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Giving the Second Chance: Open Mind, Arms to Struggling Student-Athletes

By Steve Amaro on July 17, 2017 Coaches

We’ve all had them – we get together at coaches meetings or social gatherings with friends and share stories of our successes. Nostalgia hits us as we emphasize the great seasons and relationships we’ve created among our student-athletes. These are the moments that inspire us to coach; to impact the lives of youth in ways that propel them to greatness long after they have left our scope of influence. Most of these players come to our programs willingly, sharing our goals and beliefs. Sometimes they come in such numbers that we create sets of criteria for them, making the decision easier for us to cut or keep players; however, many of us also have stories about the group of student-athletes who challenge our values, who may not fit the traditional mold of athletics. People close to our programs may even describe them as detrimental to the success of where we intend to go and this brings us to make the pivotal decision, do we cut them or keep them? Before we get to the answer, we may want to consider those students from a different perspective; there are some students that need us more than we can possibly imagine.

A Nation of Change and Survival

The old expression that has become quite commonplace is that youth today have no respect for the traditions of the past. Very few students feel comfortable holding a conversation over the phone, yet can be intimately glued to a 4-inch screen chatting with people around the world. They are quick to criticize and can’t find effective ways to work towards solutions. They come from diverse backgrounds where one or both parents (if they have parents) may work long hours and not have time to build solid foundations of trust and mutual respect. What I have found more times than not, is that some of our athletes today are searching for ways to make connections – they want to understand how to succeed, but don’t know the best way and have never been taught how to appropriately communicate their intentions.

When these students come to our programs, they can present challenges. Students in these types of backgrounds may have had to learn a lot of survival skills by themselves and so the natural order they create may look drastically different from our own. They know how to navigate their world to survive, but they don’t know how to navigate the norms of the established world to be successful. When we give these students a chance to become part of our team, we are transforming their lives; but to expect them to conform to our best intentions at all times would be foolhardy. Part of being a teenager is to experiment with being an adult and to test the limitations of their environments.

As coaches, many of us give out team rules to give students structure. We expect our athletes to follow the rules; however, we need to consider this may be the first time some students have experienced any need to follow a rule. Talk to any high school administrator and they’ll be able to identify the students that cause problems on campus. They know them on a first name basis. Is it because these students don’t like to follow the rules that they know them, or is it possible the only relationship they have developed with an adult mentor they feel cares about them may be the dean of discipline at a school? When we engage in this type of reflection, when we consider our athletes actions from this lens, we may become better leaders in our programs.

The Science Behind Frustration ... Open the lines of communication

There are many reasons athletes become frustrated and engage in negative behavior and this article won’t make you an expert, but there are some generalities to understand that can help us. Trauma plays a big role in how our youth act today. Some students may be exposed to broken family relationships, abuse, and even witness physical violence. All of these play a role, especially in the development of our youth. Scientifically, we know when people are put in traumatic situations, a specific part of the brain (the amygdala) takes over. This part of the brain controls the “fight or flight” responses and literally shuts down the parts of the brain that engage in higher order thinking. I can think of no better example of this than in a basketball game. The coach brings in a player. The player runs the court for a few minutes and is everywhere except where he/she is supposed to be. The coach pulls the player out and asks, “What were you thinking?” The player may or may not respond, but more than likely at this particular moment, this individual couldn’t answer rationally, especially if the amygdala has taken over. What the coach may not know was what happened before the game during the school day, or the night before at home, or in the community in general. All of these instances may play a role in performance of our athletes and is something we need to consider.

So can you overcome the fight or flight response? Absolutely, but we need three things: an environment of trust, communication, and time. We need to ask students about their days before events to learn what they are facing and help them learn how to address their experiences professionally. When we give our students tools to compartmentalize their experiences, we free them to try out new things. Once coaches have created an environment of trust and communication, they also need to be aware of the situations when students’ past experiences are influencing their practices and games. When the amygdala takes hold of our responses, on average it takes 20 minutes for the thinking portion of your brain to reengage. Instead of asking the question, “What were you thinking,” tell the student to take a few minutes by walking around the court with a question about “how they can better contribute to the team.” This can be followed up with a later conversation about the specific time of play or actions the coaches want to address.

Rules are Equal, but are they Equitable?

Throughout the nation coaches have athletes that are sometimes late. The rule infraction may include a correction of running a lap, extra practice, or something else sport specific. To most of our athletes, this is a visible form of equality; everyone is treated the same. This works for most students, but should it be the only rule? If a student is late because of a car accident does it make a difference? This may seem too extreme of an example, but we should have conversations with students about equity. Athletes need to know that they are treated equally, but they also need to know that not all actions are equitable. We need to create trusting bonds with all of our athletes so they know that when we deviate from the prescribed actions of a rule that they can trust that coaches will exercise the correct action for the individual and team. As a coach, when I have a student that asks me about another’s actions, I tell them they have to trust me. I have, however, also shared with my athletes that when I use the term “trust,” they know I am dealing with something that may be private for their teammate. This allows all the athletes to succeed in a setting that is mutually supportive.

Answering the Role of Mentor

Coaches are more than just X’s and O’s. We are adult mentors for our youth. How we take interest in our students, respond to them, and discipline them can give them greater chances of success. When we provide guidance, effectively communicate, and take interest in all the facets of our athletes lives we impact them in ways that shape their future. When we face those athletes with challenging personalities, we may quite possibly be saving their lives while teaching them how to be successful.