Hockey players leaning over board with coaching staff standing behind

The attitudes and opinions you express about mental health can greatly impact the likelihood of athletes coming forward and seeking help. Coaches and athletic staff should strive to create a supportive culture and to be equipped with the knowledge, skills and resources necessary to support the psychological wellbeing of their athletes. This includes being aware of the limitations to their role and knowing to when to connect athletes with professional resources (e.g., suicidal ideation, severe mental illness, and substance dependency).

Supporting Students In Distress

Most student-athletes are able to effectively manage the stressors they experience being both a student and an athlete, without any long-term consequence to their mental well-being. But sometimes the stresses become too much. Those closest to the athlete, such as teammates, friends, athletic trainers, coaches, academic support staff, and parents are in a position to notice when something is “going on” that is out of the norm for him/her.


Below are some behaviours and symptoms that may indicate a psychological concern, touching on some of the more common concerns.

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of interest or participation in things he/she is usually interested in
  • Loss of motivation
  • Withdrawing/isolating from social contact
  • Irritable, edgy, impatient, argumentative
  • Deterioration in appearance and/or hygiene
  • Negative self-talk
  • Excessive worry or fear
  • Loss of enjoyment in activities previously found to be enjoyable
  • Irresponsibility, lying
  • Mood swings or lack of emotion
  • Feeling out of control
  • Physical complaints not related to sport injury
  • Unexplained wounds or deliberate self-harm
  • Unhealthy weight control practices (e.g., restrictive dieting, binge eating, over-exercising, self-induced vomiting, or abuse of laxatives, weight loss supplements and diuretics)
  • Overuse injuries, unresolved injuries, or continually being injured
  • Talking about death, dying or “going away”
  • Substance misuse

It is important to be aware of what the athlete’s typical or usual demeanour and behaviour are, so any changes can be compared, and concerns can be flagged and addressed.

  • Speak with the student in person and in private (unless it is unsafe to do so).  Stay calm, be welcoming.
  • Provide the student with your undivided attention and patience.
  • Express concern and be specific about behaviour. “I’ve noticed that you  haven’t been to class lately, I’m concerned about you.”
  • Actively listen and ask questions. “So what you’re saying is…  tell me more about that.”
  • Listen to the content of the student’s issues, not just the volume, tone and pace.
  • Validate student’s feelings/experiences. “It sounds like you feel lonely since coming to Lakehead.” “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
  • Convey caring and instill hope. Be cautious about giving advice. “It sounds  like there is a lot going on, there are some resources I can connect  you with that may provide help.” 
  • Encourage the student to get help.
  • Emphasize what you notice and the reason for concern.
  • Explain help is available and seeking help is a sign of strength and courage.
  • Ask if they are connected to resources on or off-campus. Offer a resource and/or make a referral to one of the services on campus. “Is this something you would like help with? I can recommend resources.” If the student seems hesitant to access resources, offer to contact the resource with the student present or offer to walk the student to the resource if on campus. 

Supporting Students in Distress GuideLearn about supporting student wellbeing by taking our training or reviewing the Supporting Details in Distress guide.

Barriers to Disclosing Distress

Female volleyball jumping to spike

Even though those who work with athletes directly might be the first to notice signs of distress, athletes might not feel comfortable discussing the issues with a coach. Several barriers prevent student-athletes from being able to have open discussions about mental health concerns. 


Traditionally “Tough” Sport Cultures
Traditionally, sport has placed an emphasis on mental toughness. Because of this emphasis, psychological distress and associated mental health challenges are often stigmatized within the sport and perceived by athletes to be a sign of weakness. Athletes may fear disclosure because they do not want coaches to label them as weak. 
Power of Coaches

Coaches determine starting line-ups, playing time, and which athletes will compete at all. Athletes fear that revealing mental health concerns to a coach will change their perception of their ability to perform and result in a loss of position, playing time, or opportunities to compete. 

An Athlete's Position on the Team

Some athletes possess greater athletic skills and are often rewarded for their talent by being named team captains or starters. These athletes may be reluctant to disclosing distress because they fear it will affect their position as team leaders. Alternatively, athletes on the lower end of their team’s hierarchies, such as bench players and younger athletes, often fear disclosure because they do not perceive themselves as valued members of the team and do not want to draw a coach’s attention away from higher-ranking players.

