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Coaches are trusted adults students can go to for advice and guidance if they are experiencing mental health issues outside of youth sports.

How to address mental health needs in youth sports

Coaches are trusted adults students can go to for advice and guidance if they are experiencing mental health issues

Numerous studies have shown the lifelong importance of exercise and playing sports for young children.  Physically active children are often happier children. Children involved in team sports develop lifelong friendships and develop a work ethic that stays with them through adulthood. But sometimes, the pressures of performing can have negative impacts on children.

Challenges arise when sports become a source of anxiety for children. Ideally, sports provide a fun activity for children to move their bodies and release some stress. They also offer a safe space for children where they are supported by coaches who are trusted adults they can lean on for advice and guidance if they are experiencing mental health issues.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a few examples of youth who have reached out to coaches when they struggled with mental health issues. And, unfortunately, we’ve seen tragic examples of youth who were unable to access the support they needed.

How can coaches create a culture that encourages open conversations about their player’s mental health?  There is a lot on the line, and it’s greater than winning or losing.

Creating a culture that enables children to step forward if they need help 

Coaches are trusted adults in a child’s life. They play a critical role in setting the team’s norms and creating a culture that encourages children to ask for help or seek help for their peers. Establishing a culture of openness starts as soon as a coach begins interacting with the players.

Coaches must reinforce the positive benefits of the sports experience, which varies from sport to sport, but always includes the fundamentals of working together as a team, growing as a person, and taking care of each other. As they discuss the latter point, coaches should be vocal that they are available whenever a child is struggling or worried about a friend. This message needs to be repeated in a non-judgmental and approachable way. And often. 

It’s also important to remember that children pay attention to your actions more than your words. As a coach, you have to be open, approachable, and set the environment for difficult conversations if they’re necessary.

The message of an open culture applies to the coach’s interactions with parents. Parents should be encouraged to share news about big life changes or challenges that their children encounter.

What are some of the signs that young athletes may need mental health services? 

Coaches should watch out for notable changes in a child’s behavior. Some examples include changes in athletic performance, increased irritability, increased conflict with peers, withdrawal from peers, changes in eating, tearfulness, and self-critical behaviors. Children may present challenges in unique ways, but even small changes might signal that a struggle is growing. Do not wait for a child to be in crisis. Reach out. Ask questions early. Share your concerns with parents and administrators. 

How can a coach or administrator have a conversation with a parent whose child may need mental health services? 

Coaches and administrators should approach these conversations with compassion and without judgment. Share what you’ve observed, specifically any changes in behavior. Thoughtfully express your concerns. Ask whether the parent has noticed any changes as well. Offer support.

Approaching these conversations from a place of care and curiosity can help. For example, you could say, “I’ve noticed that [child] has been more withdrawn and tearful lately. I’m slightly worried that they might be struggling with something. I wondered whether you’ve noticed these same changes?”

Be sure to create a safe space for the parent to share their observations, thoughts, and feelings. You can follow up with, “Sometimes when I’ve seen children struggle this way, it’s helped when they have sought out a therapist to listen to the child’s concerns and struggles.”

How can we erase the stigma associated with athletes who asked for mental health services?

The reality is that it will take time to reduce the stigma around seeking mental health support. Coaches can act as role models for their players by normalizing seeking support. If there is an athlete in the media who has sought support, talk about it. Reinforce that it is a strong and brave decision to get mental health support. Use these opportunities to remind your players that you are available anytime they are struggling. Look for creative ways to incorporate healthy coping skills with the athletes such as deep breathing and mindfulness.

In an age-appropriate way, coaches will want to share how they use healthy coping skills in their own lives and the benefits they’ve seen from practicing these skills. The more we can share that it is ok to struggle and why it’s important to seek support, the more we can hope to see a reduction in the overall stigma of seeking mental health help.

Reinforcing the positive benefits of sports

Youth who participate in sports live physically and mentally more healthy lives than their peers who do not. While sports can sometimes be a place of stress for young athletes, it’s also a place where coaches can have a positive impact on the mental health of their players. Coaches have the ability to foster a culture where players feel comfortable stepping forward with their problems. By establishing that culture, coaches can develop a lifelong love for sports and mentally healthy adults.

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