How To Clean Up Your Athletes’ Mental Hygiene



Darren Dillon

Darren Dillon is the owner and director of Kickstart Fitness Ireland. Founded in 2010, Kickstart Fitness has grown from what was initially a bootcamp in a local park into what is now a center of excellence for TRX®️Training and functional training, and a high performance hub for strength and conditioning. Darren also serves as head of performance at Shamrock Rovers FC, working with and programming for the academy through to senior professional soccer players. He is also Ireland’s only official TRX®️ Master Trainer, delivering all the company’s education courses to the Irish fitness industry.

As a coach, the physical impact you have on someone can be self-evident in how their physique and performance improve over time. Yet this is only scratching the surface of how you can leave a positive mark on a client’s or athlete’s life. I came to realize early in my career that you need to look at each person you’re privileged to work with as a human being, not merely a body that you’re trying to mold and shape. In doing so, you can help them to get beyond defining themselves by their body weight or composition, as many new clients do.

In order to do this, it’s essential to consider the cognitive aspects of coaching and people development. You hear the phrase “sleep hygiene” more and more these days – and rightly so, as getting adequate rest is essential. Yet far too many coaches are ignoring a similarly named concept that can have an equally profound impact on our clients: mental hygiene.

I’m in a unique position. I’m fortunate enough to be around both professional athletes at the Irish Premier League club Shamrock Rovers FC and everyday folks who I coach at my gym.

Let’s start with the pros.

// Mental Hygiene for Pros

One of the biggest mindset challenges they have is finding a balance between ego and humility.

In trials, it’s their physical gifts that capture the attention of coaches and scouts and get them to our club. When a young lad first arrives for pre-season training, it’s all too easy for him to think he’s made it to the big time now because he is a professional footballer. Yet really, his challenge has just shifted. At first, his aim was to get a chance at Rovers. Now he has to fight to earn the right to stay here.

Part of the problem is often the disconnect between perception and reality. Young players come in thinking they have to portray the glamorous life of English Premier League stars they read about online. So if you look at their social media feeds, you start to see photos of them out at dinner with their good-looking girlfriend, celebrating scoring a winning goal, and all the other familiar shots meant to portray so-called “success.”

While some of these images capture small slices of life, there’s also an element of illusion to them. After training, a player will likely go home, make a meal, take out the rubbish, and pay some bills. They might be a pro in one sense, but they still have to take care of the same mundane details of daily life as the rest of us. And many of them are unprepared to do this.

So it’s part of our responsibility as coaches to help.

One thing we do is share the club’s social media ethos and how they’re expected to portray themselves. Then we take great pains to make sure this portrayal is tied to reality by grounding them in the standards that everybody at the club – from youth academy players to coaching staff to first team squad members – have to uphold.

This initiation starts on the first day of pre-season camp. Players are expected to shake hands with all the coaches, be courteous to the staff and their teammates, and take a leaf out of the All Blacks’ book (and James Kerr’s Legacy that explains the “sweeping the sheds” ritual) and clean up the dressing (USA: locker) room.

We also look at their development beyond what happens on the training ground and the match day pitch.

Shamrock Rovers has partnered with some of Ireland’s leading colleges and our youngest squad members train with the first team in the morning and then do their school work in the afternoon. Last season, four of them got their secondary school leaving certificates – the equivalent of earning their high school diploma. One of our 16-year-olds was signed by Manchester City for around $600,000. He’s going to stay with us until next July, by which point he’ll not only be better prepared as a player to join the English Premier League champions, but will also have completed his studies. This way, if he doesn’t cut it as a pro footballer, he will have something to fall back on.

The other coaches and I also make ourselves available to any player that needs help with a personal problem, whether that’s in a relationship or something as simple as renewing their car insurance. We treat them as the intelligent young men they are, but also recognize that they need help in becoming well-rounded people. As a result, we start to see that our squad is comprised of quality human beings who are kind, considerate, inquisitive, respectful, and hardworking.

// Mental Hygiene for Gym Members

The mental hygiene challenges at my gym are different, but no less deserving of my time and energy. When someone comes to us for the first time, they’re almost always seeking some kind of change. Maybe they want to lose weight, get back in shape, or put on muscle. As a result, quite often they have self-limiting body image issues.

Maybe the person who wants to shed 25 pounds has been told that they’re too heavy their whole life. To get to the root of their underlying psychology, we ask a lot of questions at the beginning, starting with, “How can I help you?” and then diving deeper. Once I get to question three or four, their true motivations and mindset start to reveal themselves. From there, we’re able to figure out how to best serve their physical and mental needs.

Say someone wants to lose weight and does actually need to (as opposed to having some kind of dysmorphic issue). I create a program that helps meet this initial need, but after six weeks of checking their weight daily, I’ll tell them not to use a scale for the next six weeks. This has the effect of shifting their focus beyond their appearance and breaking out of the fixed mindset they were likely stuck in when they first walked through the gym door.

Instead, I encourage them to concentrate on the actual experiences we create in every session. Several times a week, they’re doing something to better themselves in a time slot that’s separate from work and family commitments. Soon enough, they stop talking about their weight and framing everything through the lens of how they look. Now it’s more about learning new skills and developing existing ones, while being in a caring community and, heaven forbid, having a little fun when they come to the gym.

// Mental Hygiene for Everyone

One of the issues every coach faces is the limited amount of time we get to spend with our players or clients. Say that someone has signed up for four sessions a week with you. That means you can influence four hours a week. But what about the other 164 hours? I look for ways to increase the amount of time I can positively influence without needing a client to increase their actual training volume or frequency.

One of the best ways to do this is to come up with a food-based element to their programming. I’ve found over the years that macronutrient-focused plans don’t work as well as meal-centric ones. So I’ll provide a list of options for each meal in a given week, and state that as long as they stick to this 80 percent of the time, they can eat whatever they like for the other 20 percent. If they do so, I’ve already greatly increased the leverage we can apply through positive behaviors that will get them to their initial goal and then far beyond it.

When they also adhere to my sleep and recovery advice, then this scope of influence expands even further. Plus, I suggest that they go for a run, swim, or yoga session twice a week for active recovery, which benefits body and mind alike.

Once they’ve bought into practicing constructive behaviors for a few weeks – inside and, perhaps even more significantly, outside the gym – these start to solidify into lasting habits. So even when a client is given some lifestyle leeway, they’re more likely to make solid choices.

Having the opportunity to impact other people’s physicality and mindset also has positive knock-on effects on me. I feel like I have to set a good example – not by posting ab or butt shots on Instagram, but by taking care of myself. I’ve found that if you set others up for success, then you’ll succeed too. And that has as much to do with getting the mind right as anything you can accomplish with a kettlebell, rowing machine, or TRX Suspension Trainer because, as Fergus Connolly rightly states in Game Changer, you can’t separate or isolate physical, psychological, technical, or tactical elements.

As coaches, we have a duty to literally change people’s lives. So let’s start being more mindful about mental hygiene – both theirs and ours.

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