Experts: coaches need to better take into account student-athletes’ mental health

Published: May. 13, 2022 at 7:06 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Mental health experts say students-athletes face a lot of stress, but there are ways coaches, schools and parents can help fix that before it becomes a problem.

Jay Mascardo, an Iowa City West junior, played on a state championship contender last season. She decided not to come back to the team because she says she felt bullied by her coach, Amie Villarini. She said Villiarini didn’t take her mental health into account.

“With my other coaches, they never had to demand respect,” Mascardo said. “They would always respect me and I would never feel obligated to respect them back. I already did.”

Three mental health experts say that building trust with coaches and players starts early.

“This starts at the beginning of the season with expectations and culture,” said Jenn Starkey, an author and speaker who works with youth athletes and coaches.

“It starts on the very first day just kind of laying out what our culture is,” said Alicia Smith, a softball coach who founded a mental performance company.

“I always go back to like really establishing norms, what can a coach or walking a player expect being on this team,’ said Maggie Hartzler, the director of clinical services at Tanager Place.

Starkey says coaches can unwittingly hurt athletes.

“In most cases coaches are not intending to come across malicious,” Starkey said. “It’s coming from a place of trying to get the most out of an athlete and sometimes can be interpreted or sometimes is crossing the line into unhealthy communication.”

Alicia Smith has won state titles, but she says she tries to acknowledge the mental health of her players before worrying about their performance on the field. She also said the she has to acknowledge mental health more than in the past.

“I think as a coach our responsibility is to make sure, first and foremost, health and safety. That includes mental health now, way more than it has in the past and that’s a change in my career,” she said. “Nothing else matters on the field unless we can help them through some of this other stuff too.”

Starkey says coaches often are the best people for an athlete to come to if they’re struggling, but coaches aren’t always prepared for that.

“They don’t feel as equipped as they need to be to be able to have those life conversations with athletes,” she said. “Time has been minimized practice availability has been minimized, there are already under they have limited resources.”

All three experts say being an adult in a student’s life gives coaches an opportunity to build a strong bond. West High senior Caroline Mascardo says it’s vital for coaches to build that bond in the future.

“I would love to see more coaches take more initiative in building a space where people feel safe,” Mascardo said. “(Where they feel) understood. Like they are heard.”

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