Sometimes it’s really hard to know what to say. As coaches, we feel like we should always show up and have everything figured out in front of our team. We are supposed to know how to help. But there’s a fine line where you don’t want to be an example of stress and let them see your anxiety, but you also want to be honest with your team. When you are faced with a challenge and you don’t know how to help, it’s okay to model for your team that this is hard.

2020 presents more challenges than ever. And I would bet your dancers have asked you some tough questions this year. Is there a nationals? What about homecoming this year?… and you don’t have the answers. That can feel stressful. The coach is supposed to be the leader! But if you don’t have all the answers, that’s ok. You can be a rock for the team, be positive, but also real. Tell them, “this is hard for me too” or “I’m disappointed,” or “I had one plan and now I’m trying to change the plan.” But most importantly, show them how you also care for yourself with all of this change. Let them know “this is how I’m going to take care of myself” or “this is how I’m going to work on a solution even if I don’t know what that is right now.”

When you don’t know what to say…

Especially now in 2020, I think it’s actually good for your athletes to see you doing your best and still showing up for the team no matter what. Show them that you’re going to be there every day. Acknowledge to them that it’s ok to be uneasy about everything. And acknowledge to yourself that it’s okay to not be fully put together all the time because none of us are. It’s okay to be genuine about that.

It’s always hard when you’re in charge and you don’t know what to say. A lot of coaches faced with a hard question or a very emotional dancer will say, “I’m not a psychologist, I don’t know how to help.”  That’s okay. You don’t have to be a psychologist. Just connect to them as a human. Let them know it’s hard for you too, but you’re still there for them. You can say, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to help you figure this out, we’re going to figure this out together.” The simple answer when you don’t know what to say…  “I don’t have the answers, but I’m here with you while we figure it out.”

You can be honest and tell your team that you’re trying your best and will always be there to offer your support. They just want to hear that you’re not going anywhere. Say for example they are asking about Homecoming. Is there going to be one? Is it January?!? What’s happening? You may have to say, “I don’t know the answer. I know that you’re sad. I am, too. But I’m going to be here no matter what happens.”

Coaching mantra for 2020

A common coaching mantra for me is “control the controllables.” I usually talk about it in the context of a competition mindset, but it’s one of the best mantras you can have this season as we navigate 2020. This year boils down to the baseline level where can you focus on the foundation and a sense of routine for the athletes. Even if you don’t know what competition season or gamedays will be like, act “as if.” Go forward as if everything will happen. Even though practices are not normal right now, act as if we are moving through a normal season and if nothing happens with it, that’s ok. We’re still together, and we are doing the very best we possibly can with all of the rules. Focus on what’s in your control.

This season may be about planting the seeds. It’s like the law of the harvest: Growth doesn’t happen overnight. It starts with a seed placed in soil that will support its growth. But that growth takes support and is going to take a long time. Even on our best day with no COVID-19, our growth will take time. Your dancers are the seed, and you are the soil. You can still create an enriched environment that will help them grow during this season. Whether you have a normal season or not.  Follow your year as if it’s happening. Your routines are not wasted. Nothing is wasted. We have to create our own rituals because either way, this year is going to go by and you will have memories. You don’t get to opt-out of that, but you do get to opt-in. You decide what memories you’re creating. Create a supportive environment for their growth, focus on what you can control, and proceed with making memories.

Be the model for self-care, even if you’re still figuring it out.

The second important part of this equation is modeling self-care. If you don’t know what to say, you show up honestly, but you also offer them a model for how to handle it. It could be a little stuff like positivity circles or journaling. I think for adolescents especially, their brains are just different at that age and they need help learning how to navigate all the emotions. Their brains are not functioning the same as an adult. The amygdala is part of the emotion center of your brain and specifically controls how you respond to threat. That part of the brain is maturing, meaning it’s getting more complicated. But the conductor of your brain, the part that helps you slow down and think things through is still developing into your early 20s.  So adolescents are usually super emotional without any kind of control. There’s no conductor to the train! Being able to understand that brain imbalance in your athletes is really important. They’re normal emotional adolescents. You add 2020 and it’s really hard. What you can do as a coach is be empathetic to that, and model self-care.

A tangible tool for quieting your mind:

Meditation Oasis is a great free app. There are good three-minute meditations (I call them guided relaxations to remove any stigma). They do not subscribe to any specific belief system so they are great for school groups or any group that wants to be more intentionally present and reduce the rapid negative thoughts. A lot of people need help in understanding the point of relaxation and why we do it. It feels like I should be able to relax, it’s not hard! But it’s not that easy, it takes discipline to learn how to relax. Part of what’s causing more stress right now is we used to be able to calm ourselves and handle this stress. And then in the last six months, we can’t calm our brains the way we used to. We are collectively in a state of uncertainty and insecurity. It’s really hard when everyone is at the same level of stress from day to day. We have to be more intentional about creating peace for ourselves. That starts with learning how to intentionally relax. That can be as simple as encouraging the dancers to take deep breaths or using a tool like a guided relaxation.

Choose what works for you

Not every piece of advice or new tool to try is for you. Listen to everything, but you figure out what resonates with you. Don’t add to the overwhelm by trying all the tools and strategies because different things work for different people. There are many things you could take from this. Pick the one thing you want to go try or the one mindset shift you want to focus on. Whether it’s bringing your team a message about control controllable, or the idea that we have to take control of creating our memories this season. Even when you don’t know what to say or how to help, approach the team with honest, open communication. You don’t have to sugar-coat or pretend like everything is ok because it’s not. Be open and honest with them, be a model of continued self-care, have emotional check-ins, and make those happy memories.

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