Coaching an Athlete With a Mental Illness

Before you become a coach, they cover how to identify and treat a concussion but they leave out another important brain “injury,” one that affects too many athletes who are left to suffer in silence because they can’t be seen as weak. Coaches need to stop prioritizing winning over a child’s well-being, especially at such a young age. As athletes are starting to specialize and start elite training younger and younger, we need to reevaluate the environment we are raising young athletes in. Coaches are given a special place in a child’s life and the opportunity to either lift them up or destroy them.


All coaches need to know the warning signs of mental illness. They can be broad and hard to identify but taking the time to look out for the well-being of an athlete is essential in creating a safe environment where your team can learn, grow, and compete. From the very beginning, create an environment where it’s okay to ask for a mental break and ask for help. Also, be aware of how your coaching method can affect an athlete. Remember that every athlete reacts differently, so make sure that your intentions are to bring out the best in them, not to just win. Go in with an open mind and be okay with adjusting your methods with each kid when addressing them one on one. 


Try to take a moment with each one of them and personally ask a question: With five seconds left on the clock and you need them to take the game-winning shot, it’s game point and you need them to get the game-winning kill, or you are down by 1 with two outs and a runner on third. If you call a timeout, have them tell you how they’d prefer you to talk to them in order to keep them relaxed and focused when the game is on the line. They may want you to yell at them or they may just want a simple “I believe in you.” Everyone will have a different response to this question and it’s important to know everyone’s personal answer.


Athletics offers so much more value than just teaching the sport. Do not deprive your athletes of the valuable life lessons that athletics offers. Remember that mental health is a much bigger component in athletics than most realize and it only gets worse when the level of competition gets higher because they aren’t taught how to deal with it. As the competition heats up, an athlete will just let their troubles bubble up inside them because they aren’t taught any different. Preach to your athletes that they don’t have to have a mental illness to take care of their mental health. Address the concern before it becomes an issue that affects their everyday life.


“You wouldn’t wait until you had Stage 4 cancer to take care of your physical health, would you? No — you would start at Stage 1, with education, prevention, and early intervention.” -Mental Health America


Your athletes are looking up to you so open up a sincere conversation and let them know that it’s okay to come to you with any kind of issue. Make sure you post resources that are available and encourage them to reach out for help if they are struggling. Most importantly, develop a personal relationship with each kid so they can feel comfortable talking to you, they should never fear you. Also, have the team develop a strong relationship and have them look out for each other. Every athlete may not be comfortable enough to come to you with concerns, so having someone on the team who understands on a more personal level can save a life.


At the beginning of the season, it may be beneficial to have your athletes identify one person that they can go to no matter what. Have them write their name and a way to contact them. This can be kept completely private but let everyone know that if they have no one to write down, tell them to write your name and number.


If you know that one of your athletes is suffering, or might be suffering, reach out to them. Talk to them privately and bring up what you have been noticing. They may or may not shut down on you but offer some guidance, let them know that if they aren’t ready to talk about it, that you’ll be there to listen whenever they are. Also, offer other ways to get help if they need it. Refer them to or let them know that they can text HOME to 741741 if they are in a crisis. 


As you move forward coaching this athlete, pay close attention to their behavior and interactions. Don’t force your way into solving their problem, just silently observe to keep an eye on them. Be prepared to hold back your more intense coaching when around them. It is okay to be hard on your team, but if you notice that a particular athlete is fragile you may have to adjust. There is a difference between building mental toughness and compromising mental health. Don’t tear your athletes down and say it’s to make them mentally tough. The world is going to do enough tearing them down, be the one who can pick them and teach them to fight back. 


Being an athlete is not easy for anyone, but it can especially difficult for one who struggles with a mental illness. This struggle is amplified for those who are left to suffer in silence because they fear judgment, lack the knowledge of resources, and/or have no one they feel comfortable going to. Choose to build your athlete up, don’t abuse your privilege to make a difference in a kid’s life. 


2 thoughts on “Coaching an Athlete With a Mental Illness

  1. This article is insightful to coaches and coaches-to-be everywhere. I enjoyed the suggestion that a coach arrange for personal conversations to discuss best ways to inspire the individual in a clutch situation. This can also be a written assignment prior to the personal conversation. A coach can keep the assignments for future conversation and reflection.

    As a mental health professional and advocate, I am thrilled that we (society) are encouraging positive conversations about mental health issues.

    Lastly. I encourage the author to keep on writing. She is blessed with natural writing skills and knowledge about mental health exceeding her years! Great job!


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