People Before Players: Coaching for Mental Health and Wellbeing


A big challenge for coaches is supporting the mental health and wellbeing of individuals within their team. Effective coaches endeavour to create a culture of getting to know people on a personal level. They treat individuals with equity, appreciating that each person has different circumstances and allocate the resources required for each person to reach their objective.

Two principles for a culture that promotes positive mental health and wellbeing are (1) putting the person before the player and (2) connection before correction. Each person is more than just a ‘player’. They have a huge life outside of the sporting context and we, as coaches, have to be sure to recognise this.

The start of each season is a great opportunity to get to know each individual. What are their motives or reasons for being involved? What are their perceived strengths? What do they want to continue developing this season? One-on-one conversations can build trust and allow you to gain greater understanding of each person. You can be vulnerable with them as well – the more open about relevant topics you are, the more likely the other person will feel safe.

The most important part is maintaining connection throughout the season, not just ticking it off and forgetting about it. Continue checking in with the people in your team, seeing how they are going in their general life, how they are enjoying the season, things they feel they’ve been doing well, things they want to work on, etc. Help to create individual development plans for each, being led by each individual with some guidance from you as coach. The most important elements of the development plans don’t have to be technical but could be psychological/social elements that the individual wants to work on.

Giving individuals autonomy over their development plans helps to build confidence and decision-making skills. A natural part of developing from childhood to adolescence is wanting to have the freedom to make good decisions. Coaches can support this by adapting their coaching style to the age of the individuals, allowing adolescents to provide greater direction across trainings and match day environments.

Five important reminders for coaches

Five important reminders for coaches to be mindful of the mental health and wellbeing of people:

  • Actively listen – We, as coaches, are often in the mindset of teaching and sharing thoughts, but the most valuable communication tool is active listening. Take on board what people say, with words, and body language. Pay attention, minimise distractions and keep good eye contact.
  • Show empathy and understanding – You don’t need to fix the problem, or find the solution. Do your best to understand where the person is coming from and set aside judgement.
  • Thank them for talking to you – Let the individual know that you appreciate them coming to you with what they are experiencing or feeling.
  • Check in the next time you see them – this may be better done individually (away from the group), depending on what was mentioned in the conversation. Remember key aspects of the previous conversation.
  • Keep confidence – any sensitive topics should be treated in confidence and not disclosed to others. Unless they, or another minor, is in immediate danger – in these cases, the relevant emergency services may be required. Please familiarise yourself with your club’s and the Football NSW policy on this.

Remember, it is not your job to find the answer or the solution. However, you can shape their experience by responding in an open and respectful way. The impact you can have on individuals can have a huge effect on their life.

And don’t forget – people often play sport because they are passionate about it and get to enjoy it with friends. It is your job to foster an enjoyable experience with the resources at your disposal.

What are the signs of poor/reduced mental health?

Coaches can keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms of poor/reduced mental health. Some of these include:

  • Heighted anxiety
  • Decreased interest in activities
  • Drastic increase/decrease in weight
  • Self-isolation
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Suddenly quitting/reduced attendance

If you spot some of these signs, the question becomes what do you do? How can you allow the individual to disclose if anything is occurring? This is often down to the environment you have previously created, by allowing safe and vulnerable conversations to be had. If a person feels safe and secure in speaking to you, they are far more likely to open up.

If an individual is in crisis and you think immediate action is needed:

  • call emergency services (triple zero – 000)
  • contact their GP or mental health crisis service, or
  • go to your local hospital emergency department

What professional help is available?

If a conversation arises about someone’s wellbeing, remember the five important reminders for coaches listed above. You don’t need to have the answers. If you feel it is best, and you have the individual’s permission, help them to access a trained professional. This may be their GP or a mental health service, such as:

Lifeline: 13 11 14 or

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 or

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 or

Headspace: 1800 650 890 or

Individuals value the effort you put into this element of your coaching, by valuing their mental health and wellbeing. Remember the phrase, ‘connection before correction’ which is such a valuable tool in your toolkit. Once the participants know how much you care about each person in your environment, you’ll have much greater success in everything you do in your coaching.

How do I learn more?

  • Attend a Mental Health First Aid training course
  • Familiarise yourself with the policies of your club and Football NSW
  • Explore the resources at

Written by Jake Cohen.