Coaching an athlete on the importance of physical and mental health [Guest Post]
The “10,000 hour rule” is a rule proposed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. It suggests that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to truly master a skill such as playing the piano, chess or playing a sport, such as swimming. Today, adolescent athletes are working longer and harder than ever before to get the competitive edge. But it is not always fun and games when training an elite athlete. At some point, most elite athletes struggle with a setback, whether it be a physical injury or a mental roadblock. Coaches must make sure certain actions are taken before these roadblocks can occur.
Coaches need to be conscious of the physical stress their athletes may experience. They must always educate the athletes on proper technique and the importance of alerting a coach when something doesn’t feel right. I have coached athletes that push through the pain and brush it off, not alerting the coaches to the issue. They are afraid, perhaps, of taking time off or having to tone down their training. On the other hand, I have coached athletes who alert their coach when they experience aches and pains. Coaches need to educate and remind their athletes to have a free flowing stream of communication in regards to any aches or pains that occur. If this does not happen, the swimmer can hit rock bottom and will be unable to train on a daily basis. The physical damage may have already been done to a point of no repair. Physical injury can be preventable, but it also will be inevitable at some point. It is the coach’s responsibility to ensure that athletes know that it is okay to talk to their coach about how they feel.
Some may view a student athlete’s mental health as second to their physical health. However, it is every bit as important. The mind and body go hand-in-hand, so, as a coach, it is important to support both. A good coach should be able to sense when an athlete is beginning to suffer mental stress. Whether it stems from time management or confidence issues, mental stress can be even more harmful to an athlete’s career than physical stress. Often an athlete leaves the house around 6:00 a.m. and will not return home until after dark. Frequently, an athlete will spend the school day thinking about practice and then think about school work during practice. The results can be damaging and it is not uncommon for athletes to shed a few tears because of the pressure. A good coach will always value the phrase “student athlete” where the “student” leads the “athlete.” It is important to remind the athlete that it is OK to take a step back from a sport to organize the other areas in life, whether that means academic, personal or physical. Good mental health sets the stage for peak performance. When stress is well managed, it is easier to focus on performance.
It is also important to coach the parent on the importance of health and sport. Depending on the age and personality of the athlete, it is sometimes more important to educate the parents than the athlete on these rules. When the athlete has a support system of people who have a consistent positive message, they become mentally and physically sound and begin to excel in all areas of their life.
About the author
Chad Onken is the YMCA of the Triangle Area (YOTA) Head Coach and Director of Competitive Swimming. Primarily known for the discovery and development of world record holder, NCAA Champion, and 2008/2012 US Olympic Gold Medalist Cullen Jones, Chad has almost 15 years of successful coaching experience throughout age group, high school, YMCA, and NCAA championship swimming. In addition to being a Level 5 certified coach (top 2 – 5 percent in the profession) by the American Swimming Coaches Association, Chad is also a four-time recipient of the ASCA “Award for Coaching Excellence.” Chad oversees the entire program and is responsible for the day to day coaching of the Platinum training group.
Chad graduated from Florida State University in 1999 after helping the swimming team achieve several top twelve finishes at the NCAA Championships. Chad moved to Raleigh in 2000 as the Head Assistant Coach and Recruiting Coordinator at NC State University. In addition to his regular on-deck duties for the Wolfpack, Onken played an instrumental role in the strength and conditioning, team building, mental training, nutritional education and academic development of the swimmers at N.C. State.
While at N.C. State, Chad was the primary coach responsible for developing one USA Swimming National “B” Team Member, six US Olympic Trial qualifiers, six NCAA All-Americans, six ACC Champions, 10 school record holders, and five top 100 World Ranked athletes. Furthermore, Onken served as the Head Coach for the N.C. State Aquatics Team during the summertime, where two of his athletes represented the United States in international competition. Chad was also very involved with the Athletes In Action program.
After five years at N.C. State, Coach Onken became the Assistant Swimming Coach at national powerhouse Auburn University. During his stint with the Tigers, Onken helped the team capture both the men’s and women’s 2006 NCAA team championship titles. In addition to various administrative and recruiting duties, Chad helped coach seven NCAA Champions, 34 NCAA All-Americans, 13 SEC Champions and 13 Auburn school record-holders.