Coaching the Holistic Athlete by Kim DeCesare, Former Division I and Professional Soccer Player
Coaching the Holistic Athlete: What does this mean and why is it important to create an empowering environment for athletes?
From the outside looking in, many have their opinions of what the mind of a collegiate student-athlete looks like. Often this is based on the stories they hear and the narrative that is prescribed by the media. Not many think beyond the fact that being a student-athlete entails so much more than the titles they read.
My name is Kim DeCesare and I am a former student-athlete and current college soccer coach. Recently, I was listening to a podcast where the host asked the guest, “what gives you the right?” Meaning, what background do you have to speak on this subject? So here is what gives me the right. I played college soccer at Duke University from 2009-2013, and yes that is 5 years (I took a redshirt). I was then drafted to the Boston Breakers in the National Women’s Soccer League, the pro league in the US. I spent time playing in the U.S. with Sky Blue FC, in Sweden with Eskilstuna United and in The Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven. I then started my coaching career at Elon University as an assistant and in 2019 made the transition to a head women’s soccer coach and strength coach at Franklin College in Indiana. Making the transition from athlete to coach was a natural one and I am enjoying my role in collegiate athletics. My experiences have absolutely influenced the way in which I look at collegiate and professional sports in regard to coaching the whole athlete.
Coaching has evolved in so many ways from what it used to be. Now, as a college coach, one takes on the role of teacher, confidant, leader, disciplinary, life coach and so much more. We are no longer just coaching the student and the athlete, we are coaching a holistic athlete.
First, before I talk about what it means to coach the holistic athlete, I think we must discuss what it means to be a holistic athlete. A holistic athlete is a lifestyle that is learned. It is someone who balances all aspects of their athletic career, with everything else going on in their mind, body and relationships. When I think of the holistic athlete, I think of one that acknowledges and takes care of their physical and mental health. They focus on recovery, nutrition, sleep, mindset and movement (Nike’s Trained Podcast: Five Facets of Fitness). Sport is physical performance, tactical awareness, technical ability and mental capacity combined, but often times we leave out the mental aspect of coaching an athlete.
Coaching the whole athlete, means as a coach, you are helping to support an athlete as a person and encouraging them through everything they encounter in life and fostering an environment that allows them to explore their whole self.
Although I completely loved my college experience, we rarely had the discussion about how to avoid identity foreclosure and what it even is for that matter. Identity foreclosure is the sole focus on your role as an athlete and lack of exploration of other aspects of your identity. I spent 20 years working on my identity as a soccer player and set my mind mostly towards that one passion (which I think is a large reason why I was successful in my sport, so of course that was a benefit). When you put that much passion and focus into a sport, or anything for that matter, a lot of other aspects of life get pushed to the side. I learned the skills needed in life but sometimes struggled implementing them. When I made the initial transition into coaching, I struggled finding the same passion as what I had when I was an athlete. Which was close to impossible. I thought to myself, do I really love this? Is this a career I should be in? And most of those thoughts were because I had stopped doing something that occupied nearly all of my mental and physical capacity for my entire life. So yes, naturally the transition into the “real world” is hard. After retiring from college or professional sports, many of my friends had a minor, or major identity crises. Everyone talks about this happening, but I still don’t think we are ever ready for it when it does.
Create an empowering environment.
As a coach, I now understand how important it is to create an empowering environment for the women I work with. I believe confidence comes from within, and it is a coach’s job to provide the athlete with the tools to build their own confidence. Confidence comes from feeling prepared, experienced and good about your own job and self-worth. When I was an athlete, I experienced environments where myself and my teammates were empowered, supported and positively motivated and I also experienced the entirely opposite. I do not think it is a coincidence that in an empowering environment, myself and my teammates were happy, eager, playing well and winning games as opposed to anxious, exhausted, not playing well and losing games. I hope all coaches reading this realizes that THERE IS A HUGE DIFFERENCE!
It is vital to the success of an athlete and team that we, as coaches, support and empower the whole athlete. Relationships are everything. As a coach, it is so important to support an athlete as a person and showing up for them. Showing and proving that you truly care about them as people is the most important aspect of coaching the whole athlete. It is often times overlooked when things get too competitive, or the stakes are high. Building quality personal relationships is a necessity to success.
Balanced athlete-centered coaching and not coach-centered coaching. I try my best to think not what I want for the athletes I coach, but what do they need. An example is a half time speech. We have all had that coach who storms into the locker room and rips into the team because of how terrible they played that half, and don’t get me wrong, this is sometimes very warranted, but it is clear that the coach is acting on pure present emotion. As a coach, I have challenged myself to think, what does the team need from me right now in order to perform better, prior to entering the locker room at half time. That could range from a calm, solution providing tactical talk to a motivational kick in the ass, but the most important thing is realizing that MY emotions about the half or game are not important. What is the most important is providing the team with what they need. Being in control of my own emotions is a huge part in creating an empowering environment for my athletes.
No place for sarcasm in coaching.
I believe in order to create a good environment for athletes, coaches need specific, deliberate, honest, non-emotional communication when instructing on the field and in conversations off the field regarding the sport. I sometimes hear coaches, or have had coaches in the past, who yell at a player on their team, instructing them to do something, but make it sarcastic and degrading, as if they should know better. This is a direct reflection of you as a coach and not the player.
Although I only touched the surface when it comes to coaching the whole athlete – here are my most important takeaways from my own personal experience as a player and coach:
Understand that a student-athlete is more than just a student and an athlete
Create an empowering environment
Emphasis on relationship building
Specific, deliberate, honest communication
All of the above takes time and effort. The more effort we put into our athletes and the harder we work on understanding what makes them thrive, the more rewarding the experience for everyone will be.
Club and College:
Massapequa Soccer Club u7-u18
New York State and Region 1 ODP u15-u17
Duke University Women’s Soccer 2009-2013 seasons (Redshirt year)
Drafted to Boston Breakers in 2014
Eskilstuna United in the Damallsvenskan (top Swedish division) 2014
Sky Blue FC 2015-2017 (NWSL)
PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie (top Dutch league) – First American to sign with them 2017-2018
Assistant Coach at Elon University 2018-2019
Women’s Soccer Head Coach at Franklin College 2019 – present
Strength and conditioning coach – women’s soccer, men’s soccer, women’s volleyball, women’s lacrosse
USSF C License
NSCA CSCS – certified strength and conditioning coach