If I say to you, “Let’s talk about mental health and sport,” who is the first group of people that comes to mind?
My guess is your first answer was athletes; but did you also think about coaches, parents, officials, administrators and anyone else who may be involved?
At the USC-MHS, our mission is to develop sport environments that allow for optimum mental wellness. Sport environments support the participation of a lot of people in a wide variety of capacities. We recognize that even though many of these people may not have an active role on the field or court in the same way athletes do, they are not free from exposure to additional pressures that could lead to mental health concerns. The USC-MHS seeks to provide mental health resources and support for ALL SPORT PARTICIPANTS, not only athletes.
There are many scenarios in sport that could increase the likelihood that a participant may need mental health support. We’ll consider a few examples.
A coach’s job is not at an easy one. They are responsible for overseeing the development of multiple athletes at any given time. Most coaches became involved because they love working with athletes, they care about them as people, and enjoy being a mentor to them. But, in taking on the tasks of leading a team, there are situations that could have damaging impacts to their own mental wellbeing:
◘ Having to decide which players do an do not get playing time
◘ Seeing athletes they care about struggle due to performance, injuries, etc.
◘ Managing the expectations for wins with those for creating a fun playing environment
◘ Feeling pressure from parents with a broad range of expectations
◘ Balancing coaching responsibilities with other professional and personal responsibilities
Parents have a huge role in sports. They are often transporting athletes to practices and competitions, managing home schedules to allow for sports participation, providing the funding to make participation possible, and supporting every part of their child’s journey through sports. Consider these potential risk factors for mental health issues for parents:
◘ Having very busy schedules with little to no personal time for self-care
◘ Seeing their child struggle through not getting the desired playing time, performance disappointments, injuries, etc.
◘ Supporting their child’s sports goals while also finding balance with what is best for their overall development as a person
◘ Feeling pressured to continually increase involvement levels
◘ Keeping up with the financial investment required for sport participation
Sports competitions cannot go on without sports officials. Most officials are involved because they love the sport and want to make sure athletes have an opportunity to play in a safe and fair environment. But this is another role where there are many challenges that could lead to mental health issues:
◘ Listening to complaints about their decisions and the quality of their officiating
◘ Competing for limited advancement opportunities
◘ Feeling unsupported in the importance of their role
◘ Balancing time spent officiating with time for professional and family activities
Sports organizers and administrators also have a great deal of responsibility in sports. Sometimes their work is done behind the scenes. Yet, without them, there would not be teams, clubs, or leagues. Since administrators are in leadership positions and often have a good amount of experience, it may be easy to overlook that they also face pressures that could impact their mental health:
◘ Feeling disconnected from other sport participants
◘ Committing a significant amount of time to the sport
◘ Facing uncertainties about the financial viability of the club or league
◘ Becoming emotionally drained while providing dispute and conflict resolutions
We have provided 4 categories of participants in sport beyond athletes. Yet, there are many more we have not discussed such as volunteers, additional family members of athletes, assigners of sports officials, etc. At the USC-MHS, we believe that developing sport environments that allow for optimum mental wellness means that we support the mental health of ALL INVOLVED!
After reading these examples of risk factors for mental health issues, we would like to remind you that they are just that: examples. Please remember that mental health challenges are unique and not experienced in the same way or for the same reasons by everyone. We should never judge whether someone has a valid reason for experiencing mental health challenges. Instead, our role is to provide support and, as needed, pathways to professional help when we notice signs and symptoms of mental health issues.
For additional mental health resources and support for anyone who participates in sport in any capacity, please visit our Resources page.
Margaret Domka is a Co-founder and the Executive Director of the U.S. Center for Mental Health & Sport. She is also carrying out mental health and sport research at Clemson University. Margaret is a Mental Health First Aid certified instructor and holds the IOC Certificate on Mental Health in Elite Sport. She is a former FIFA Women’s World Cup referee and served on the USA panel of FIFA referees for 10 years.