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Prioritizing the Mental Health of Your Athletes

More students at high schools and colleges are using anti-anxiety medications or dealing with a form of depression than ever before. And the world of high school athletics is certainly not immune to the issue of mental health issues.

"Mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in our country. It's a public health issue and now we're seeing it more and more in our student-athletes," said Timothy Neal, a prominent athletic trainer and sports medicine consultant with specialty in athlete mental health, in an article on "One in every four to five young adults has mental health issues, but what is unique about the student-athlete is they have stressors and expectations of them unlike the other students that could either trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue."

Competing in high school athletics can help teenagers develop lifelong skills—such as showing courage and perseverance in striving to meet team and individual goals. But the process can also produce anxiety and depression.

Coaches can play a critical role in limiting the chance for sports-related anxiety and depression among their athletes. "Coaches may feel pressured to base their interactions around techniques and tactics of the sport in order to “win now.” Ideally, coaches will have the desire and administrative support to have a lifelong impact on their athletes, helping them develop into caring, competent and productive adults," Cari Wood, ATC, and Kevin Bryant, CMAA write in an article on the NFHS website.

"In turn," the authors continued, "many student-athletes, relishing the positive feedback, rewards of immediate success and attention of a coach may feel pressured to stay in the athletic-performance focused part of the coach-athlete relationship, hiding the ways in which they are struggling and in need of emotional and mental support."

The article reported that the Redmond High School athletic training staff created a "wellness check" form distributed to every fall athlete on a weekly basis, asking the athletes to respond to questions regarding sleep, diet, injury issues and mental health. The Redmond athletic training staff then follows up with an athlete personally if their responses raise a red flag, and then the athletic trainerers decide who else needs to be notified.

The website provides the following ways that coaches, athletic administrators and parents can help to promote strength mental health for student-athletes:

  1. Make sure participating on the team fun, keep the game in perspective, and focus on opportunities instead of failures

  2. The athlete needs to play at the appropriate age and skill level. Forcing them to move up a level before they are ready can cause stress and anxiety.

  3. Provide adequate time for rest during the week and between seasons. Athletes are susceptible to mental health issues when their bodies are worn down.

  4. Encourage athletes to participate in a variety of activities and multiple sports.  If you play only one sport, you may eventually experience burnout.

  5. Ensure the athlete receives a psychosocial screening as part of his or her pre-participation examination. It's best if this is done by the athlete’s primary care provider.

  6. Know the signs and symptoms of mental health concerns in order to help you see potential situations occurring.

  7. Remove the stigma around seeking care. Develop a culture in your program where student athletes feel comfortable talking with authority figures about their mental health status.

  8. Work with the various parties at your school to create a system for referring student athletes with mental health concerns.


We’ll send ALL OF YOUR COACHES a weekly email newsletter containing instruction, advice and valuable information on:
  • PROPER COMMUNICATION: With your athletes, parents, administrators and the coaches
  • SUCCESSFUL OPERATIONS: Pre-Season, In-Season, Off-Season
  • LEADERSHIP TECHNIQUES: Creating the proper environment for teaching athletes life skills
  • RISK MANAGEMENT: Keeping your athletes safe at practices, during games, off-eason training, etc.
  • ATHLETE PERFORMANCE: Tips in areas of Conditioning, Nutrition, Mental Training, etc., that help your athletes perform at their best and improve their overall wellness
  • PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Ways to help your coaches be the best they can be