Expanding the Reach for Mental Wellness for Better Performance in Sport & Life


It’s much more than just the specific sport; it’s about reinforcing positive attitude and lessons for life.

It has been hypothesized that high performing athletes have a higher rate of mental health illnesses compared to the general population. Studies in elite athletes have revealed that up to 46% of athletes experienced at least one symptom of common mental health problems (Gulliver et al. 2015).


3 Common Mental Health Myths

Coaches do not have the appropriate training to support an athlete struggling with their mental health

 You do not need to be a mental health professional to be able to recognize your athlete struggling, approach them with concern, listen to them non-judgementally and refer them to appropriate mental health services at your institution and community.

One of the most valuable acts you can do as a coach is to know the mental health services (online tools, apps, in-person counselling, psychologists, psychiatrists) in and around your community for your athletes.


Athletes should be taken off the ‘field of play’ if they have a mental illness

Having a mental illness does not mean you cannot train or compete.

Determining the best plan to optimize treatment while maintaining the wellbeing and sense of identity as a student-athlete is crucial, and looks different for each individual. Athletes are strongly encouraged to maintain connection to their team in whatever capacity they can to avoid risk of isolation.


Having a mental illness means you have a “weak mind”

 Mental health problems and illnesses are caused by a combination of environmental, physical, situational social, and genetic factors. This can lead to imbalances in chemicals known as neurotransmitters in the brain and/or hormones and vice versa.

With that being said, due to the increasing amount of stress and pressure athletes face today, it is important to have a “growth mindset” and consistently develop and improve your skills in healthy coping mechanisms, strategies and tools that can serve as treatment for a current problem or prevention for the future.


Learning how to “RAR”



The first step to a mental health intervention with your athlete is to recognize the symptoms of a mental health crisis and/or significant distress that can be affecting the athlete’s level of functioning. These symptoms look different for each individual, which is why it’s important to teach RAR to your Team Allies (captains, athletic trainers, all athletes) as they may be able to notice deviation from behavioural norms more rapidly depending on their relationship with the athlete in crisis.


General signs of an athlete in a mental health crisis: 

What to look out for: Prolonged Changes in…”BEAT”



The second step to a mental health intervention is to approach your athlete with your concerns. Your goal is to be as personal and direct with your athlete as possible. Be prepared to take on the role of an active listener, allowing your athlete to fully explain their situation without interrupting, and asking questions and reflecting emotion when necessary. Be aware of your non-verbal language (facial expressions, gestures etc).

1. Be Direct. 

If you notice changes or if you are concerned. Bring up your concerns privately, directly and specifically.

“Hey John, I’ve noticed (you’ve dropped a lot of weight in the last two weeks and you seem very tired) . Is everything OK?” 

2. Set expectations (for your athlete, yourself, other parties)

Don’t be afraid to keep asking [shows commitment while giving the athlete some autonomy and space to speak on their terms when they are ready; helps to show the athlete that you are there to support them, if and when they need you]. 

“Thanks for letting me know. If it’s cool with you, I’ll check in with you again next week.”  

Respect the athlete’s privacy and autonomy. Ask them how you can help, ask them if they would like to involve other parties (i.e., psych support, a parent, etc.).

Tell them if you feel out of your depth or don’t know what to do; but, be in it together. Being there is the most important par

“This is my first time encountering this, so I’m not entirely sure of the best thing to do. But, I am going to figure it out with you.”

3. Check in often.

Make checking in normal: if you continually ask your athletes how things are going, it will be normal for you to ask how things are going when things get tough.

“How are you doing today? How is X going?” [personalization].

Example in distress: “How are you doing with the stuff we talked about last week? Anything I can do to help?” [specific, direct, open]

4. Be transparent

Be the athletes ally and help the athlete to feel like they are in control.



The final step in talking to your athlete is to ask them if they want Mental Health Allies involved to expand their circle of care. Respect their autonomy to decide, however don’t hesitate to provide them with resources just in case. It is your job as the “Hub of Resources” to provide them with a list (preferably in a print out) or explain the services that are available at your university and how to contact them.

Remember: “RAR” is not a one time intervention; RAR is a continuous cycle — a framework on how to have hard conversations with your athlete and approach mental health in a direct and effective way.