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10 Tips For Emotionally Supporting Athletes, Right Now

by Linda Flanagan


Fall sports are all over the place. Some teams are moving full speed ahead, fingers crossed; others have cancelled in advance, to short-circuit the misery; most are edging forward gradually, crafting contingency plans, developing hybrid practice models, and trying to stay on top of the news, especially anything Covid-related. As much as the uncertainty rattles coaches, it’s even more challenging for kids, many of whom rely on their sports teams for…everything: friendship, exercise, consistency, fun, motivation, competition, and for some, a sense of family.

While COVID-19 has decimated sports schedules and upended practice plans, coaches retain the power to help kids grow. Now more than ever, children and teenagers need responsible adults in their lives who can model good behavior and act as bulwarks against the chaos. If you got into coaching to help kids, you may be having your greatest impact now. Here are ten ways coaches can support their athletes, with thanks to these experts and practitioners who shared their counsel: Megan Bartlett, founder of We Coach; Bobbi Moran, athletic director at Kent Place School; Ashley Quinn, high-school lacrosse coach; Richard Weissbourd, co-director of Making Caring Common at Harvard; and all the good people at the Aspen Institute Project Play.

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1. Check-in regularly

You can do this through group texts and emails with the whole team or with team captains. (But texts and emails between you and a single player should be avoided, in keeping with the need to maintain appropriate boundaries.) Demonstrate sincere interest without fixating on how they’re managing their workouts. Don’t be afraid to ask, “How are you feeling? How can I help?”

2. Create and uphold routines

To the extent you can, develop procedures for the team that they can count on, as you would in ordinary times. These could include a warm-up and cool-down series, regular drills, a weekly strategy talk, etc. Give them predictability when it’s lacking everywhere else.

3. over-communicate

Tell players what you know, what you don’t know, when you might know, and what you expect will happen in the weeks ahead. Being mum during these times will only generate worry and invite conflict. Keep parents in the loop, too.

4. Be honest and reassuring.

Uncertainty and change are the guiding principles of the time, in sports and everywhere else. Your players will know they can count on you if you’re truthful, especially about the unknowables, while also projecting competence. About new hygiene procedures, for example, you might say, “We don’t know exactly how this is going to work, but we’ll follow the guidelines as best we can and modify them as the situation evolves. We’ll figure this out together.”

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5. Help them connect with teammates.

Kids join teams to play and compete with their friends; sports are inherently social. Coaches can encourage team connection several ways: For squads that are meeting in-person, include time at the end of practice for kids to talk amongst themselves. (Coaches: listen, but let them lead.) For teams trapped online, hold Zoom workouts. Set up Google hangouts or Zoom gatherings just for players. Assign a sports movie for all to watch and then discuss, virtually if necessary. Invite individuals to share their workouts as a way to inspire others.

6. Encourage athletes to focus on what’s controllable.

Feeling out-of-control provokes dread, a miserable sensation that the pandemic, with all its suffering and mystery, just intensifies. Coaches can help ease their players’ anxiety by discussing all that kids do control: when they wake, when they go to bed, what they eat, their time on screens, their time with friends. Help them seize what’s in their power and remind them that despite the chaos they still have agency.

7. Recognize that kids’ pandemic experience varies.

For some, the quarantine has been just a hassle—an annoying disruption of routine and forced family time. For others, it has been a profoundly traumatic experience, possibly involving the death or illness of a family member, economic hardship, hunger, and even homelessness. Coaches need to be sensitive to the range of hardship kids have been through and adjust their conduct accordingly.

8. Keep it fun.

Kids’ top reason for playing sports is to have fun. Do your part and prioritize the enjoyment to be had in sports. With so many championship games already cancelled, and fall schedules up-in-the-air, there’s no better time to get back to this core principle. It’s what kids want and need.

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9. Give your competitive athletes some TLC.

For kids in high school with hopes of playing in college, the cancellation of entire seasons and termination of big competitions has been especially upsetting. Coaches can remind players that all competitive athletes face the same obstacles and disappointments, and then work together to craft a training plan that will sharpen skills and address weaknesses. In some individual sports like running, where hard training is still possible, coaches can help athletes focus on long-term goals, beyond any particular season.

10. Help them take the long view.

Remind them that this too shall pass. As disruptive as the quarantine has been to kids’ sports pursuits, it’s likely a blip in their lives as athletes. If they’re truly committed to their sport, young athletes will be playing for many years to come.

Linda Flanagan, a PCA Chapter Board Member and supporter, is an avid runner and former high-school cross-country coach. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Should Kids Play Sports? to be published by Portfolio/Penguin Random House. You can follow Linda on Twitter @LindaFlanagan2.