More than 40% of elite sport coaches we surveyed suffered mental ill-health. They need our support, not stigma

With the recent sudden death of former rugby league coach and player Paul Green, conversations about the mental health of elite coaching staff are paramount.

Our research in 2020, published in July this year, found more than 40% of coaches from Olympic sports we surveyed reported mental health symptoms at a level that would warrant professional treatment. But fewer than 6% reported seeking treatment at the time.

Despite facing immense pressure in their daily roles, the mental health needs of elite coaches have been largely neglected in public conversation.

Athletes increasingly discussing mental health

In recent years, we have seen many high-profile athletes across several sports talk openly about their mental health struggles. They include Naomi Osaka, Nick Kyrgios, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Bailey Smith and Majak Daw.

UFC fighter Paddy Pimblett recently challenged mental health stigma and promoted seeking help in a post-fight interview.

When elite athletes openly discuss mental ill-health, this is often publicly celebrated. This aligns with changing cultural attitudes, moving away from rigid stoicism and towards recognising mental ill-health as a reality rather than a rarity.

English UFC fighter Paddy Pimblett on the importance of men talking openly about their mental health.

Coaches largely neglected

But it’s rarer to see people talking about mental ill-health in elite coaches.

Very few coaches have publicly discussed their experiences, with a small number of notable exceptions in the AFL. Former St Kilda player and Richmond coach Danny Frawley openly discussed experiencing depression and anxiety before his death in September 2019.

Former Essendon player and coach James Hird also described experiencing suicidal thoughts, contacting Beyond Blue for crisis support, and receiving inpatient treatment for depression.

Read more:
Naomi Osaka isn’t the only elite athlete to struggle with mental health – here’s how sport should move forward

However, public recognition of the pressures and mental health challenges experienced by elite coaches remains poor.

Elite coaches experience immense pressure in their daily roles. They are subject to many of the same challenges as the elite athletes they coach. These include performance pressure, public scrutiny, online harassment, role insecurity, extended periods travelling for sport and missing significant life events as a result.

Coaches are also tasked with vast levels of responsibility for club and sporting success. Their role requires them to act as the face of club decisions, performance and injuries – and they’re often exposed to blistering public opinion and scrutiny about such matters.

In 2021, tennis player Naomi Osaka commented on the toll of post-match interviews – but no such discussions have been applied to coaches.

Our research

In 2020, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) commissioned a survey of the mental health and wellbeing of coaches and support staff across Australian Olympic-level sports (the 2020 Mental Health Audit). Our team at youth mental health organisation Orygen and the University of Melbourne conducted this study, which represents one of the largest surveys of coach and support staff mental health and wellbeing.

We surveyed 78 coaches and 174 support staff from Australia’s elite Olympic sport system. The survey assessed rates of mental health symptoms, psychological distress, sleep disturbance and alcohol use.

We found elite coaches reported mental health symptoms at a similar level to elite athletes.

Signs of mental health stigma were also apparent. For example, 30% thought mental health problems would reflect poorly on them in a sport setting. This suggests coaches may feel unsafe sharing their mental health experiences.

Job security and feeling overworked appear to be major challenges for elite coaches. This is perhaps unsurprising given that, like athletes, their job security depends on performance. Poor performance often leads to speculation about a coach’s job security and, in many cases, to losing their job.

Elite sport is also fast-paced, which frequently presents staff and athletes with new challenges. The dedication required to succeed in such environments often requires sacrifices in other areas of life.

Less than half of the coaches in our study reported being satisfied with their work-life balance. They described the negative impacts that too much work, work-related stress and lacking quality time had on their quality of life and satisfaction with life.

How to support coaches’ mental health

To reduce stigma, we need a cultural shift in sport, media and the general community.

Sporting organisations and the media need to promote the voices of coaches who have experienced mental health challenges.

It’s also crucial to ensure coaches can access appropriate mental health supports. The AIS’s Mental Health Referral Network is a good example. Those who can use this service include current and former athletes, coaches, support staff and staff employed by Australia’s national sporting organisations.

While elite sports are highly demanding environments, coach mental wellbeing should still be prioritised.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Vita Pilkington receives funding through a Melbourne Research Scholarship from the University of Melbourne. She was involved in a recent independent evaluation of the Australian Institute of Sport Mental Health Referral Network.

Courtney Walton receives funding through a McKenzie Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the University of Melbourne. He was involved in a recent independent evaluation of the Australian Institute of Sport Mental Health Referral Network.

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