Protecting Children’s Mental Health . . . The Crucial Role Coaches Play In An Athlete’s Life

Participation in sports at a young age has both short-term and long-term effects on a child (as well as their family) and even society as a whole.

Beyond the physical advantages, sport teaches fundamental skills like leadership, improves social skills, and helps with academic achievement.

Recent research goes further to discuss how organized sports provide community-wide benefits like crime prevention and economic development. In addition, as we see player numbers start to return since the pandemic, there is heightened recognition of how sports can help decrease levels of anxiety and depression.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, about one in five Canadians have a mental health disorder and “70% of persons living with a mental illness see their symptoms begin before age 18.”

At the February Ontario Soccer Summit 2024 in Vaughan, Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt — who has an extensive soccer background as both a player and coach — talked about the mental health crisis in youth, noting that for a sport like soccer, where you have a team of 20 to 22 players, four of the players will be suffering with their mental health.

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This is an important statistic for coaches to consider when they meet with their team.

“Youth are still facing the same challenges they did before the pandemic,” says Dr. Vaillancourt, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in School-Based Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa. “As a few examples, there are far too many who have mental health challenges and far too many who are being bullied.”

She also notes that social media use and declining physical activity are challenges that parents and role models have to deal with.

“Coaches can support players by creating a safe and nurturing environment,” offers Dr. Vaillancourt. “This doesn’t mean that there should be no structure — coaches still need to motivate and challenge athletes, but they need to do so in a developmentally appropriate manner that places the athlete’s needs first.”

For teen girls, who have a high drop-out rate in sports, things like language used and belonging have a significant impact.

“We need to keep in mind that relationships matter a lot to teen girls, so coaches need to monitor the relationships between teammates,” Dr. Vaillancourt points out. “They also need to strike a balance between being supportive and providing coaching guidance. Weight-based comments drive a lot of girls out of sports, as does a poor relationship with coaches.”

Coaches should not tackle this lofty task alone. Sports organizations have a huge responsibility to prioritize mental health discussions and training for their staff (including how to support their own mental health). In addition, parents should be part of the holistic approach to supporting the well-being of athletes.

Dr. Vaillancourt adds that parents are also responsible for doing their homework.

“[Parents] should make sure that the coaches and the club are supportive of all athletes and do not condone a winning at all cost mentality,” suggests Dr. Vaillancourt.

Learning how to better focus on the health and wellness of players is a growing concern for many sports leagues and activities in Windsor Essex. We asked a few businesses and organizations to share some insight into how they are building care and resilience into their programming.

Copeland’s Martial Arts And Fitness Centre
“During the pandemic, parents were most concerned with how to maintain their child’s physical activities to keep them mentally engaged and not too reliant on devices,” says Conroy Copeland, Director, Copeland’s Martial Arts and Fitness Centre.

Despite keeping in touch with families and reopening, his business has yet to see the return of their pre-COVID numbers.

“There has been definite drop-off equally of boys and girls, at our location we are 50% off,” he informs Biz X.

Mental health is already a regular part of Copeland’s curriculum. This includes discussions with coaches and team members, discussing what is observed in the youth participants’ behaviour, and always starting and ending each session with a check-in of how everyone is doing.

Although he is very aware of how to support youth, Copeland is concerned about the youth mental health crisis.

“The total mental fallout of the pandemic is just starting to show itself, there is much more to come,” he warns.

To learn more about Copeland’s Martial Arts and Fitness Centre and find out what programs are offered for children aged six and up (and classes for adults too), stop in at 2557 Dougall Avenue, Unit 5 in Windsor.

Lakeshore Cheer Athletics
With the ever-changing rules the pandemic brought on, Monique Myre, Owner and Head Coach of Lakeshore Cheer Athletics (LCA) was struggling to find a place to get her second season running.

After an initial meeting outdoors at a local park, she was able to secure time in a church gym for a few months, but another shutdown came.

“In the spring we could not do classes inside so we rented the outside space to run the team practices and tumbling classes,” Myre recounts. “I ran ads on Facebook and would post what we were doing and we slowly picked up more people.”

What started as a single team has grown to nine teams, with three commitment levels to choose from: recreational, novice, and prep. Regardless of the commitment level, LCA aims to make the gym a place that youth want to come to for training, have a good time, and to be with friends. They also want the kids to feel open about speaking up.

“As a program we like to let the kids know they can talk to the coaches if needed or if we see something concerning, we normally would approach the parent,” says Myre. “Sometimes teammates will also let us know if someone is having a hard time. During practices we often have a sit down and discuss team business and concerns where athletes can bring up things they would like to discuss.”

Even with the positive LCA environment, Myre noticed that children coming in to try out seemed afraid to be around other children and were hesitant to leave their parents’ side.

“I have been coaching kids for over 30 years and I have dealt with mental health issues with kids, but not on a scale that I have had to with the start of COVID,” Myre expresses. “I have never seen so many kids with anxieties and other issues.”

She continues by stating: “It took some time with some of the kids to get them to feel safe and to just participate and have fun. We are still seeing the results of how the shutdowns affected the kids — and this is sad.”

However, Myre chooses to look on the bright side for what is happening in her gym.

“Once the kids start our program and are welcomed by all, they make lifelong friends, learn skills, gain confidence . . . all while doing cheer,” she reports.

To find out more about Lakeshore Cheer Athletics, their programs for girls aged four and up, or learn about the Try A Cheer Class, swing by their gym at 1731 Lesperance Road, Tecumseh (New Beginnings Community Church).