The Dark side of Coaching: 4 tips for coaches to stay mentally healthy


I started coaching volleyball when I was in my second year of university. I had always wanted to be a coach but never really had a good chance to do it. The volleyball club that I played for at that time was run by and for students, so they encouraged students to become coaches. I decided to sign up and without asking many questions, the club gave me a developmental level team and basically told me: "good luck, see you at the end of the season." I was suddenly in charge of everything from designing practice plans, running training sessions, managing athletes and line-ups to coming up with game plans and coaching matches. At that time, I only had limited knowledge about coaching and especially about volleyball. Being thrown into the deep end was a great experience through which I learned a lot and absolutely terrifying at the same time. Ultimately, it lead me to where I am now: a part-time professional volleyball coach. Along the way, I learned about coaching, athletes, programs, volleyball, statistics, psychology, to the point where I am in no way the same coach as I was back in university when I just started out. However, there is one part of my coaching that I have to admit, I haven't invested a lot of time in, and I think I am not the only one: my own well-being as a coach.

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A lot of coaches don't really learn how to listen to themselves and their own body and mind, something that we tell athletes to do all the time. There is no coaching course on how to control stress, manage your time effectively or how to deal with the constant expectation of results. On top of that, I believe that many coaches have an inherent characteristic to put their own needs and demands second to the needs and demands of the athlete. If an athlete wants to meet up, the coach will be there, no matter whether that coach has time or not. There is a certain level of blind commitment to the team or athlete that I see in a lot of coaches. Most often, this is because coaches love what they do and although this can lead to great results and experiences for athletes, it sometimes happens at the cost of well-being of the coach. Therefore, let't take a look at what are some of the factors that threaten the well-being of coaches and provide some tips to keep you, the coach, in good mental health.

"About 1 in 4 coaches in top level sports display burn out symptoms at the end of a competitive season."

Sport psychology researchers have started to look into the topic of coach well-being and although the size and scope of this research is nothing compared to research into athlete well-being, there are some worrying results. In 2015, a Norwegian study concluded that about 1 in 4 coaches in top level sports display burn out symptoms at the end of a competitive season. Coaches are at an increased risk of burn out and other symptoms of low well-being due to a combination of factors that are integrated in their work. For instance, frequent travel, irregular work schedules, constant interpersonal conflicts and a lack of support are known risk factors for decreased well-being and all of them are common occurrences in coaching. However, on top of these risk factors, there are some more specific risk that are a threat to coaches. For instance, as I mentioned before, for many coaches, their work is also their passion. They love their sport. In normal cases, people use what they love, especially when it is a sport or physical activity, as a way to release stress. However, coaches are not able to do that anymore, because their passion and profession are too closely linked, leaving them with limited coping activities. Lastly, a 2017 study at the Leeds Beckett University in the UK concluded that coaches tend to not only worry about their own performance but also about their athletes' performance as well. In essence, they are worrying for two people or an entire team in some cases. All of this combined puts coaches at an increased risk to feel lower well-being. Luckily, research has also looked at what coaches can do to increase their well-being, so here are 4 tips for coaches to stay mentally healthy.

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1. Find someone to talk to

Social support is consistently flagged as one of the most important prevention measures in coach well-being, and it can influence a coach in two ways. It turns out that coaches who have a solid social support network around them are way less likely to experience burn out. On the other hand, coaches with a weak social support network are way more likely to experience the same problems. It is therefore really important to find someone to talk to about the things that are happening and how you are feeling. This person can be anyone, as long as he or she is not in any other way involved in your coaching. Many athletes and coaches that I have worked with just want me to listen to them as they talk about the things that affect their feelings. A Mental Performance Consultant is a great independent support person who has all the tools to help you through your situation.


2. Set your boundaries (and stick to them)

As I mentioned before, coaches tend to put their own needs behind those of their athletes. However, research shows that setting clear boundaries, in terms of working hours, work-life balance and job responsibilities will help to keep the coach mentally healthy. I like to think about it this way: you don't make your team run more sprints if all of them are on the ground after 10 sprints. There is nothing to be gained anymore. The same should apply to you, when you are done, you are done. There is no point in doing that extra hour of video review if your brain is done for the day. In order to do this, sit down at the beginning of the season and write down your boundaries. Maybe you don't want athletes calling you after a certain time or you decide to take one day a week of from coaching.


3. Results don't matter

This might come as a surprise to many coaches but results do not matter for coach well-being. There is no relationship between winning or losing and the way the coach feels mentally. This does not mean that we should stop caring about performance or not look at the scoreboard. It also does not mean that winning doesn't feel better than losing. What it means is that winning will not solve the way you feel. There is no amount of success that can make you feel energized if you are tired and a championship will not miraculously make your burn out disappear. If you are using possible future success as an excuse to tire yourself out, you will be left empty handed at the end.


4. Find another passion

I mentioned earlier that coaches are blessed and cursed by the fact that their job is often also their passion. It helps coaches be highly motivated, enjoy what they do and work hard, but it also leaves them vulnerable since they might not have a good way to vent stress. Therefore, try to find a hobby, different from the sport you coach, that you can use to relax after a day of coaching. For me, these are making music or playing video games, but it can be anything, including a different sport.


If you keep yourself to these four tips, you are putting yourself in a good position to stay mentally healthy as a coach. It is in no way a guarantee, but you are avoiding known problems. Lastly, remember that it is okay to be tired, stressed and to have bad days. Allowing yourself to feel the things you feel can go a long way in preventing anything worse. If you feel like you need more assistance to safeguard your coach well-being, you can contact me and together we can work in that part of your coaching.


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Email: Jelle.w.kooijman@gmail.com
Ottawa, Ontario

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