Mind and Body Matters: Prioritizing Student-Athlete Health!
By Kaitlyn Wahila, Head Coach at Ithaca College
This fall will be my seventh season as the head field hockey coach at Ithaca College. I have been a head coach for 12 years and an assistant coach for five. With my trusty math skills this means I have been coaching for 17 years. I want to start by saying I am not an expert when it comes to mental health and best practices. However, I take pride in my coaching philosophy, which begins with believing the person > the player. Our student-athletes are human, they are people, and they have feelings and emotions and to get the most out of them on the field, it all begins with how you treat them off the field.
How it started…
I wasn’t always this way. I didn’t always focus or care about what mental health was or how it affected the student-athletes I coached. It wasn’t until my Associate Head Coach, Mo Ordnung and Anna Bottino (our then-graduate assistant and current assistant coach at Mount Hokyoke College) and I sat down to discuss our program core values. This was oddly right before the world would shut down. We met in February of 2020 and went through a core value exercise with our Associate Athletics Director. All of us had ‘health’ as a top core value. We collectively decided ‘health’ would be one of our 5 core values, but it needed to encompass not only physical health but mental health. I must give credit where credit is due – Mo Ordnung and Anna Bottino cared first and showed me how important it is to put the health (both physical and mental health) of our student-athletes first. If their mental health is not well, you will simply not get the results you want on the field.
How it’s going…
So, as of 2020, health was one of our core values. This meant our actions needed to speak louder than just having our core values posted in the locker room. It was time to prove to our student-athletes that we cared about them as people. I’d like to fast forward through Covid times (if that’s okay) and chat about what we do now to ensure our student-athletes feel supported with their mental health. We did some fun things over zoom throughout Covid, but that time frame was just rough for all of us 😊 Let’s talk about daily, weekly, bi-weekly things we do to ensure action!
Mental Health Monday Practices (MHMP)-
During our fall season we choose one day (usually it ends up being Mondays until our Liberty League conference season picks up in mid-October) on our calendar and it is a mental health practice day. This means it is on the calendar in advance so our student-athletes know and can plan accordingly. This is a day where Mo and I are on the field coaching half our team for 1 (one) hour and the other half for one (1) hour. We have a ‘D squad’ and an ‘A squad’ on our team and this is usually how we split for MHM practices. We train from 4-6pm, so this means one group will train from 4-5pm while the other group trains from 5-6pm. We used to allow the team to do what they wanted with the extra hour they gained during this time. As you can probably guess, most of them would study and do homework. This is great but we felt like we were missing out on an opportunity. We decided to be purposeful with their additional hour. This year, we made sure their extra hour was time for them to feel supported with their mental health. Here are some things we did with them during their extra hour (as a sidenote, our graduate assistant was with half the team who was working on their mental health):
- Dog day (our GA brought in her roommate’s dog for everyone to meet; it is amazing what animals, but especially cute dogs, will do for people!)
- CAPS (Center for Counseling and Psychological Services) – we brought in the athletic department liaison from CAPS to chat with our team about the resources they provide to students on campus. This was very helpful for our students to know all the services which are offered both in-person, over Zoom, and even in group settings.
- Mental Health Booklet – we created a mental health booklet which is linked HERE! You will find: a mental health game plan, values + reflections exercise, things I am grateful for list, weekly journal prompt, coloring pages (because sometimes we just need to color!) and more!
- Director of Title IX Compliance – we brought our Director of Title IX in to chat with our student-athletes about what they can do if they are the victim of a sexual assault, harassment, or a discrimination.
- Nap time! (Designated nap time with low key music in the locker room)
- Trust walks (get with a teammate and walk + talk)
First-year Mental Health Check-in
We meet with each first-year individually on their move-in day before preseason starts. It is an opportunity for us to get feedback on where they are at in their mental health journey. Each student-athlete is different. Some have a therapist, counselor, or psychologist, and some do not. We have them fill out a Google form with five (5) questions that range from ‘how do you define mental health’ to ‘talk about a few ways you keep your mind healthy.’ This time allows us to get to know our student-athletes as people first!
Individual Bi-weekly Check-in’s
Throughout the year, we meet bi-weekly with our first-years to chat academics, roommates, family, and life! We want to support our student-athletes with their transition from being a senior in high school to a first-year in college who is away from their family.
Throughout the year, we will open up a day to have our student-athletes sign up for a walk. These allow us a moment to check in, get some fresh air, and see how they’re doing.
I am not an expert in mental health. I am not a counselor or a therapist. Sometimes, I don’t know exactly what advice to give or feedback to offer to a student-athlete who is going through a challenging time. But I have two ears, I can listen, and I care. The most important part of any conversation we have in our office with our student-athletes is showing them support and validating what they’re feeling is okay. After all, the person is greater than the player. Show your student-athletes you care about mental health!
About the Author
Kaitlyn Wahila is entering her seventh season as the head coach at Ithaca College. Prior to taking the helm at Ithaca, Wahila was the head coach at Susquehanna University, assistant coach at then-Division I Siena College, and served as a graduate assistant coach at Ithaca College.
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