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How Coaches Can Be an Source of Mental Health Support for Student-Athletes

Youth sports coaches can be—and frequently are—strong role models and mentors for kids. But too often, they are ill-equipped to handle sensitive issues, including mental health challenges.

There’s a growing movement to change that, experts said during a panel discussion at the SXSW EDU conference here. After all, nearly 30 million U.S. children and teens participate in some form of organized sports.

“Coaches are really well-suited to be able to check in with young people on a regular basis,” said Hannah Olson, the director of the Center for Leadership in Athletics at the University of Washington. “[They] see them every day at practice. [They can] understand what their baseline is, what they look like on an average day, and be able to know when something’s going on, for better or for worse.”

And students look up to their coaches, making these educators prime candidates to offer mental health support and resources.

“Sport is a context that matters really, really deeply to a lot of young people,” Olson said. “Perhaps what happens to them out on the field or on the court is more important to them than what happens in their math classroom, for example.”

Yet coaches rarely get training on how to meet the social-emotional or mental health needs of their student athletes.

A 2022 national survey, conducted by The Ohio State University, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Initiative, the Susan Crown Exchange, and Nike, found that coaches are most confident at promoting good sportsmanship, making athletes feel welcome on the team, teaching basic sporting techniques and skills, and reporting child abuse and neglect.

The coaches were least confident when it came to helping athletes navigate the pressures of social media, linking athletes to mental health resources, referring athletes to supports for unmet basic needs, like food assistance, and identifying off-the-field stressors among student athletes.

Just under half of coaches said they were “moderately” or “extremely” prepared to address mental health concerns. Forty-two percent felt prepared to work with student-athletes who have experienced trauma, and 35 percent felt prepared to work with athletes who have eating disorders.

Coaches want more training

Two-thirds of the coaches surveyed said they’re interested in having more training on mental health. Only half of school-based coaches are teachers or educators—the rest are parents or other community members.

“Coaches are really undertrained, as a general rule—most coaches receive no training, and the training that they do receive is often not around positive youth development, social and emotional learning, [or] supporting positive mental health of athletes,” said Megan Bartlett, the founder of the national nonprofit Center for Healing and Justice Through Sport.

Said Doug Ute, the executive director of the Ohio High School Athletic Association and a former longtime superintendent: “We’re just so doggone happy that somebody wants to coach 8th grade track, we throw them the keys, and we move on.”

Last year, Ohio became the first state in the country to require that all high school coaches receive mental health training. The Ohio High School Athletic Association is working with policymakers to incorporate that training into already existing professional development, so coaches don’t feel overwhelmed, Ute said.

Ute, a former basketball coach, said he’s excited about what the new law will mean for coaches and students in the state.

“All of my PD as a coach was focused on X’s and O’s—not one bit of wellness for the athletes,” he said. “I wish I could go back and be that young 22-year-old again that was in a classroom and coaching, and focus a little bit more on that wellness of my athletes.”

After all, he added, “coaching is an extension of the school day.”

A similar bill in Maryland passed the state House but later died in committee last year.

And in Washington state, the Center for Leadership in Athletics is working with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to pass a policy that would require baseline training for coaches that includes foundational skills in youth development, Olson said.

What coaches can do to support students’ mental health

The head coach of the Boston Celtics tries to spend one minute with every player on the team at every practice to check in and see how they’re doing, said Vince Minjares, the project manager of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based policy nonprofit. That kind of small, extra step can go a long way, he said.

After all, coaches don’t always know what happened during the school day or at home, Ute said. Getting to know students off the field can help bridge that gap: “Do you know your student-athletes beyond what their skill level is at dribbling or shooting a basketball?”

Coaches can also teach students how to regulate their emotions, Bartlett said. Sports can be a good stress-reliever, but most students need to first learn how to identify when they’re feeling out of control and how to reset themselves, she said.

“We have to understand that kids cannot leave it at the door,” Bartlett said. “[They] cannot turn [their] brain off and say, all of a sudden, ‘I’m just fine for basketball practice or to jump in the pool,’ unless we teach them skills that help them regulate those emotions, help them transition from where they’re at to the environment they need to be in.”

And coaches need to learn how to regulate their own emotions, too, she said. Otherwise, coaches’ actions can be harmful to students’ mental health, she and Olson said.

“Just try to imagine another setting where we can put a grown adult in front of a young person and let them scream in their face, and it’s fine for the outcome so they can win a game,” Olson said. “We don’t let that happen anywhere else, but that has been the norm in sports for a really long time—tolerating toxic behaviors, abusive behaviors.”

Bartlett said she hopes there’s a broader narrative shift about youth mental health that focuses more on prevention than intervention. Sports and coaches should be at the center of that conversation, she said.

“The sport environment is uniquely suited to help young people heal from overwhelming stress or trauma—and there are too many young people who are experiencing overwhelming stress and trauma,” she said. “And even if you aren’t, these practices, the idea of focusing on safe environments where young people can show up as themselves, focusing on the value of physical activity and moving your body, focusing on the experience of being able to be stressed and come back to a baseline … those are the things that make us mentally well.”

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