Many coaches have wondered whether it is okay to talk about mental health with their athletes. Is this a topic that should be out in the open, or avoided completely? Will conversations about mental health put athletes at greater risk for having mental health issues?
At the USC-MHS, we encourage coaches to talk about mental health with their athletes. It’s a positive part of athlete development to teach them how to check in on themselves.
We often ask athletes how they are feeling physically. “How is that shoulder doing today?”, “Are you feeling rested?”, “Do your muscles feel good – are you ready to play?” We encourage them regularly to check in with how their body feels – and when they aren’t 100%, we ask them to take steps to get back to their full capacity.
Let’s also start encouraging athletes to check in with how their mind feels. Creating a safe space for acknowledging mental health and practicing checking in regularly will improve their ability to recognize any mental health concerns early; hopefully early enough that small steps toward healing are enough to get them back on track – before the problem endangers their wellbeing or safety.
When we shy away from talking about mental health, we also may give athletes the impression that their feelings are abnormal. There tends to be a stereotype in sports that athletes are tough; nothing ever bothers them. As a result, when athletes feel emotions like anxiety about a big game, stress about the number of hours of training, sad about losing a game, or any number of others, they may feel like something is seriously wrong with them. In addition to those initial feelings, they may be left wondering why they can’t be tough like the other athletes and not let these things bother them – only exacerbating the problem.
Athletes need to know that experiencing different emotions is perfectly normal. We should also let them know that mental health, like physical health, falls along a continuum. Some days are better than others. There are great days, terrible days, and anything in between – all of which are completely normal. However, based on recommendations from MentalHeath.net, it is time to get professional help if:
So, should coaches talk about mental health to their athletes – absolutely! It educates athletes, helps them develop skills they need to self-evaluate, and even if they are experiencing mental health issues, talking about mental health can aid the healing process.
If you are worried about feeling awkward talking about mental health with your athletes, Banyan Mental Health recommends practicing what you will say in front of a mirror first so you can become more comfortable with the topic.
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.