Greg Hire is a nine year veteran with the Perth Wildcats in the National Basketball League. A 3-time championship player, he has built on reputation as a hard working and versatile leader and a key member of the Wildcats.
Greg is also the founder of A Stitch in Time, a not for profit organisation focusing on raising awareness on mental health, particularly in young people. He has contributed this excellent article to help coaches understand their role in monitoring the mental health of their young athletes.
Coaching young athletes can be a complex and challenging process for any person. The developmental phase of childhood through to adolescence is a time of important cognitive, emotional and social changes, where adolescents look to establish a sense of independence, self-awareness, competency and identity.
Mental Health specifically in sport is now far more openly discussed – behind closed doors and in public. But there is still more to be done to better educate athletes on the benefit of seeking help when dealing with personal issues,
Some coaches lack the confidence to talk about mental health; and the primary aim of this article to try and adjust. It’s a common trait amongst many people – talking about Mental Health conditions is a sensitive topic, an individual may have concerns about asking the wrong questions, the perceived lack of knowledge. If done in the correct manner, coaches and/or individuals can have a significant impact on these young persons lives.
Psychologist, and General Manager of Youth Focus, Chris Harris contends “ if we’re going to reduce the highs rates of psychological distress reported by young Australians then it’s imperative that community members (including coaches) have the confidence and willing to engage in these conversations at the earliest opportunity”.
My fondest memories growing up as a adolescent was the knowledge of my weekly basketball training sessions at my local basketball club – that consistency in engaging with peers and familiar faces. It was something that was regular; something needed in a turbulent life. Growing up, I needed support and those basketball coaches provided that.
My high school basketball coach had a tremendous impact on my life – mentoring me in a huge capacity, more so changing my life in a huge way. Ultimately, he never knew the impact he had on me as a teenager but that is the impact coaches can have on a young persons life.
Because of the relationship that coaches develop with players – it is them that will be more alert to any subtle changes in behaviour. There is no need to possess a specialist knowledge of Mental Health; having a Mental Health condition can be incredibly isolating and awareness of the stigma that surround Mental Health conditions is rising, yet the number of people experiencing these conditions is also greater than ever.
Due to the social connection that coaches build with their players, this can lead to a tremendous impact on wellbeing – not only does this assist with conversations but by having a range of abilities that can help individuals manage their mental wellbeing more effectively – this can strengthen their resilience to developing a problem. Personally, my belief is that a vital first step towards improving and maintaining mental wellbeing is by opening up and talking about emotional problems.
The statistics surrounding Mental Health conditions are staggering – 1 in 7 primary school kids experience mental ill-health, 1 in 5 adults will experience mental health problems this year, 1 in 4 adolescents experience mental ill-health with 65% of adolescents not seeking help for their mental illness. Funding and awareness around this critical area has dramatically risen, but unfortunately the lives lost to suicide in Australia continues to rise.
For me, it’s about educating as many individuals as possible about the importance of Mental Health, giving it the same priority as physical health, a ‘parity of esteem’. Similar to physical health there is a continuum from wellness to illness for mental health too. So mental health is the good end of the spectrum, the optimum to strive for.
We need to talk about this more and give young people the strategies to achieve it. Explaining the difference between Mental Health and dealing with every day life stress. When these stresses are not managed, they can potentially lead to Mental Health issues at the unwell end of the continuum. Chris said “Social connectedness and a sense of belonging are two of the most protective factors for positive mental health”. Therefor a individual needs to know they have support of those around them, and it’s accessible.
So…What has all this got to do with the domain of sports coaching, you may ask?
Raising coaches awareness
You don’t need to be a mathematician to figure out from these statistics that there is a strong probability a number of people you coach will have a mental health problem.
Learning how to recognise the flags at the earliest opportunity so they don’t become red flags is necessary. This involves knowing how to open a conversation about mental health with a participant you are concerned about, and acquiring the confidence to be able to offer appropriate guidance. Which can be a daunting proposition for a grass-roots coach. It’s about encouraging everyone to talk about Mental Health and making those conversations okay.
Some of the valuable benefits of effective coaching is that it helps to build resilience, self-esteem and confidence in participants. They learn how to deal with adversity, how to use failure to their advantage, and this improves their capacity for dealing with challenges that life will inevitably throw their way.
In other words, being equipped with such attributes can help someone manage their mental wellbeing more effectively – by either helping them cope better with an existing mental health problem or strengthen their resilience to help prevent a problem from developing. Building resilience so people can cope better when things don’t go so well is incredibly important. We are all going to have big events in our lives and transitions that test us.
