Coaches

Know what to say. Know what do


In Ontario, 1 in 5 children and youth struggle with their mental health. It is quite likely that there are children on your team or in your class experiencing difficulty. It is important for you to be able to recognize a mental health concern and connect young people to the support they need.
Mental health problems are often overlooked because they are not always physically seen, and can be difficult to identify. Children and youth may find it difficult to ask for help because of the stigma attached to many mental health issues. By educating ourselves and others, we can help to reduce this stigma. Like any physical illness, mental illness is not the fault of the person struggling. It is important that they receive the support they need.

How can you tell if a youth may be struggling with their mental health?


When mental health problems are left untreated, children and youth may cope in unhealthy ways. It is important to be alert to changes in your athletes. Here are some potential signs to watch for:

  • Change in behaviours, friends, or normal activities (eg. no longer a team player)
  • Low energy and motivation
  • Outbursts of anger or rage
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Avoidance of others (parents, friends, coach)
  • Signs of self-injury
  • Use of alcohol or drugs
  • Change in personality
  • Constant worry or sadness
  • Negative self-talk
  • Change in physical health and/or hygiene
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Has experienced a recent loss


What can you do if you notice a change in a young person’s behaviour?


If you have noticed warning signs, the next step is to act. 
Here are some suggestions:

  • Understand your role. Be alert to changes in the young people you are connected with and focus on the ways that you can help.
  • Start a conversation.
  • Say something! Talk with the child/youth about the changes that you have noticed and why you are concerned. Be sure other teammates cannot overhear your discussion.
  • Keep it short and give them the opportunity to take some time to gather their thoughts, but set a time to talk again.
  • Show them that you care by listening and staying calm.
  • Be a valuable support by being patient, compassionate, and non-judgmental.
  • Never swear secrecy. It is important for them to understand that you are there to listen and connect them with supports.
  • Leave the door open for further conversation
  • Get informed. Learn about different mental illnesses and the impacts that mental health problems can have on sports or other activities. Focus on the ways in which the mental health problem is affecting the student’s participation in this activity.
  • Get other caring adults involved. Let the child know you are going to contact someone who can help them. Keep them involved in choosing who those people will be as much as possible. Advocate for their safety. Go with your instinct. If you feel like the child is in danger because of what they have told you or what you have witnessed, get help and follow your organization’s protocol and legal obligations.

How can you ensure the young person continues to be active and involved?

  • Be positive. Recognize small achievements, because they are often a huge struggle for children faced with a mental illness (for example, a youth showing up to their soccer game). Providing positive reinforcement and encouragement is a vital part of restoring the child’s self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • Recognize and build upon your player’s strengths.
  • Identify the youth’s needs. Consult with the child and their family, where appropriate, to determine what the child needs to continue being involved (for example, more one-on-one time with the coach).
  • Create goals. Help the child to identify what they would like to get from the experience. Talk about possible barriers that may get in the way of that goal and how they can work around them.
  • Be supportive and flexible. Encouraging words can do a lot to help the child feel more confident in their abilities. Often those struggling with their mental health can’t meet all of their goals and responsibilities. You may need to develop alternative options for that child.
  • Managing crisis. When the child seems to be having a hard time and is becoming confrontational, tense, or aggravated, speak to them in a clear, calm and non-threatening tone. Gently negotiate them to a quite place away from other children. It is best to leave doors open so that the child doesn’t feel threatened.
Watch our video to find out more: