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Mental health in athletics | Information for coaches

Track Talk #3 | How to talk about mental health with your athletes

In this third episode of Track Talk, by Sophie Warden, we share tips for coaches wanting to talk to their athletes about mental health. 

Many athletes approach their coaches with problems off the track, as coaches are trusted, supportive and care for the development of their athletes.  But many coaches are not trained to respond to mental health questions and problems. 

Watch the video for some tips, as well as places to go for more information.


How to talk about mental health with your athletes

by Sophie Warden

Today I want to build on the topic of the first video, which was for coaches to know when they need to talk to their athletes about mental health, and I want to give you some helpful tips for how to have that conversation:

Mental health in athletics | Support for Coaches

1. Create the right environment

Before you start a conversation with an athlete, or before they will feel comfortable coming to talk to you, you need to create an environment where the athletes know that that is ok.  My advice is to get all your athletes together and have a really brief, frank conversation saying

'I know things have been really hard and I know things can get really stressful and difficult.  If you want someone to talk to other than your parents and teachers, I am here to support you and to listen to you.  So please, if you ever need any help, I am always available to talk to you.' 

It is as simple as that.

Mental health in Athletics | Information for coaches

2. Listen first - Talk later

If and when an athlete comes to you, then the really important thing is to use your ears, not your mouth.  Sometimes when an athlete comes forward, you may be the first person that they have felt comfortable expressing their feelings to.  A lot of coaches worry about saying the wrong thing, but if you are listening not talking, you can't say the wrong thing.

Mental health in Athletics | Information for coaches

3. Ask open questions

When an athlete has finished saying what they want to tell you, and you've given them time to get their emotions out, the best thing you can do then is to ask open questions.  It's important that you don't ask questions that are too personal, respecting boundaries, so you may want to ask what situations trigger these feelings of being anxious, stressed, depressed.  Is there a particular situation that makes them feel that way?  You then want to ask them if they have spoken to anyone else and if they would be comfortable doing so.  There are people who spend a lot more time with the athlete than we do.  We spend 3-4 hours a week with the athlete, so although we can make a bit impact, they need to involve other people in their life.  Now, you can make these suggestions, but it is really important that you don't break the athlete's confidence by speaking to their parents or another adult unless they tell you to.  It is very important to keep their trust. 

IMPORTANT: If you are concerned for anybody's immediate safety, whether the athlete or anybody else, you have a duty to report this to either your welfare officer or to police if you feel there is an immediate threat.

Mental health in Athletics | Information for coaches

4. Signpost to support

Once you have had that conversation and asked open-ended questions, the best thing you can do next is signpost your athlete to further support.  You can direct them to counselling, to talk to their GP, to talk to their parents, but one thing you want to make abundantly clear is that you are not shoving them off to be someone else's problem.  It is really important to reinforce that you are there for them and that you have the time to listen to them.  That's all most athletes really want.

So having these conversations with athletes is a lot easier than you think.  There is a lot of fear around saying the wrong thing, or feeling uncomfortable, but the best thing you can do is listen, ask open ended question and then direct to further support whilst letting them know that you are there for them.

Mental health in Athletics | Information for coaches

5. Educate yourself

Finally, if you want to prepare yourself and learn more, here are some courses that can help you do just that:

Mental Wellbeing in Sport | UKA & EduCare | £9.50

This is quite a broad generic course and is really quite cheap to do.

Mental Health First Aid | MHFA England | approx £125

Slightly more expensive and more work-orientated, but all skills can be brought across to all aspects of your life, not just your coaching.  Regular online courses are available.

Duty to Care | UK Coaching | Free

This is specific to sport, covering welfare, mental health, disability, racism, homophobia and all different aspects of coaching which we are not really trained on when we qualify.  The toolkit ad duty of care badge covers all of these topics, specific to sport.

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