10 Things Swimmers With Mental Illness Want Their Coaches to Know

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Photo Courtesy: Donna Nelson

By Maddie Strasen, Swimming World College Intern.

Perhaps you struggle with anxiety, depression or another mental illness yourself, or maybe you’re helping a friend through his or her battle. Mental illnesses are no walks in the park themselves, and adding the stress of a sport doesn’t make the struggle any easier. Coaches are often unaware of a swimmer’s mental illness for multiple reasons— the athlete might not talk about it or show symptoms on the pool deck, or perhaps some coaches do not take the issue seriously enough. However, the prevalence of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and various other mental disorders among swimmers should not go unnoticed or unacknowledged.

Here are 10 things swimmers battling mental illness might want their coaches to know.

1. We don’t like it when you compare us to others.

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Photo Courtesy: UVM Athletics

Despite the fact many swimmers before us and around us are working hard and doing a lot of things correctly, comparing us to older siblings, athletes you previously coached or even our peers can be very demeaning. Although you mean well, we already put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect that comparing us to athletes who might be doing something well can crush our spirits. We are motivated by focusing on ourselves and what we can do better, not by what we can do to be more like someone else.

2. We can’t always control our reactions.

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Whether it’s a bad practice, a bad race or just a bad day, sometimes we can’t control how we react. We don’t want to burden people with our tears, anger or other emotions, but we also can’t hold it in all the time. Give us time and space, and let us know you are there for us.

3. We take your words to heart.

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Photo Courtesy: Jean Strasen

Don’t tip-toe around our feelings, but know that we take every word you say seriously. Be honest with us, but try to give us constructive criticism rather than words of anger.

4. We don’t like using our illness as an excuse.

We want to train like the rest of the team. We strive to be the best athletes we can be. We aim to perform to our highest capabilities. We don’t want to have to skip practice, a set or even a single yard, but sometimes we have to. If we ever use our mental illness as an “excuse,” we are serious. Please take it as seriously as we do.

5. We don’t always have an explanation for our emotions.

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Photo Courtesy: Robby Johnston

Sometimes we aren’t sure why we are struggling during a set or a practice, and we don’t know why we feel certain ways. Don’t pressure us to give a reason why we are having a difficult time either in or out of the water. Often times we are just as unsure as you are.

6. It took us a lot just to get here.

Whether we’re talking about simply getting to practice or how far we’ve come as athletes over the years, know that it took us strenuous effort to be here. Getting out of bed to come to morning practice, going to the pool immediately after school and sticking with the sport for so long all took us maximum effort. To show up to practice and accomplish all that we’ve achieved once seemed impossible. Recognize not only the time we’ve invested, but the effort we exert.

7. We appreciate when you reach out to us.

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Photo Courtesy: Kelly Lennon

If we’re quiet at practice, it isn’t because we don’t want to be there. We might be struggling a little more that day, we might not have enough energy or nourishment, or we might need a little time to be in our own heads. We don’t appreciate when you tell us we don’t care, because we do. Don’t bombard us with thousands of questions, but we treasure when you reach out to us. It shows you are noticing changes in our behavior and care about our well-being.

8. Sometimes it’s hard for us to look too far ahead.

It can be scary to look at the upcoming sets in practice. It can be even more terrifying to look ahead on long-term goals. We understand it’s necessary, but sometimes it’s gut-wrenching. Give us time to process.

9. We are here for a reason.

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Photo Courtesy: Kim Canfield

We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want to be here.

10. We are trying.

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Photo Courtesy: UVM Athletics

Not only are we trying our hardest in practice, training, races and school, we are trying our hardest to cope with life-altering circumstances. We are frequently biting off more than we can chew and putting forth more effort than we ever thought was possible. We do not take a single second for granted. We hope you realize that.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

16 comments

  1. April Smith

    These are true for every swimmer. You don’t need to have mental illness to want to be treated with respect and understanding

    • April Smith

      Phan Nguyen Thanh Tri that’s a weird reply. I read every word of the article. I feel like most of it is true of my 5 swim team children and none of them have mental health issues. Sometimes everyone can’t control their emotional reactions to being yelled at, sometimes it took all we had to get it together to come to the pool today and we don’t have mental illness, sometimes we need criticism to come without yelling or put downs. I mean you don’t have to have mental illness to want people to be understanding of your ups and downs and to treat you with respect. Possibly you might want to read your comment and consider whether you were considerate and understanding in your response, and apologize or reword?

      • avatar
        Mary

        Good for you for having five children who are not saddled with mental illness. And yes, everyone deserves to be treated with respect as described in the article. But you are missing the point. Having a mental illness is like carrying an added burden around with you each and every day, and the burden is invisible to everyone. The author is not talking about the normal stuff like not wanting to go to practice every now and then. Imagine if one of your children had to carry an added invisible burden with them every single day. Perhaps you might want to share this article with your children and ask them if they know anyone who may be struggling? Perhaps they can be a leader and reach out and show some compassion. You are blessed to have children who don’t seem to struggle in this way. If they did, I don’t think you would have commented they way you did.

    • avatar
      Michael Carlson

      VERY WELL SAID!!!

  2. Jesse Morenus

    it bothers me to know that my coaches growing up and into college saw my mental illness as something made up. Grrr

  3. Camille Cassatt

    I agree with April Smith. Although these may be more magnified for someone with mental illness or disability, all of these ring true at one time or another for even the “normal” swimmer.

  4. Neil Morgan

    This is a nice article, but I couldn’t help feeling like the mental illness being discussed was somehow well defined and that all people with mental illness feel similar feelings. Although, it’s probably hard to avoid that in an article of this format.

  5. Rose Beltran

    Mental illness and other disabilities that are imperceptible (neurological conditions that don’t manifest in a blatant manner) because the swimmer chooses not to “use” the condition as an excuse (just as the article states) can be substantially debilitating at any given time. Respect is paramount, as is support and understanding that not every swimmer may reach the goal on the same timeline, some may take an extra year to get there. Without a doubt there are coaches who don’t recognize the differences or support the effort of the swimmer who has to work against all odds to reach their goals.

  6. avatar
    S. Stalder

    My daughter has a chronic illness , POTS and Mast Cell Disorder. Both are invisible illnesses. All would apply to her. Good article!

    • avatar
      Emma S.

      I am a swimmer and have POTS, Chronic Fatigue, and Depression. The points in this article ring true for athletes suffering from disabilities. I have struggled with depression for years because I have not been able to swim at the level I want to be swimming at. However, swim practice has always been a place where I can come and try my best to feel normal. My teammates and coaches sometimes forget that I am sick because I push myself too hard and always stay positive during tough sets. I think it’s great that mental health is becoming a more recognized issue for coaches. I wish that my coach had reached out to me once in a while just so that I felt like he cared about the stress of my chronic illness. They don’t call it invisible for a reason—you never truly know what a swimmer is going through mentally. Swimming should start to target whole-body health and not just achievement in the pool.

  7. avatar
    Susan

    When I first read the article, I also thought..” wow, this applies to every athlete I have ever coached”.it is generic, so very relatable by most every athlete reading it..I feel that athletes with mental illness should obviously be under the care of a professional, and that the coach should be made aware of any meds or treatment plans the swimmer is taking..just like any athlete with a chronic disease..coaches are not clinical pschologists, nor are they psychiatrists..and in a group of 20 to 50 swimmers, they give their all..and no, they will not meet all those needs stated..no person can..not the parents, doctors, or coaches..dealing with mental illness, depression, bi polar, etc is very difficult. The great thing about the article is talking about it..and to the swimmer living with mental illness..talk to your coach!!!

    • avatar
      Mary

      Agree, Susan, the great thing is that this has started a conversation. It sounds like you are a great coach but sadly there are many coaches out there who don’t understand how their comments and behaviors can cause harm. Commenting on weight for example, or comparing one athlete to another. Or showing favoritism by not applying rules equally across the board. These practices harm everyone, but for those battling mental illness, they can be triggering or contribute to fears, insecurities and can harm self esteem. The article is worded in such a positive way, if coaches would apply these suggestions for sure everyone would benefit.