Honouring our duty to protect young players’ mental health
Growing up through adolescence can be both a fun and challenging time. If we try to remember back, we were flooded with hormones, surrounded by peer pressure, confused by how we were supposed to look and act. It was a balancing act of finding our identity and place in the world; striving to be older yet desperately wanting to shirk the responsibilities that seem to grow as the digits grew. Let alone when we consider the impact a pandemic and lockdown would have had on us and our freedom to just be.
For young athletes, the additional requirement of their time, energy and ability only adds to that heady mix. They get the thrills but also the pressure to succeed and perform at their best, the demands of hectic training schedules and sometimes unrealistic expectations from those around them.
Coaches, trainers and anyone who works with children and teenagers in a sporting environment have such a unique position to not only safeguard their physical health, but to support them through these challenging times, possibly even more so than parents, teachers and other adults in their lives. Why? You are an adult role model, seeing them regularly but acting as less of an authority figure than those at an enforced level such as at school and home. These young players are – hopefully – choosing to be on the track, court or field, and so will be more open to your influence.
That’s why it’s not only useful but essential that coaches and related roles are equipped with the awareness and skills to recognise when the mental health of players doesn’t seem to be quite right, and how to act appropriately to stop things escalating further.
So what is mental health?
We all have mental health. It’s something that exists within us, on a continuum that fluctuates over time, sometimes even daily. We can be mentally well, but also descend into mental ill-health. This can happen when the components that make up our mind, such as perceptions, beliefs, emotions, thoughts and memories start misbehaving. Our brains only have so much capacity for stress and when it becomes completely overloaded, our mental health deteriorates.
According to UK mental health charity, Mind, one in four people in the UK will be affected by mental illness in any year, the most common being depression and anxiety. Half of mental health problems are established by the age of 14, so it’s from a very young age that we have to do our best to decrease the potential for serious harm.
But what has all of this got to do with you, or sport in general? Sport’s about physical health, optimal performance and improved confidence and connection, right? It’s well documented that physical exercise has a knock-on effect on mental exercise, and vice versa. Sport can play a huge role in improving mental health, but it would be irresponsible to say there aren’t a few pitfalls to look out for either. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders and more can still factor into the lives of athletes, both young and in the top sporting world.
Speaking about mental health and not allowing it to become stigmatised will prevent tragedies, like footballer Gary Speed’s suicide in 2011, and thousands of other athletes who suffer in silence. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles struggled with the pressures of the Olympics and ended up choosing to withdraw from the rest of the competition in 2021 after experiencing ‘the twisties’. Despite doing an incredibly courageous thing and protecting her physical and mental health, she was criticised – by some – for being a quitter. Speaking out after the incident, Simone bravely reminded us all that she is a human being, just like the rest of us, and that is more valuable than any trophy.
What you can do to safeguard your players
Mind commissioned research into mental health in the sports industry and as a result recommend that ‘Coaches and managers need to understand the value of mental health and wellbeing, and be engaged in support of athletes, for change to happen at a club level. Educating coaches that dealing with problems early can be beneficial for both athletes’ personal wellbeing and for sporting performance is key.’
e-Coach has teamed up with Dr Dean Burnett – an ambassador for mental health charity ReThink, and an author and doctor in neuroscience who has shaped science communication policies across Europe – to create a course for anyone who works with young sports players. Mental Health in Young Players takes a warm, no-nonsense approach using lay(wo)man terms to help you easily understand what mental health is and how it relates to your setting and the young people you work with.
It’s an online course, so can be completed at your own pace in your own time, and uses quizzes, videos, interactive elements and reading to discover some key aspects like:
- Deepening your understanding of what mental health is (and isn’t)
- Understanding mental health in children and teenagers specifically, in comparison to adults
- Recognising the impact of sport on mental health, both positively and things to watch out for
- Learning some strategies for dealing with (and preventing) mental health issues for those in your care.
The course – accredited by CIMPSA (Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity) – is live right now, and CPD points and a certificate are available upon successful completion and assessment.
As footballer and Mind ambassador, Clarke Carlisle, says in the report Performance Matters: Mental Health in Elite Sport: ‘There is a great appetite to address mental health issues within sport and things are improving, but the support for athletes is nowhere near adequate. I believe that football, and sport in general, can lead the way.’ You have the power to harness your care for both your players and your sport, and help support that change that we so need.
Find out more on how to protect your young players mental health by taking the ‘Understanding Mental Health in Young Players’ eLearning course. Available now on Accelerate Sport here.
Written by Alice Gunn