As the youth mental health crisis deepens, a majority of youth sports coaches say they want more training on how to support their athletes’ mental health. That’s according to a survey by the Aspen Institute, Ohio State University, philanthropic organization the Susan Crown Exchange, and Nike.
The survey found that only 18 percent of coaches say they feel confident that they know how to connect their athletes to mental health supports, and just 19 percent said they are confident they can identify off-field stressors for athletes. The survey includes coaches of competitive and community-based teams in addition to those who work in K-12 schools.
“Mental health is clearly a need around the country right now. There is a mental health crisis particularly for kids, and it’s something that coaches aren’t prepared for, but they want to be better prepared for,” said Jon Solomon, the editorial director for the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program.
Educator coaches more confident in how they can help
The survey broke out responses for school coaches by those who are educators and those who are community members. Educator coaches are a bit more confident that they know how to connect athletes with mental health services.
Nearly a quarter of educator coaches strongly agreed that they are confident they can link athletes to mental health resources, compared with 16 percent of noneducator coaches. Twenty-nine percent of coaches who are also educators said they were highly confident they can identify mental health concerns among athletes, compared with 23 percent of their coaching peers who are not educators.
Coaches who are educators also were more likely to have participated in training around mental health than coaches who are not educators—71 percent compared with 54 percent. Sixty-eight percent of educator coaches said they had received training on “suicide protocols” while 44 percent of noneducator coaches responded similarly.
Training on social-emotional learning followed the same trend: 69 percent of coaches who are educators had received training in SEL, compared with 49 percent of noneducator coaches.
About half of school-based coaches work in their schools as educators, while half come from other professions and may be a parent of an athlete or a volunteer—a shift from previous generations, according to the report, when most coaches also worked as full-time educators in their schools.
Sixty-seven percent of coaches overall said they want additional training on mental health.
Coaches can be early-warning system for mental health problems
Coaches—whether for a school, a community-based recreational sport, or a competitive team—can play an important role in an early-warning system for spotting kids and teenagers who may be struggling, said Solomon.
“That doesn’t mean that coaches now should become trained psychologists,” he said. “But if you think about it, coaches are on the ground with so many of these players in ways that teachers aren’t. Teachers have so many students, so they can’t potentially build the relationships that a coach could do on a team of 15 to 20 kids who you see every day at school at practices.”
That training could include information on what clues or red flags to look for in youth, knowing what questions to ask players, or how to create a safe space for students to open up about what might be bothering them, said Solomon.
The survey included 10,000 school-based coaches, community-based coaches, and coaches for travel and competitive teams from every state.
Schools in the U.S. earn D-minus for physical activity
The findings appear in the Aspen Institute’s annual State of Play report, which aggregates data, reports, and studies from a broad swath of organizations to capture a comprehensive picture of youth sports and physical activity. Among the other findings highlighted in this year’s report:
- U.S. schools earned a D-minus grade in 2022 in an international ranking from the Physical Activity Alliance for how well they facilitate access to physical activity for students. That D grade means only 20 percent to 39 percent of schools provide daily physical education or recess, as well as regular access to facilities for physical activity and equipment and an “everyone plays” approach to physical activity.
- The number of high school students participating in unified sports—in which people with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same team—grew substantially from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 school year, from 5,500 athletes in three sports in 10 states to 48,000 athletes in 15 sports in 20 states.
- The number of high school students participating in adapted sports—which allow for modifications for people with disabilities—declined by 51 percent over the three years leading up to the 2021-22 school year.
- Tennis and pickleball gained popularity among children and teens over the pandemic. Tennis grew by 679,000 kids between 2019 and 2021, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Pickleball participation—a sport that is described as a blend of tennis, ping pong, and badminton—grew by 462,000 kids between 2019 and 2021.
- Participation in tackle football declined by 29 percent from 2016 to 2021, while flag football increased by 15 percent, changes likely fueled by growing concerns about concussions in contact sports.