Coaches and Adolescent Mental Health – Understanding the mental health of athletes is the first step to their development and success

A Performance Digest Snippet

Will Vickery

By Dr. Will Vickery
July 8th, 2019 | 4 min read

Contents of Article

  1. Introduction
  2. What they found
  3. What this means
  4. Practical Takeaways
  5. References
  6. About the author


It is widely known that physical activity and sport has a considerable impact on the health of the general population and athletes alike. Furthermore, numerous studies have reported on the psychological benefits of organised sport within children and young adults. High levels of mental health issues amongst young adults suggests a need for intervention strategies to change this trend.

Typically, young adults are more comfortable about discussing their mental health issues with peers or a trusted adult and within the sports environment (this trusted adult is very likely to be the coach). Due to the contact time and nature of the coach-athlete relationship, a coach is in an ideal position to provide information or assistance for young athletes with possible psychological issues.

Having said that, there are obviously restrictions on how much information or intervening a coach can have given their typically limited experience and knowledge in the area of mental health. The aim of the current study was then to gain a greater understanding of how coaches perceive their role in the promotion of mental health for young athletes.

What the researchers did

Using focus groups within 20 Australian coaches from an array of sports (swimming, cricket, basketball, Australian rules, and tennis), the researchers highlighted a number of key points relating to the mental health within the context of adolescents and sport:
Many of the coaches suggested that when working in youth sport they often feel required to serve a number of different roles including being a mentor, an educator, a motivator, as well as someone whom their young athletes can confide in.

Most coaches also saw their role within the mental health of their young athletes as someone who was better placed to identify possible psychological issues and refer them to those with more experience and knowledge in this area, as opposed to intervening and providing assistance.

A number of coaches found it challenging to discuss mental health with their young athletes or that this did not happen directly as they were unsure how their athletes might react. On the other hand, some coaches encouraged their athletes to discuss mental health issues with them and made this part of the club culture.

What they found

Coaches were generally unsure on how to approach the topic of mental health with young athletes after initially asking “Are you alright?” due to a lack of knowledge and experience within this area.

The coaches appeared to have some knowledge of the possible triggers linked to mental health problems within young adults including schoolwork, relationships (e.g. parents, teachers at school), and social media. Additionally, these same coaches tended to understand some possible recommendations on how to overcome these issues, including discussing their problems with a trusted adult or professional and sufficient sleep.

Coaches also believed that the parents of the young adults played a key role in the mental health of young athletes as well as their personal development. Unfortunately, the coaches noted that many parents do not see this as their role that may lead to future mental health issues amongst the young athletes.

What this means

It is clear that coaches, particularly of young adults, must play a number of different roles, which includes dealing with the mental health of their athletes. Although it may not be one of the reasons for a coach taking up employment with an athlete or a team, coaches understand that they have a responsibility to oversee and be mindful of the psychological well-being and development of their athletes.

Coaches seemed to know what may be the cause of any mental health issues and what may be some approaches on how to overcome these. However, the manner in which coaches approach this though appears to differ considerably and, in most cases, as stated by the authors “…coaches were unsure of what help was necessary and unsure of how to provide that help.”
This highlights that coaches do understand the impact an athlete’s mental health can have on their development as well as performance, yet they are unsure on what they can really do about this.

Practical Takeaways

Psychological health is often taken for granted or not even a consideration for many coaches when constructing their training plans. A lack of education or experience in the area is likely to cause many coaches to ignore this part of an athlete’s development, which is entirely understandable.

Those involved in youth sport (or at any level) are encouraged to improve their mental health literacy. Again, as the authors suggest, this might include becoming more aware of the signs and symptoms of poor mental health as well as acknowledging when to seek professional help.

As such, it may be recommended that coaches add mental health education to their continuing professional development list as this will most definitely develop the coach’s skillset and ability to connect with their athletes, not to mention support their health and wellbeing.

This Performance Digest snippet was taken from issue #22, August 2018. Members, you can access the full issue by following this link here. Alternatively, if you aren’t a member yet, fill out the form below to find out how The Performance Digest can transform your coaching now!


  1. Investigating Youth Sports Coaches’ Perceptions of Their Role in Adolescent Mental Health. Ferguson et al., (2018)
Will Vickery

Dr. Will Vickery

Will is a Lecturer of Sport Coaching at Deakin University, Australia. Prior to this he has worked with Cricket NSW and Cricket Australia in an array of roles ranging from a sport scientist, development coach and a strength and conditioning coach. He completed his PhD at the University of Newcastle, Australia within the area of practice design.

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