Let me preface this article with the fact that I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor. These are my opinions based on battling mental illness alongside my son for the past 4.5 years. I will also add that these are knowledge nuggets applicable to my child. While he has mental illness on a greater scale than some and a lesser scale than others, I believe these few tips may help all coaches should they experience the honour of working with a kid with mental illness.
Why is working with a kid with mental illness an honour? I may be a little biased, but if you have a child with mental illness on your bench (there will be a lot of hockey references, as that as my child’s sport of choice for the most part – but would be applicable to most sports), you have a kid that fights to be there. You have a kid that truly wants to participate. Otherwise, they’d be home and not fighting for their life to play with their team. If you have a kid like that – that’s an honour and one I hope you don’t overlook.
One more thing before we get started – and this is critical – mental illness has no “face”…you cannot tell what a child may be going through – so if something seems different, ask.
Because this is the face of anxiety:
This is the face of anxiety:
And this is the face of anxiety:
1. Don’t be scared.
My son and I are very open about his mental illness. I truly understand what a gift that is from him. His openness to communicate about what he goes through allows exceptional awareness and education to those around him. Please don’t start immediately worrying that he’s a bomb about to go off as soon as you hear “the news”.
He’s not. Well…he is…but we have strategies to help him. If you find out a child on your bench has a mental illness, try to fend off the stigma you may have surrounding it and learn more. Which brings me to…
2. Trust the player’s parents.
With my son’s openness about his anxiety and panic disorder, we have pretty incredible communication with his coaches, teammates and parents. We both recognize that when you learn that he battles anxiety, it may be somewhat intimidating for you.
Let me help you. Anxiety, which may lead to panic attacks can look quite different for every child. Some kids may come off as loud and obnoxious. Some kids may become very quiet. For some kids, like my child, it’s far more visible. For my son, he hyperventilates, shifts his body back and forth, cries, often times he yells, sometimes he throws a glove (but that’s when it’s just him and I) and in that state, there is no reasoning with him. He is very busy “fighting tigers” in his brain.
So, trust the parents of the child battling to know what to do. They most likely have years of living with their child battling anxiety and know what to do. If they ask you to do something – do it. If they ask you to not do something – don’t do it. It’s that simple.
You MUST communicate with your player’s parents. We may ask you to check in with them. We may ask you to give them a fist bump. Or we may ask you stay away for a few minutes. Please know – at that moment – we are very focused on our child and we know exactly what they need, or to be as honest and open as possible, we sure hope we know what we’re doing.
Keep communication wiiiiiiiiiide open. Always.
3. Please know they want to be there.
This one is a toughie for most anyone to understand. When people see my child in the middle of a panic attack, I see the judgment. I see you watching us and thinking “WTH is wrong with that kid?” “If he wants to get on the ice, why doesn’t he just get on the ice?”. Or, “why doesn’t he just go home if this is so hard”?
Good question. Short answer – he really truly wants to get on that bloody ice but at that moment, anxiety has taken control and his brain won’t actually let him.
He wants to be there or he wouldn’t be fighting so hard.
One of the “best” things my son does is “allow” himself to panic anywhere. Although it truly suuuuuuucks, it allows people (coaches, parents, teammates) to see just what he is up against. He will yell things like:
“DON’T YOU THINK I WANT TO BE OUT THERE?”
“I WOULD GIVE ANYTHING TO BE OUT THERE RIGHT NOW”
“YOU WOULDN’T LAST A DAY IF YOU HAD TO LIVE THE LIFE I LIVE!”
And you know what? He’s right. He battles hard to get on that ice every single time. Every time he does step foot onto the ice, he gives me a shimmy-shake to let me know he’s okay. I live for those shimmy-shakes.
If you ever question if one of your players battling anxiety wants to be there – they do. Some days anxiety wins and we don’t manage to overcome. Some days (most day now after a lot of hard work) my son wins and he hits the ice, shimmy-shakes, and it is GAME ON.
4. Don’t baby them.
There may be a tendency to hold back on coaching a child with anxiety/panic disorder. I get that. You’ve just seen him panic for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour – however long the attack went on. But, if the player wins the battle – give them a bop on the head, tell them you’re so happy to have them on the ice – and PUT THEM TO WORK.
