Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Coach and the Plumb Line of Hope: Athletics and Mental Health- Day 8

For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel ( Zechariah 4:10).

As we begin to wrap up this thought experiment in May, it is now time to explore how a coach, parent, youth pastor, or mentor can help young people who are struggling with trends of anxiety and depression.

The more I have read and thought about discussions and observations, I was intrigued about the parallels of dealing with this in light of how we deal with other acute and chronic conditions.

On March 24, 2015 Briarwood Christian School hosted a small, informal meeting with six families to discuss and pray about struggles their children and families have had with debilitating migraines.We also invited a BCS teacher who has suffered with chronic migraines going back to her childhood.

Joining our discussion that day was Dr. Burel Goodin of UAB. Dr. Goodin is a clinical health psychologist with specialization in pain-related behavioral medicine.

We took much of our time hearing from each family. Though each case is unique, there were a number of common threads. Some had a family history of migraine issues. Most of the students experienced the onset of these migraines between 7th and 9th grade. Almost everyone mentioned an ‘ocular’ component to the headaches. You could hear both pain and frustration as each family talked about the laborious process of experimenting with medication, nutrition, examinations, trips to specialists around the country, non-medical therapies, and the nagging stress of school schedules and deadlines.

I think what Dr. Goodin suggested have some components of dealing with athletes in the area of mental health care as well.

Dr. Burel did a nice job of framing the issues and confirming much of what these families had already experienced.

As a summary of this issue, I have decided to put together some points of emphasis. 

A high school student dealing with any daily issue, physical OR mental is bearing an unusual burden AND has to bring tools and strategy to the fight that are uncommon for their age:
  • Perseverance and Perspective
  • Unusual Daily Discipline
  • Detailed Documentation
  • Effective Communication
  • Logical and Systematic Adaptation
  • Navigating Strained Relationships


Any teenager dealing with chronic issues will have to find perseverance and perspective in the circumstance to have any hope of forward progress. At our school, this is ultimately a spiritual quest that must be empowered by God’s Spirit and cultivated by God’s Word. Long term struggles with pain or anxiety can create anger towards God and a loss of hope. My encouragement for these students and families is to press into God’s goodness and sovereignty. I also believe it is good to express your emotions to God- He understands and is a God of great compassion. His ultimate perspective and plan is eternal.

A final note about perseverance is that it is not a quest for perfection. Perseverance is not finding a way to never fall down. Perseverance is learning to fall less, stay down less, and get back up more quickly. “It is NOT a tragedy if you try and fail… and try and fail again. The tragedy is when you try and fail…. and fail to try again.”


We spend our entire lives having to re-learn the struggle regarding daily discipline. The management of any difficult issue actually forces students and families to INCREASE their commitment to these disciplines when they LEAST feel like doing them.

Dr. Goodin pressed this issue. When you think of all the factors and potential triggers: stress of living, hydration, nutrition, sleep patterns, disappointment, drama, musculoskeletal factors, hormones… the key for the student is to become an expert in time management and regular routine.

An example of this would be the student's sleep routine. Sleep patterns can contribute to the body’s ability to regulate and heal. Sleep deficit issues during the week may not be helped by sleep excess on the weekends.

Parents and students must work together to try and become efficient in these important areas.


It is recommended that students learn early on how to document their episodes and dispositions that may have direct or unintended impact. Human memory is not reliable. Students need to begin practicing ways to objectify their mood and thoughts (some may choose to use a personal scale of 1-10) and journaling throughout the journey.

Students need to keep a record of medications, dosage, food, exercise, therapy, and notes.


Students must be encouraged and trained to effectively communicate with health personnel, parents, teachers, coaches, and other students. There needs to be wise counsel on how much to share, when to share, and how to share. Remember…. people who are observing the students do not ‘see’ their struggles and this can create an absence of empathy. At the same time, accurate communication helps dissuade concerns regarding enablement. For students going to college, Dr. Goodin recommends checking with the school’s department of disability early on to put accommodations into place designed to help students manage issues- especially when these are the first experiences of these episodes away from home.


The body has a powerful ability to adapt- young people are growing and learning how to cope. As a student grows and changes, there has to be strategy adjustments as well. The balance is figuring out how long to stay the course and when to implement change. Again, there needs to be great expert  involvement and careful, detailed, and documented advice in this process. These changes may be in direct response to changing hormones or better stress management.