Previous Negative Experiences with Disclosure

Athletes are sensitive and highly attuned to the responses of their coaches when disclosing any personal challenges ranging from mild injuries to more serious distress. If athletes perceive a negative coach response during these instances of disclosure, it discourages them from future help-seeking and reinforces a mindset that sport is not a welcoming environment for distress. 

Poor Visibility of Psychological Distress

Until recently, mental health has not been widely discussed in sport. This has made it difficult for athletes to recognize their own symptoms. If an athlete does recognize that they are experiencing distress, they have few positive role models encouraging them to seek help. Without examples, most athletes resorted to hiding their distress from their coaches.


Bissett, J. (2020, March 31). Supporting the Psychological Wellbeing of Athletes: What Can Coaches do? SIRCUIT

Creating a Culture of Wellness

Coaches have the ability to overcome these barriers by fostering team cultures that support the psychological wellbeing of athletes and encourage help-seeking behaviours. 

Holistic Coaching Philosophy
Adopt and demonstrate a holistic coaching philosophy that places increased emphasis on athlete development and wellbeing (i.e. sleep, nutrition, academics, etc.) 
Invest in Coach-Athlete Relationships
  • Verbally communicate that help-seeking may require athletes to step away from sport temporarily, but that athletes will have an opportunity to return following recovery
  • Develop coach-athlete relationships founded on trust, openness, and reciprocal communication with athletes 
Addressing Team Hierarchies
  • Use transparent selection criteria to dispel any myths that certain athletes are treated more favourably than others.
  • Designate practice time to increase the skills and confidence of athletes who receive less playing time. This may be done using small groups or in a one-on-one fashion.
  • Assign each athlete with a role that makes them feel like a valued team member who is deserving of the coach’s attention, regardless of their performance contributions to the team.
Overcoming Previous Negative Experiences
  • Verbally communicate coaching expectations to athletes
  • Engage with all athletes in an empathetic and compassionate manner when distressing situations arise. 
Enhancing Visibility of Psychological Distress
  • Teach athletes awareness surrounding their mental and psychological well-being
  • Enforce accountability such that athletes understand they are responsible for managing their own holistic well-being
  • Share personal experiences with psychological distress and/or mental health challenges 
General Culture Setting
  • Establish and demonstrate an open-door policy
  • Role model behaviours that support positive psychological well-being
  • Use appropriate and non-discriminatory language when discussing athletes’ psychological health and well-being
  • Build a diverse coaching and support staff

 Adapted from Bissett, J. & Tamminen, K. A. Supporting Psychologically Distressed Athletes: Suggested Best Practices for Coaches.


Supporting Your Own Well-Being

It is hard to support others when you are struggling yourself. Learn how taking care of your own well-being helps others.

Supports Available for Coaches

The Employee and Family Assistance Plan provides confidential and professional counselling assistance for employees, spouses and dependents.

There are many other supports available to you both online and in our campus communities. Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Wellness Together Canada
    • provides free online resources, tools, apps and connections to trained volunteers and qualified mental health professionals when needed.
  • AbilitiCBT
    • An internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy program that you can access from any device, anytime. You are connected with a therapist and have check ins during program. Free for residents of Ontario or Manitoba.
  • Mind Beacon
    • Guided by a registered therapist, complete tailored readings and activities at your own pace, anytime anywhere you're comfortable online or via the Beacon app. Free to anyone in Ontario.
  • Togetherall
    • An online peer-to-peer support community for your mental health. 24/7, anonymous and monitored by health professionals.
  • Bounce Back
    • on-line videos and resources re: mild/moderate anxiety and depression.
  • Thunder Bay
    • "Talk-in" Counselling Clinics
      • Thunder Bay’s free walk-in counselling clinic provides immediate single-session counselling services to youth, teens and adults. Currently being offered Monday through Friday via phone or video. Visit or call (807) 700-0090. FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED
  • Orillia
  • If you are in crisis
    • If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
    • If you or someone you know is dealing with emotional distress
      • Crisis Response Services is a 24/7 crisis line staffed by Canadian Mental Health Association
      • Thunder Bay- 807-346-8282
      • Orillia- 705-728-5044
      • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255