letter to College Sports where she discussed the pressures and expectations that many college athletes struggle with.  On a corresponding instagram post her call to action was simple:







It may not feel adequate, but the effort is not for you.  The truth is, we may never know when it mattered most.

Food for thought.

Nate Sanderson, TOC Mentor and Co-Host of the Coaching Culture Podcast

[email protected]  

Twitter @CoachNSanderson

Further Reading

There’s a Mental Health Crisis in College Sports, I Know It First Hand, The Washington Post

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