How Youth Sports Leaders Can Support the Mental Health of Their Players
By Melissa Wickes
May 27, 2022
When I was a teen, I experienced a mental health crisis that rendered me unable to attend some of my weight training sessions, and my coach was notified by my school. On my first day back, my coach pulled me aside and told me something that changed my life. He said, I want you to know that I want to be here for you however you need it. I don’t know if I can be the person you need to get through this, but if I can’t I will help you find that person. It was simple and short, but it made me feel supported and comfortable opening up about what I was going through.
COVID has had a profoundly negative impact on the mental health of young people, according to the CDC. The good news is, leaders in youth sports can help be helpful and supportive in many ways. Additionally, playing on team sports have a positive impact on the mental health of young athletes. Youth sports administrators and coaches play an important role in the lives of growing kids during a pivotal time in their lives. They may turn to their coaches for guidance, advice, or even a shoulder to lean on during the difficult times.
In our last chapter of this May’s Mental Health in Youth Sports series, we’ll provide tips for youth sports leaders to support the mental health of their players both on and off the field with help from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Remember, if you suspect a player may be struggling in a way that requires professional intervention, don’t hesitate to connect with the parents on this.
6 Ways Youth Sports Coaches Can Support Player Mental Health
“If we continue to sweep things under the rug and do what I call ‘damage control,’ I think we’ll see an escalation of mental health symptoms and clinical disorders in kids we probably could have helped,” said Dr. Kevin Chapman, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and founder and director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, at the Aspen Institute’s 2021 Project Play Summit. “What I hope for is more of a preventive approach. If we can capture youth and their families, coaches, and sports organizations early and infuse in them that mental skills, self-talk, and the idea that it’s OK to not be OK, then that becomes a more automatic process of youth sports.”
Cultivate a Safe Space for Communication
It may seem obvious, but creating an environment where players feel comfortable discussing what they’re going through with you is crucial in supporting young athletes through a crisis. One way this can be done is by positively reinforcing athletes for being open and honest with you about their feelings. “Thank you for telling me this and trusting me, let’s find you the help you need,” the IOC suggests.
Destigmatize Mental Health
Struggling alone is something no child should have to face, but when they feel like they may be the only person dealing with anxiety, feelings of depression, OCD, an eating disorder, or another mental health crisis, it can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness. By leading open conversations about mental health—about yours and the athletes—and conducting check ins regularly, you can help players feel more comfortable coming forward about these kinds of issues.
Ensure Training is Developmentally Appropriate
Over training or pushing athletes past what they’re capable of at their age can cause low motivation, increased depression, anger, and even eating disorders. Ensure that athletes have ample time for recovery between sessions.
Help Players Respond to Stressors in Healthy Ways
When young athletes express stress and anxiety to you, there are plenty of ways you can suggest they face these feelings in healthy ways. Meditation, yoga, therapy, and leisurely exercise are a few.
Teach Athletes Skills That Promote Resilience and Self Compassion
Here are some ways you can teach athletes resilience and self compassion through sport:
- Encourage a balanced lifestyle—between sport and other activities
- Teach them to evaluate setbacks constructively—how failure can have positives
- Help them develop their support systems
- Help them develop a growth mindset—setbacks are all a part of the process, as are new experiences and setting and achieving goals.
Offer Mental Health Days From Practice
Everyone needs a day off sometimes, and you don’t have to have a broken leg to deserve it. While mental health struggles are not always visible, they can affect performance and taking a break can actually have more positive effects on athletes in the long run.
Supporting Athlete Mental Health Year Round
As May, Mental Health Awareness Month, comes to a close, we encourage you to continue to implement practices of positive mental health on your teams. For more information and resources for supporting the mental health of youth, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.