Coaching Hopelessness

I got texted the following photo from the Collegiate Swim Coaches Association yesterday:


It’s an alarming slide. Unfortunately, it matches up with what I see when I’m out “in the field” with young athletes. For this post, I’m going to focus on hopelessness. First, let’s get to a definition of what hopelessness is, then how it might manifest itself on the team you’re on, before finally what you might be able to do about it.


Hopelessness is by name marked by the absence of hope. It is strongly correlated with depression, as feelings of hopelessness can often inhibit you from engaging with life.

If you’re feeling hopeless, you might think:

“There’s nothing I can do”

“What’s the point?”

“Why do I even try?”

“Nobody cares about me”

“There’s no way out of this (bad) situation”

The founding theory of Learned Optimism actually rests on theories surrounding hopelessness (actually called learned helplessness in the original research done by Seligman and Overmeier in the 1960s).

If you’re a dog lover, you probably don’t want to click on the above link. The researchers administered electric shocks to dogs. A control group of dogs got no shocks, one group got shocks that they could avoid by taking action. A final group could not avoid the shocks, and were observed learning to simply accept the abuse lying down.

While the figures above are overwhelming and can make you feel, well, hopeless, all is not lost. We can reverse the tide, we can teach and develop optimism in the face of the hopelessness we and many of the people we engage with have learned.

For many, though these thoughts may go without being directly expressed. It would clear a lot of things up if people who were feeling hopeless in the moment simply walked up and announced: “I’m feeling very hopeless right now”. Instead, the way in which they express hopelessness can be quite different

Manifest Destiny

Here are but a few ways that somebody on your team might manifest hopelessness:

-skip practice

-give up during a hard set or race

-consume a poor diet

-sleep poorly

-avoid getting treatment for an injury

-sit down for large parts of practice (coach)

This might as well be a list of “top five things that drive your coach crazy” or a reverse list of “habits of champions”. It’s really important for coaches to consider that few if any of the athletes on their team are taking any of these actions because they are truly “lazy” and don’t want to do “what it takes”.

As a coach, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Like I wrote last week, you can have a high standard for all of the above, that athletes on your team are expected to give their all, come to practice and recover well in between. You can also have empathy for those that are struggling.

Let me add this as well. Coaches have a great opportunity here, as they stand on the front line of many of these problems. They should never be expected to serve as mental health professionals. They are coaches first! And quite honestly, it’s unfair that many coaches have to be on the front line. They have enough to do already. But they’re there. So what should do they do?

Coaching Optimism

As a coach, you should endeavor to build infrastructure on your team to both build optimism and mitigate hopelessness. They go hand in hand. Here are a few:

  1. You should be able to discuss emotions openly amongst your team. This can make it much easier to facilitate conversations around adverse situations and give opportunities for empathy.

  2. Reflect on your own pessimism and optimism. There are actually a lot of examples of things that coaches often praise that are actually quite pessimistic and can contribute to hopelessness over time. Working on your own optimism as a coach will make a big difference for those around you

  3. Build conversations on your team about what’s going well. We have a natural tendency to complain to each other and “venting” has its purpose. But ultimately it can wear you out. Actively bringing the conversation back to what’s working gives people hope that good things can continue in the future.

Ultimately, there’s no “solution'“ to this problem. It’s a big challenge, one that can often feel overwhelming, but we have no choice but to do what we can to push back.