The coach-athlete relationship
There is strong evidence to suggest that physical activity helps to lower anxiety and minimise the risk of depression by releasing feel-good hormones – endorphins – which help to boost your mood, while giving you greater control over the stress hormone cortisol to help facilitate feelings of relaxation and calm.
But the benefits of coaching and physical exercise on mental health and wellbeing are truly maximised by building a strong coach-athlete relationship. Chris describes it as a scaffolding process with coaches providing the foundation and support for a person to grow, and have the strength to adapt to life stresses.
As you get to know your players better, and they get to know you, the more chance there is of them opening up to you and looking to you for emotional support.
Coaches who understand the person behind the athlete will be more alert to any subtle changes in behaviour. if you have earned their trust and respect, you could be as much, or even more of a confidant, as a parent, teacher or best friend. Being empathetic and a willing and patient listener can be a valuable trait, showing those struggling with a mental health problem that they don’t have to suffer in silence, or alone.
Duty of care and building trust
On the flip side, teenagers and young adults who are at a particularly vulnerable age, and who value the opinion of their coach, could feel let down if they believe their emotions are being ignored.
Coaches who support people as part of a team have a duty of care for those who are in their sessions. A duty of care to ensure their wellbeing and their safety. There is nothing more protective and caring than supporting positive mental health. This means recognising when a member of your team is struggling.
To put it simply I refer to the adage, treat people how you would want to be treated yourself. It’s about asking those in your care, with confidence, what sometimes can be a difficult question – “I’ve noticed that you don’t seem yourself”, or, “There seems to have been a drop in your performance” – and empowering coaches to have those conversations and not be expected to have all the answers but to be prepared to give over some time and listen.
If we don’t ask meaningful questions – and that does not mean socially acceptable rhetorical questions like “Are you okay?” at the beginning of a session – coaches are not giving their participants the opportunity to say if they are struggling.
Basic interpersonal skills, in other words, as opposed to specialist knowledge of mental health is all that is required. You don’t need to start think you are a Mental Health counsellor, though we can acknowledge you are in a really trusted position… and ultimately people tend to open up to people they look up to and trust.
There’s also a perception that some coaches don’t bring certain things up because they are not comfortable talking about it. They think they’ve got to fix everybody. Actually that’s really not the case. It’s exactly the same with mental health as with physical health, when you would suggest someone go and see a doctor or physio if they have a problem. Coaches just need to be aware of the signposting that’s out there so they know where to best direct them.
With the assistance of Chris Harris, Youth Focus General Manager Community Engagement and psychologist, I would like to offer the following advice to coaches on how to open a conversation about mental health with a participant they are concerned about:
- Setting that is appropriate, private and quiet
- Conversations that are simple, non judgemental, confidential.
- Open, honest and clear about your concerns
- Reassure your athlete – people may not always be ready to talk straight away but letting them know you are there.
- Explore strategies that you both agree on to promote positive mental health (as you would for a physical concern)
- Support as necessary including involving others (GP, Psychologist, family) – and for yourself
It’s also important to keep in mind
- If your participant is under 18 or you believe is at risk of harm to self or others, seek support from your Welfare Officer.
- Remember to keep sessions fun as excess pressure can make anxiety levels worse.
- Challenge inappropriate behaviour: The way others behave can impact on someone with a mental health problem.
- Many people feel anxious when joining a group so ensure you create a supportive environment where everyone feels welcome.
A Stitch in Time mental health warning signs – things to look out for in participants
- Not turning up for sessions.
- Change in usual behaviour/mood/interaction with others.
- Changes in training (over/under).
- Neglecting self-care.
- Changes in work output /motivation.
- Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
- Changes in habits (appetite, smoking other behaviours).
- Wanting to talk about how they are feeling.
- It is important not to make assumptions about a participant’s behaviour. Talk to them about how they are feeling and any changes in behaviour you have noticed.
In conclusion, mental health issues in young athletes are common. Maintaining an athlete’s “super human” identity as well as pressure from parents and coaches are all contributing factors. Steps for the future are to ensure that all young athletes have personalised coping mechanisms to deal with stress and feel confident and comfortable to ask for help.
I hope through this piece, both yourself and staff feel comfortable enough to approach your player regarding Mental Health conditions having a proactive approach on athlete mental health is important for wellbeing. If you would like to contact me further to discuss your club/staff members can increase their knowledge in this space please do not hesitate to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org