Hurting children mean hurting parents, friends, and siblings. Any significant relationship in the world of issue management is a strained relationship. Every day is a struggle of when to push and when to give in. Dr. Goodin talked about the difficult decision a parent may have to make in nudging a student to school. His advice was ‘if you are able, you need to go to school and practice”. This can create some instant pushback. I understand- Every situation is unique. But if there isn’t a danger to themselves and they are not in need of emergency help, we need to press them to walk in their own circumstance and LEARN to battle. We have to  reference school/team policies about attendance. This will help them see that this will be true in the future and future employment requirements- there are real world deadlines and requirements. These points of possible disagreement and conflict can put a strain on these already burdened relationships.


The verse at the top of this post is one that has inspired me for many years. I hope I can capture the essence of it here before you grow weary of reading. (The readings it takes to adequately prepare you are II Chronicles 26, and the minor prophets: Zechariah, Ezra, and Nehemiah as well a remembering the promises and prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel- so this may or may not adequately set this up)

 Zerubbabel and Joshua the priest were part of a so called "1st wave" of Jewish captives released from Persia to return to Jerusalem. Zerubbabel, a governor, was tasked with rebuilding the temple. Later, Ezra would come with a 2nd wave with God's Law, and then finally, we all know the story of Nehemiah and his task of rebuilding the wall.

Back to Zerubbabel and Joshua (the Biblical power of Two)- the writer of Zechariah is full of hope, but there is little evidence anything is going to happen. Sure, there may be "small things" that happen... but nothing significant.

However, we see a new sight! 
For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel ( Zechariah 4:10).

There is something different here...... a man holding a plum bob!

A plumb bob is a building tool that helps set straight lines from scratch using gravity. Just like a compass uses the magnetic true north... the plumb bob sets straight angles and allows a cornerstone to be set just right.

Fixed truth.... you have to have it to build. Our eyes can't see true north or straight angles... we need tools! And for Christians, the straight line of truth is the Word of God.

But you also need the right leader holding the plum bob.... see, the people rejoice and have NEW hope because of WHOSE hand the plumb line resides.

This is where I want to motivate coaches.... coaches can be those plumb bob holders that your athletes find hope and rejoice.... and small things are no longer insignificant... you are mentoring these young men and women by holding fixed standards, but lovingly applying them. The people aren't rejoicing at the tool, they are rejoicing at the sight of the right leader with the right tool.... something good is NOW GOING TO HAPPEN!

And Zerubbabel gets it... he knows where the real change comes from. Just a few verses up 

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. [7] Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zechariah 4:6–7 ESV)

I plan to stress this with our coaches this summer and fall... I have even thought about using the whistle as an image of the plumb line in the hand of a master craftsman.


It takes a mighty partnership with parents, counselors, faculty, coaches, and others to keep an athlete who is struggling with anxiety, or depression, or disillusionment, or despair to just keep walking moment by moment... day by day. 

There needs to be eyes on the student. There needs to be conversations... but they can't be lectures. 
There has to be prayer. But over TIME, an athlete can mature and grow. They learn skills, they understand triggers, and they go though what I call "the magical process of maturation".

But it is a mistake to think of it as "they are fixed"... No, no... these are life long battles that come in all kinds of episodes and to different degrees.

There also  seems to be conflict over medication issues. Some parents tend to be ‘no drugs’ with concerns of dependency and abuse while others are more ‘maximum medication’ oriented.

Any prescribed medication needs to be handled legally and accurately. Great communication and wisdom is a necessity.

Coaches will also need to think about responses to requests for "mental health days" and how that impacts the team. Setting reasonable policy up front with the help of the parents can be beneficial with students who have a diagnosis and are getting professional care.

It is not an easy issue to wrestle with... but those of us in the relationship with these athletes need to think of "being" more than "doing".... such a hard balance.

We HAVE to build in discipline.. no team can survive without it.
We have to struggle with deficits... push/pull.. and we never find the same lines of exasperation.

So we ask from wisdom from above and ultimately we trust in the Lord and His glorious gospel!

These kids are worth it!

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