How to address mental health needs in youth sports

Numerous studies have shown the lifelong importance of exercise and playing sports for young children.  Physically active children are often happier children. Children involved in team sports develop lifelong friendships and develop a work ethic that stays with them through adulthood. But sometimes, the pressures of performing can have negative impacts on children.

Challenges arise when sports become a source of anxiety for children. Ideally, sports provide a fun activity for children to move their bodies and release some stress. They also offer a safe space for children where they are supported by coaches who are trusted adults they can lean on for advice and guidance if they are experiencing mental health issues.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a few examples of youth who have reached out to coaches when they struggled with mental health issues. And, unfortunately, we’ve seen tragic examples of youth who were unable to access the support they needed.

How can coaches create a culture that encourages open conversations about their player’s mental health?  There is a lot on the line, and it’s greater than winning or losing.


Creating a culture that enables children to step forward if they need help 

Coaches are trusted adults in a child’s life. They play a critical role in setting the team’s norms and creating a culture that encourages children to ask for help or seek help for their peers. Establishing a culture of openness starts as soon as a coach begins interacting with the players.

Coaches must reinforce the positive benefits of the sports experience, which varies from sport to sport, but always includes the fundamentals of working together as a team, growing as a person, and taking care of each other. As they discuss the latter point, coaches should be vocal that they are available whenever a child is struggling or worried about a friend. This message needs to be repeated in a non-judgmental and approachable way. And often. 

It’s also important to remember that children pay attention to your actions more than your words. As a coach, you have to be open, approachable, and set the environment for difficult conversations if they’re necessary.

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