The Tough Conversation

There’s one frequent question that always finds its way to me from coaches, parents, and athletes when it comes to mental fitness: ‘How do I talk to an athlete about getting help with mental performance or mental health?’

Mental health is a tough subject for many. Well-meaning folks who are concerned about a person’s well-being often ask how to approach that conversation because no one wants to make it worse for anyone who is struggling with mental health. It can be one of the toughest conversations you have with a person.

So, what do you say? What do you do? 

First, I encourage you to check in with yourself. Be aware of the mental toughness myths that hook you. The myths make the conversations difficult because we are afraid a person we approaching might hear the wrong thing. Instead of hearing the well-intended desire to help, the myths suggest these conversations will come across more negative in nature. If you believe the mental toughness myths, telling someone they may need help may mean you are telling them they are damaged, weak, unfixable, soft or psycho. If they believe the mental toughness myths it may be even harder. No wonder such a conversation would be difficult.  

Also, you should be prepared to listen. If you are judgmental, dismissive, shaming, or angry or offer simple solutions like ‘cheer up’, ‘it’s a phase, you ‘ll get over it’, you may make things worse. 

When you have the conversation, you’ll likely hear the myths in response.

A few other tips when approaching the tough conversation of mental health:

  1. Make sure your talk is mostly private (though it may be necessary to have two coaches present). Let them know you care and want to have an important conversation.  
  2. Lead with, ‘I have noticed you have not been yourself lately’.  Tell them what you have noticed and why it concerns you.  
  3. Let them know that it is normal to struggle. Normalize seeking professional help by talking about your own experiences with a professional, or pointing out athletes who have (Michael Phelps, Simone Biles are very public examples). Google athletes and mental health, you will find at least one specific to your sport and be surprised .
  4. Share that you believe they can change. Remind them that they are capable of more. Frame seeking help as an investment to build skills to enhance athletic training.

If you want to learn more about the importance of mental health in athletics, watch this video about Madison Holleran.