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COMMENTARY: Coaches need to prioritize their own and their athletes’ mental health literacy

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Jack Hanratty, head coach of the Canada women’s rugby sevens team based in Victoria, BC, provided the following opinion article. Born in Ireland, Hanratty previously coached the men’s and women’s rugby clubs in Nova Scotia.


Success in high-performance sport is commonly defined by the colors bronze, silver and gold. In today’s high-pressure sports environment, the medal colors may never come unless we help facilitate the continuous check-in of the green, yellow, orange, and red of the mental health continuum. And if so, at what price?

build up trust

The most important role models for young people are relatives, teachers and coaches. As a trainer, building trust and rapport takes time, knowing how to give feedback or teaching a new skill takes time, and every person and situation is different.

A simple question for us as coaches to ask ourselves: if you get stuck in an elevator with an athlete, do you know enough about them outside of your sport to just have a conversation?

Each off-season brings innovations from staff and athletes who not only seek to correct the mistakes of past seasons, but also strive to be the best. Like family members and teachers, coaches will encounter difficult situations with athletes when it comes to addressing areas for improvement, squad selection and, in some situations, contract negotiations.

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A simple question for us as coaches to ask ourselves: if you get stuck in an elevator with an athlete, do you know enough about them outside of your sport to just have a conversation?


In these conversations, coaches have guidelines to follow, but when you lose sight of the authenticity of who you are as a coach and as a fellow human being, you risk tarnishing the trust and relationship you’ve worked so hard to build.

Jack Hanratty, then Nova Scotia Province Rugby Coach, launched a Rugby Tackles Mental Health campaign in 2016 in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia.  File – Saltwire Network
Jack Hanratty, then Nova Scotia Province Rugby Coach, launched a Rugby Tackles Mental Health campaign in 2016 in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. File – Saltwire Network

learn to listen

Everyone involved in sport wants to look at our teams, staff and the environment with the confidence that it is a challenging but safe environment. So when we’re asked, “Do you think an athlete would feel comfortable coming to you when they’re not doing well with their mental health?”

We always want to say a simple but confident “yes”.

When I think about my coaching, whether it’s at the U18 community level or senior teams aiming for the Olympics, nothing can fully prepare you for having an athlete or colleague come up to you and say they’re not okay.

My first reaction was always, “How can I fix this?” “How can I do this better?” What I didn’t understand at the time was that one of the most important things I could do was just listen and keep my distance.


When I think about my coaching, whether it’s at the U18 community level or senior teams aiming for the Olympics, nothing can fully prepare you for having an athlete or colleague come up to you and say they’re not okay.


Recently in sport the minimum standards in modules and training have grown with ever changing societal values ​​and at times it can seem daunting to stay educated and up to date. However, consider how disheartening it could be for the person who was trying to find the words and courage to tell you, “I’m not okay.”

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Mental health is nothing new in sport — creating a safe space for people to be open about how they feel is.

Unbeatable member

As coaches and sports leaders, we don’t need to become mental health experts, but through resources like the Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub, we can help normalize the conversations. We can educate ourselves and build the confidence to have these check-ins with ourselves and those we interact with to help make sports environments safer and more welcoming for all involved.

We may not know how to solve their problems or even say the right words, but knowing how to greet the information may only be the first step for someone who needs help.


online resource

Information for coaches is available online through the Mental Health and Sport Resource Hub at https://coach.ca/mental-health-hub


When we position ourselves as coaches, we take on a lot of responsibility and often try to present ourselves as an unbeatable member of the team. We find it difficult to offer vulnerability and sometimes struggle to take responsibility for our own mental health.

With resources and guidance available through resources like the Hub, we can be empowered with the tools we need to manage our own stress and well-being so that we, as trainers, are empowered to do our best.

So, before we ask our athletes to aim for bronze, silver, or gold, we should also ask ourselves, “Have I proactively created a space to discuss the colors green, yellow, orange, and red?”

Jack Hanratty.  - contributed
Jack Hanratty. – contributed

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