Elite sports coaches experiencing poor mental health: study

Elite sports coaches experiencing poor mental health: study

3 August 2022

Elite sports coaches and high-performance support staff (HPSS) are experiencing rates of mental ill-health similar to the athletes they support, an Orygen mental health audit has found.

The 2020 audit conducted in partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport found that 41 per cent of coaches and HPSS had psychological symptoms that warranted treatment from a health professional (known as “probable caseness”), while 42 per cent reported potentially risky alcohol consumption.

Almost a fifth (18 per cent) of those surveyed reported moderate to severe sleep disturbance and 14 per cent experienced high to very high psychological distress. The findings are published in Sports Medicine – Open.

Paper senior author, Professor Rosemary Purcell, said the findings highlighted the need to support the teams behind Australia’s elite athletes.

“This research sends a clear message that the routine screening for mental health symptoms in elite athletes should be extended to all key stakeholders in the daily training environment,” Professor Purcell said.

“While previous research has highlighted the mental health needs of athletes, less has been known about the experiences of their coaches and support staff. To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the rates of common mental health concerns among HPSS.”

The research involved surveys of 252 elite coaches and HPSS within the Australian Institute of Sport.

It also looked at what factors might be contributing to poor mental health among coaches and support staff.

It found that probable caseness was linked with dissatisfaction with social support and life balance. Increased alcohol consumption was also associated with poor life balance, while sleep disturbance was associated with poor social support.

“Elite sports environments are not only highly stressful and challenging for athletes to navigate, but for their support staff too. We think coaches and HPSS should have the same access to mental health and wellbeing programs as elite athletes,“ Professor Purcell said.

The prevalence of mental health outcomes among coaches and support staff was similar to rates previously observed in athletes, although coaches and HPSS reported higher levels of alcohol consumption. 

However, coaches and HPSS consumed significantly less alcohol than community norms, and a high proportion had sought help for mental health.

The audit was funded by the Australian Sports Commission.