It’s Time To Talk About Coach’s Mental Health and Wellness
Originally published in partnership with The 33rd Team
There has been an increasing focus on best mental health practices for athletes in recent years, but the conversation about mental health among coaches remains far behind. Sports psychologist Dr. Scott Goldman wants to bring the conversation about mental health and coaching to the forefront, suggesting that coaches may need wellness resources even more than players.
“The coaches are more sleep deprived. There are at least some rules in place for the players as far as the amount of time in the building. There are no such rules protecting coaches,” Dr. Goldman says.
While Dr. Goldman says he has a great deal of compassion and empathy for players, he has a multiplier of compassion for coaches.
“With players, people are talking about mental health and de-stigmatizing the notions around it. It is becoming an acceptable resource, with some teams viewing it as a competitive advantage,” he says. “With coaches, that old school mentality seems to be very much alive.”
Occupational burnout and struggles with stress have resulted in a plethora of coaches retiring prematurely, such as the late John Madden. As Goldman suggests, the culture around coaching, time away from family, and sheer emotional intensity of the job are among the leading causes of this burnout.
“Coaching at the professional level is one of the most emotionally intense jobs that does not involve life or death decision-making,” he says. “When 90,000 people are booing or cheering you on, or your child is going into his third elementary school, that stuff takes a toll.
“I know coaches who have said goodbye to their family in August before the season starts. They tell their families they’ll see them at Thanksgiving and then again once the season ends. Then they end up sleeping in their office most nights. A coach is lucky if they’ve got a couch or cot to sleep on. Some end up sleeping on a rolled up piece of foam.
“That culture of being up at all hours and always being in the office leads to a lack of recovery. And there is a ton of research showing under-recovery and mental instability are closely linked.”
“Perhaps a more realistic intervention for some of the coaches is to have a really good support system and circle of trust. Whether that is a partner that they value, a friendship network, a mentor or another coach to consult, and talking with a psychologist that understands the unique demands and stressors of this industry.”
“They know that people who are under-recovered will start to make more extreme and riskier decisions as they become more sleep deprived.
“Coaches are so compelled and committed to their craft that they sometimes put their own sanity and physical well-being on the back burner. It is an incredibly intense job and the average length of employment is only three years. It is like the Sword of Damocles is always hanging over their head. Instability breeds uncertainty. That uncertainty breeds insecurity, and that is a hard space to operate in.”
What can coaches in professional sport do to avoid occupational burnout that has plagued multiple generations? There is one simple answer that coaches may struggle to accept.
“I think that the most critical issue for the mental health and well-being of coaches is that they are under-recovered,” Goldman says. “I would love to tell coaches to get more rest, do more work to help their recovery and all those kinds of things. It is a no-brainer and the literature behind that is extensive and in great depth.
“But the reality is, coaches bypass that. I’ve been with NFL teams where they bought the Ouro Ring for biomonitoring and the coaches used it in reverse almost as a brag. They were competing for who had the lowest score. It became evidence that actually doing the things that help breed mental stability were considered a bad thing, as if coaches who were getting the proper amount of recovery were not dedicated to the craft.
“A more ideal method for some of the coaches is to have a really good support system and circle of trust. Whether that is a partner that they value, a friendship network, a mentor or another coach to consult, and the psychologist that is in the building, if there is one.”
While many know that under-recovery can affect their reaction time, less know that those who are under-recovered tend to also make bad decisions, and those bad decisions tend to be more extreme as well as toward higher risk.
“That is one of the reasons why casinos are open 24 hours a day,” Goldman says. “They know that people who are under-recovered will start to make more extreme and riskier decisions.
“Making well informed and sound decisions is an essential skill for coaches. They are constantly taking calculated risks, and most are under-recovered, thus, they are slower to react, more likely to make riskier decisions, and are more prone to poor decisions”
“One other thing that many are unaware of is that being under-recovered breeds emotional instability. When studies have been done on people who were under-recovered, they were often emotionally unstable. When asked to self-evaluate, they lacked self-awareness.
“That shows up when a coach is under-recovered and yells at a player in an out of ordinary way. The player is confused as to why the coach is being so intense and out of character, and the coach is confused about why the player is reacting that way. They don’t realize that the intensity of their interaction was so extreme.”
“Slow reaction times, poor decision making, more risky decision making, emotional instability and lack of awareness to that emotional instability is a recipe for destruction.
“It becomes a circular debate about which comes first. Does winning breed emotional stability? Or does emotional stability breed winning? They most definitely go hand-in-hand.”