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.
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.
Learn about supporting student wellbeing by taking our training or reviewing the Supporting Details in Distress guide.
Barriers to Disclosing Distress
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|
|Addressing Team Hierarchies|
|Overcoming Previous Negative Experiences|
|Enhancing Visibility of Psychological Distress|
|General Culture Setting|
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: