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Coaches' Mental Health...It Affects Everyone (By Charlotte Warren)

The coach is the most critical individual on an athletic team. They are the brains, the motivation, and the parent figure of a team. But what happens when they have their own undiagnosed and untreated mental health or substance abuse condition? The literature is sparse on this issue.

Coaches work under sport specific external pressures which make them vulnerable to mental health disorders (Raedeke, Warren, & Granzyk, 2002). Coaches are pressured to always have their best self “on” for the team; however, this is unrealistic. A coach with mental illness must hide their symptoms to the best of their ability, at risk of being exposed, appearing vulnerable or weak, or incompetent in their coaching and leading abilities for their team. A coach’s mental health symptoms can also present differently than the general population. They may present as more aggressive coaching behaviors, bullying, increased yelling or irritability at players, missing practices, limited outreach or recruiting, or lack of focus on team improvement to name a few. Substance abuse disorders may also unknowingly be a challenge among coaches. This could be a result of continual external pressures and lack of appropriate coping skills to manage the pressures of coaching.

Athletes themselves are not equipped to identify these symptoms among their coaches. It is the responsibility of the athletic staff to help a suffering coach get the help they need. This in turn, would help coaches be a positive example for athletes. It would help model for athletes that seeking help for mental health or substance abuse disorders is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

As a college athlete, I was naive to the immense impact coaches have on their athletes, for the better or worse. Throughout my collegiate athletic career, my small group of teammates and I slowly watched as our beloved coach’s mental health deteriorated. However, our response was not that of empathy, but rather anger and frustration. His erratic behaviors, avoidance, and lack of motivation were negatively impacting our athletic performance as a result of his lack of coaching skills. As a team, we did what we knew how to do at the time to help him. We reported the behaviors we noticed to the head coach and athletic department staff. This was in hopes that they would help him appropriately and in turn benefit our team. These staff members, lacking awareness of mental health, worked towards employment based interventions which were short lived.

It wasn’t until I entered graduate school and learned about mental illness that I was able to recognize my coach was suffering from depression. As college athletes we were not expected to have the knowledge, or language, to communicate this to others and assist him in getting help. We relied on wiser adults and they too fell short of recognizing his symptoms. A couple years later after graduating from my college team, he attempted suicide and was asked to resign from his coaching position. This unjust action validated many of his depressive symptoms and condemned him for his mental illness. His quality of life after this was significantly hindered and he passed away a few years after.

Within the field of sport, the focus is primarily on the performance and well being of the athletes. However, coaches can have a significant impact on an athlete’s life. They are no exception to the same challenges that athletes experience, it simply presents differently due to their leadership position. By improving the mind [WU1] of the body of a team, the team as whole will considerably benefit. My hope for the future is that sport professionals will be better equipped to recognize mental health and substance abuse disorder symptoms of both coaches and athletes and connect them with the professional help that is needed. This will help improve the quality of life for both athletes and coaches and save many lives.

In honor and memory of my coach,

Charlotte Warren

Raedeke, T.D., Warren, A.H., & Granzyk, T. L. (2002). Coaching commitment and turnover: A comparison of current and former coaches. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 73(1), 73-86.

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