This week I completed my application to recertify my USA Triathlon coach license. Part of the preparation in addition to attending courses and seminars involves signing an agreement of the USA Olympic and Paralympic code and USA Triathlon best practices. One of those practices is the coach knowing when to refer an athlete to another professional in the best interest of the athlete.

Many coaches have an ecosystem of resource people for their athletes, including perhaps sports dieticians, physical therapists and massage therapists, strength coaches and mental skills coaches.

Many athletes have come to embrace their coach’s recommendation to see a specialist. Physical therapists and massage therapists are well recognized by athletes and coaches as key resources to help with recovery, injury prevention and injury treatment. Sports dieticians are gaining in popularity as they can help an athlete dial-in race-day fueling and hydration needs to avoid bonking and gastrointestinal distress. Strength coaches can specify a strength training regimen throughout the athlete’s year to help with performance and injury prevention and athletes are more and more incorporating weight training as a normal part of their training.  Additional examples include bike fitters and swim coaches.  Each of those specialists provides an opportunity to make adjustments for improvement.

Mental skills referrals from coaches and athletes are still a bit behind the curve.

Athletes are tough. When things get difficult, athletes want to push through, scale the wall, jump tall buildings, tough it out, power though. It’s part of why we do our sport. Athletes have learned to be smart about when not to push through. A searing, stinging pain in your calf during a track workout—time to go home. Beginning twinges of plantar fascia pain—hurry to the physical therapist.

When athletes experience some kind of mind issue, such as pre-race jitters, apprehensive feelings about big descents on the bike, deep dread when contemplating open water swimming, they often revert to self-talk such as, “Quit being a weenie. Harden up. Quit your whining”. And “Don’t tell coach.”

But mental skills coaches can be a great complement to an athlete’s resource team. Mental skills coaches can help athletes improve their skills with issues such as:

  • Achieving a useful emotional state before races
  • Focusing attention on key performance elements
  • Transforming negative self-talk into useful internal chatter
  • Balancing confidence level with the athlete’s competence level
  • Resolving fears and phobias
  • Eliminating the effects of past traumas

Fortunately, we have fast, easy, effective and durable techniques for all these issues.  Most of which are learned in one or two sessions.  We have great research on the efficacy of eliminating the effects of trauma, which athletes may experience from swim episodes, bike crashes and non-athletic traumas.

Some athletes feel that they are somehow failing if they can’t resolve these things on their own. They might feel that they are weak or somehow inadequate if they turn to a mental skills coach.

Yet neurosurgeons don’t do brain surgery on themselves.

As a triathlon coach with a mental skills specialty, I hope that athletes will seize the opportunity to test out some mental skills techniques for themselves and reach out to mental health specialists and see what they have to offer.

I see a time when athletes dash off to their mental health provider as they would to their massage therapist. When athletes learn how to do self-care for appropriate mental skills techniques just as their physical therapists teach them key stretches and foam rolling. When athletes trade names of their mental health providers as they trade names of their bodyworkers and strength coaches.

I see a time when athletes, at last, complete their athlete care ecosystem.

Will Murray is a ten-year USA Triathlon Level 1 coach with specialties in mental conditioning, youth coaching and trauma treatment. He is a certified administrator of Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories Protocol. Will is co-author, with Craig Howie, of The Four Pillars of Triathlon:  Vital Mental Skills for Endurance Athletes and Uncle: The Definitive Guide for Becoming the World’s Best Aunt or Uncle.

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