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More than 40% of the elite athletic trainers we surveyed suffered from mental illness. They need our support, not stigma

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

Our 2020 study, published in July this year, found that more than 40% of the Olympic sports coaches we surveyed reported mental health symptoms at levels that would warrant professional treatment. But less than 6% said they received treatment at the time.

Despite facing immense pressure in their day-to-day work, the needs of elite mental health coaches have been largely neglected in the public debate.

Athletes are increasingly discussing mental health

In recent years, we have seen many high-profile athletes from different sports speaking openly about their mental health issues. These include Naomi Osaka, Nick Kyrgios, Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Bailey Smith and Majak Daw.

UFC fighter Paddy Pimblett recently questioned the stigma surrounding mental health and advocated seeking help in a post-fight interview.

When top athletes speak openly about mental illness, it is often publicly celebrated. This is consistent with changing cultural attitudes, away from rigid stoicism and towards acknowledging mental illness as a reality rather than a rarity.

England UFC fighter Paddy Pimblett on the importance of men being open about their mental health.

coach largely neglected

But it’s rarer for people to talk about mental illness in elite trainers.

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 spoke openly about experiencing depression and anxiety before his death in September 2019.

Former Essendon player and coach James Hird also described having thoughts of suicide, contacting Beyond Blue for crisis support and being hospitalized for depression.

READ ALSO: Naomi Osaka Isn’t The Only Elite Athlete Struggling With Mental Health Issues – This Is How The Sport Should Move On

However, public recognition of the pressures and psychological challenges faced by elite coaches remains low.

Elite trainers face immense pressure in their day-to-day duties. They face many of the same challenges as the elite athletes they train. These include pressure to perform, public scrutiny, online harassment, role insecurity, prolonged travel to exercise and missing out on important life events as a result.

The trainers are also given a great deal of responsibility for the success of the club and sport. Their role requires them to be the face of club decisions, performance and injuries – and they are often subject to harsh public opinion and scrutiny on such matters.

In 2021, tennis player Naomi Osaka commented on the number of post-game interviews – but such discussions have not been applied to coaches.

Our research

In 2020, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) commissioned a survey on the mental health and well-being of coaches and coaches in Australian Olympic-level sports (2020 Mental Health Audit). Our team from youth mental health organization Orygen and the University of Melbourne conducted this study, which is one of the largest surveys of the mental health and well-being of coaches and carers.

We surveyed 78 coaches and 174 coaches from Australia’s elite Olympic sports system. The survey assessed the incidence of mental health symptoms, mental distress, sleep disorders and alcohol use.

We found that elite coaches reported similar mental health symptoms as elite athletes.

Signs of mental health stigma were also evident. For example, 30% felt that having mental health problems in a sporting environment would reflect poorly on them. This suggests that coaches feel insecure about sharing their mental health experiences.

Job security and feeling overworked seem to be big challenges for elite trainers. This is perhaps not surprising since, like athletes, their job security depends on performance. Poor performance often leads to speculation about a coach’s job security and, in many cases, loss of their job.

Even top-class sport is fast-moving, which constantly presents employees and athletes with new challenges. The commitment required to succeed in such environments often requires sacrifices in other areas of life.

Less than half of the coaches in our study said they were happy with their work-life balance. They described the negative effects of too much work, work-related stress and a lack of quality time on their quality of life and life satisfaction.

How to support coach mental health

To reduce stigma, we need cultural change in sport, in the media and in general society.

Sports organizations and the media need to encourage the voices of coaches who have experienced mental health issues.

It is also important to ensure coaches have access to appropriate mental health support. The AIS Mental Health Referral Network is a good example. Those who may use this service include current and former athletes, coaches, support staff and staff from Australia’s national sport organizations.

While elite sports are very demanding environments, the coach’s mental well-being should still be a priority.

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

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