0831-Reel Dade12.jpg

Reeltown coach Matt Johnson, right, said building relationships is a fundamental part of his coaching philosophy.

Especially with the coronavirus pandemic and people being stuck indoors and away from their families and friends for so long, mental health has been something that’s more and more talked about over the course of the last several months.

The AHSAA has always made it a priority to ensure the health and safety of its student-athletes and leaders took that one step further with the requirement of the NFHS Mental Health Course as part of every coach’s certification.

For Reeltown football coach and athletic director Matt Johnson, who recently completed the course, mental health and knowing the signs of struggle for his players and students has always been an important issue. Especially in rural communities, it’s easy for students to have home                        struggles and Johnson wants to ensure no one slips through the cracks.

“We have to meet these kids where they are in life,” Johnson said. “We’re not recruiting kids; we’re not out there cherry picking kids. We’re meeting them where they are. You hear the word ‘kid,’ and you think of a bright face. Some of the best parts of their lives are in the stage that they’re in right now, but there are some kids where some of the worst parts of their life are the stages they’re in right now.”

Throughout his time as a coach, Johnson has had several players who have struggled with their home life, their grades or even just in school with friends. Problems, especially at the high school age, can present themselves in a myriad of ways. Many times, student-athletes are struggling with things that stem from situations beyond their control. And what’s especially tough is the expectations for kids and athletes is essentially the same regardless of their struggles.

“That’s something that’s a really big deal to me,” Johnson said. “To see a kid that’s just genuinely not a happy person and does not have many happy things in their life is devastating as an educator. But what’s more is they have the same expectations and responsibilities when they walk through the door that are the exact same for kids that are in a positive situation.”

According to Johnson, the required mental health course really reviews things most coaches are already doing but just gives them an extra refresher and additional attention. The course emphasizes the fact coaches are mandatory reporters and explains there are a plethora of warning signs and triggers for children. It talks about watching behaviors and really getting to know student-athletes so coaches can recognize when something isn’t right.

Building those relationships is something that’s always been a huge focus for Johnson.

“It’s not something I talk about a lot just because there is a lot of confidentiality with it, but that is a huge dynamic in the philosophy of our athletic programs as a whole,” Johnson said. “The way we go from top to bottom with our program is support, building relationships and keeping the main thing the main thing. That motto that we use encompasses that whole concept.”

Trying to build those relationships and keep a watchful eye on kids goes further than student-athletes for Reeltown and Johnson, but he hopes the Rebels sports programs can be an outlet and a safe space for athletes who are struggling off the field.

Although the NFHS Mental Health Course is just a one-time requirement for AHSAA coaches, Johnson said it’s something to keep in mind on a daily basis.

“You can never do too much if it means saving a life, especially for somebody who really doesn’t have control over a lot of things they are going through,” Johnson said. “That’s something that’s a really big deal to me.”

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.