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Mental health in athletics.  Tips for coaches

Track Talk: Mental Health in Athletics | #1

by Sophie Warden

Mental health is crucial, as we all know.  There has rightly been a big focus on mental health recently, and most coaches will be aware of the need to support their athletes.  But how do coaches know when to talk to their athletes about the support they need? 

Athlete and coach Sophie Warden is sharing a series of information on mental health in athletics, her personal experience with mental health and tips for coaches and athletes.  Sophie is a third year Sports Coaching & Development student at Edge Hill University, currently conducting research on mental health in athletics.  All the thoughts expressed are her own opinions.. 

In this first video, she shares tips for coaches about the warning signs. 

Video  transcript:  Tips for coaches to look for in their athletes' mental health

Today I wanted to talk about some helpful things that coaches could look for that may indicate that that athlete needs a little bit of extra mental health support.  1 in 4 people will have mental health difficulties every year, and athletes aren’t immune.  In fact, in 2019 34% of elite athletes experienced anxiety or depression*.  

Mental health in sport: Athlete holding a ball of paper with depression

Research has shown that athletes are more likely to confide in a coach** but often coaches don’t know what signs to look for.  It often takes an athlete getting to rock bottom before they have the confidence to come forward and talk to their coach.  So if coaches can notice the early signs and approach their athletes first, sometimes that can stop things getting to that really bad point, because they've got help earlier.  So here are some indicators that may suggest your athlete needs more support.

Mental health in sport.  Athlete sitting with their head down

1.  Behaviour Changes

As a coach, you get to know your athletes.  You develop a relationship.  You get to know who's quiet, who's loud, who copes well under pressure, who doesn't, who enjoys banter at the start the session, and who puts their earphones in and warms up by themselves.  You get to know how each of your athletes behaves and what works for them.  So if you start to notice any particular changes in that behaviour or that athletes personality, that may be a cause for concern.  It could be nothing, but it's always best to just check in with that athlete.  Most of the time an athlete may just need to talk to someone about external stressors in their lives and as coaches we can do that.

Mental health in sport: Athlete with worries

2. Increased Negative Self-Talk

As athletes we can be quite critical of ourselves.  I know, I certainly am.  But it's something to be aware of as a coach.  If you notice an athlete talking about themselves negatively more frequently then this should be a red flag.  They may consistently criticise their body, their performance, their ability or even their mindset.  If that is increasing and getting more and more common, then that's something you need to talk to that athlete about.  Look out for phrases like “I’m useless”, “Why do I even try?”, “I’m the slow one, I’ll go at the back” etc.  This is a great opportunity to talk to your athlete and challenge these thoughts.  By doing so you can majorly boost your athlete’s confidence and self-esteem which makes for a happier and stronger athlete.

Mental Health in sport: Athlete wearing heavy clothing sitting on a bench

3. Wearing Clothes That Are Inappropriate To The Weather

In the cold weather of the UK this might not stick out to a coach as a red flag.  However, if an athlete is quite obviously too warm or uncomfortable but refuses to take of one of their several layers this could be cause for concern.  If an athlete wears baggy layers or refuses to even roll their sleeves up then that can be a sign of either a lack of body confidence, which could be linked to some other mental health issues such as an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, or just that they don't feel comfortable and confident in their own skin.  But it can also be an indicator that that person may be self-harming.  It may be they've got scars, or marks that they don't want somebody to see and ask questions about that they may be trying to cover up a bit more.  Either way, it's a good time to have a conversation with your athlete.  Obviously, this needs to be handled delicately, especially with younger athletes where it may be a better idea to talk to the parents.

Mental Health in Athletics: Athlete drowning, asking for help

4. Self-Medication And Impaired Judgement

You tend to find this more with the older athletes who might get really involved in partying, gambling, or getting themselves into risky situations.  This can be hard to notice as a coach because a lot of those behaviours are going to happen away from the track.  But it's important to have a good relationship with your athletes and be able to talk to them about what else is going on in their life.  If you do notice that an athlete is starting to engage in those risky behaviours, or is using unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drugs this is a sign that you've should pull them aside for a chat.  It’s important with these situations not to make accusations or shame the athlete.  It’s better to ask them why they are engaging in these behaviours and if they recognise how destructive they have become.

Mental Health in Sport: Coach and Athlete talking

5. The Athlete Tells You

This is quite easily the most obvious, and biggest sign, but it's amazing how many coaches miss it.  If an athlete comes to you and says “Can I talk to you?” Or “I’ve been feeling really down recently” or “Do you have 5 minutes?”, that's them confiding in you.  All you should do in that situation is listen and make yourself available.  The worst thing you can do when an athlete comes to you and confides in you about them feeling stressed, feeling depressed or anything else is to dismiss them and say “I’ll talk to you about it later, I’m busy right now”.  The best thing you can do is say “Let's sit and have a chat. Let's talk. Let me listen to what you need from me.”  

Mental Health in Sport: Happy athletes

Often as coaches we can feel unequipped to deal with these situations, and I'm not gonna lie to you, they can be uncomfortable for both the coach and the athlete.  Nobody wants to have that conversation.  But the important thing is, whether we want to or not, whether it's uncomfortable or not, those conversations with our athletes are really, really important.  If it helps one athlete stay in the sport, stay happy, stay healthy, stay alive then we as coaches have got a responsibility to give them 5 or 10 minutes out of our day to just listen, and notice.


Watch Sophie's recommendations on how to talk to athletes about mental health in the third installment.

Sophie talks about how athletes can be happy with 'Enough'  in the second installment in the series.


*Gouttebarge et al, 2019

**Donovan et al, 2006


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