Exercise and distraction, baby – they’re your best friends when it comes to coaching a child with a mental illness. Exercise to release hormones and distraction to well – distract the brain.
Don’t ever, ever baby them. Sure, your tone may need to be a little different. But the expectation of hard work, completing drills and being on the same level as other players – that’s critical. Don’t treat them differently. Sure, they just ran a marathon during their panic attack – but they’re there, so make them work.
5. Show compassion, give them a job, make them laugh.
I often get asked by coaches what they can do to help my son. The above three tasks would help immensely. Acknowledge how terrible what he just went through was. It helps to know you saw it, don’t ignore it, say something like – “Yow! That was something! I’m soooooooo happy you’re here!”. Tell him you’re proud to have him there, then get him to do something. Again – jobs distract. It helps a ton.
Once I have my son on the ice, if you acknowledge that he’s a rockstar and give him a job, we’re usually good to go. Make him laugh, be silly, bop him on the head, pretend to trip him – all those things – distraction and a release of joy for him help. Making him laugh is a huuuuuuuge help. Be silly. Be fun – if only for a moment.
The above three things are critical to you helping a player with anxiety.
6. Please don’t ask us to put our child in a place we know they will fail.
This goes back to trusting the parents again, but I felt it needed its own section. If we know a team photo will cause a panic attack – please don’t ask us to ask them to do it. Because they’ll trip into panic and set off an attack.
If we know asking them to wear new socks will cause a panic attack. Please don’t ask us to do it. Because we’re setting the player up for failure if we do and in the end, the player has to battle and the parent will feel like a terrible parent for weeks because she should have stood up for her son.
So, if a parent says “if you ask me to ask them to do this, it’ll cause a panic attack” – know we don’t say that lightly. Know that we know our child better than anyone else. Ask yourself if what you’re asking of the child is TRULY critical, or if it’s a “nice-to-have”. If it’s critical, I will work with my child, battle the panic attack, win and then feel guilty that I put him through that for weeks. If it is not critical… please, please, please don’t ask us to ask our child what it is you want. Let it go.
7. Help educate your team.
There’s a great initiative that started in BC called Buddy Check for Jesse. There are resources and coaches notes on the Buddy Check website on how to talk to your team about mental health challenges. I strongly suggest you go to the website, download the resources and talk to your entire team in the dressing room about what it means to be a good teammate both on and off the ice.
This doesn’t have to be a huge speech, a little education goes a long, long way.
And, it goes without saying – probably best to not point out the child who battles mental illness – LOL. Most of the team will be well aware of the child that has attacks like my child has – but other kids may battle silently and it sure would be nice for those quiet kids to know that they are also supported by their coach and teammates.
8. Last but not least – give yourself a break.
If coaching a player with a mental illness is new to you – be kind to yourself. You’re going to question what you did that may have created a panic attack. You’re going to question if you provided enough support. You’re going to question if getting them on the ice was the right thing. You’re going to question anything that creates a reaction from the player who battles.
As a parent who has had incredible coaches for my son but who has also had coaches who have worked with my son and who just don’t quite “get it” just yet…if you’re at least trying to understand, I am grateful. ANYTHING you try to do to help our child deserves our gratitude, our praise and our respect.
You’re going to feel like you’ve failed your player at some point, I guarantee it. You’re going to feel like you could have done something better, different, with better results, with more compassion. Please know you couldn’t have. You did the best you could at the moment you had – YOU tried to understand.
As a parent, if I see a coach TRY to understand my child, TRY to encourage him, TRY to understand what he goes through – you get a gold star for coaching.
The player may sometimes be able to tell you what they need. But some times they may not be able to tell you. Rely on the parents then. We are their safe place – as are you – but we have been working with them a little longer. Trust your gut.
The best tip I have for you, Coaches, is to keep communication open between yourself, the player and the players’ parents.
And always, always, always ask questions should you have them.
Hey, Coaches – you are THE BOMB. You have the power to change the way kids and youth view mental illness in sport. YOU have that power. I hope you take an opportunity to learn more because if you haven’t already, at some point in your coaching career you will absolutely, 100%, positively meet a child battling and they are going to need you, as will their parents.