Professional sports coaching is an exciting and highly-desirable profession to get in to. As such there are more than 109,000 professionals operating in the industry in the UK alone, a figure that has continued to grow in recent years.
But like most jobs, it’s not without its fair share of problems – most notably, pressures and stresses. This in part is due to the number of different roles of a sports coach and what they have to take on; organiser, planner, counsellor and nutritionist in some cases. With so many jobs to juggle at any one time, it can really pay havoc with one’s wellbeing and mental health.
In this specific role, there’s an expectancy placed on coaches about their athlete’s performance. The pressure to always win and come first is highly challenging, least of all when experienced with such frequency.
While sports coaches may have a built-up resilience through their work, stress overload can result in burnout for many. The emotional and physical toll it all should not be overlooked, least of all because this will start to affect their athlete’s performance, as well as their own personal desire to remain in the industry.
In this section, we look at some of the stresses that professional sports coaches face in the world today, how to best deal with them, and the implications of this on our work-life balance.
Passion is what many drives us in to sports coaching, but few realise that it can have its challenges too. In the words of Raedeke, coaching is a very “consuming, demanding and frustrating experience.”
So, what exactly is stress? The Mental Health Foundation refer to it as: “the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable.”
Stress can manifest in many ways, and is part of our body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to dealing with challenging situations. Persistent stress can take its toll on our overall wellbeing, especially when we feel overwhelmed.
Stressors that contribute to this include environmental and individual demands.
This is rife in the sports industry, where the role of a sports coach is expected to deliver success. Not everyone appreciates or understands that their contribution is part of a wider approach – the achievements and improvements that happen along the way. Because if there’s one thing that sports coaching preaches, it’s about the journey as much as the destination. Not everyone can come first place, and certainly not all the time, so the role of the sports coach is about helping the athlete to perform to the best of their abilities and cease their own potential. But alas, businesses and corporates sadly don’t always look at it this way.
This can be especially true for coaches in the media spotlight, or those with athletes performing at high profile elements. For instance, if the England football team is under performing, what is likely to happen first; sacking the coach, or changing the dynamics of the team around?
Additional there’s ‘strains’ to consider, these can be wearing on an individual’s behavioural, physical and psychological needs. And then of course there’s organisational stress – that which arises from the workplace they operate in. Usually the greater the profile, the higher the pressure will be to maintain the expected standard.
Stress in coaching
It is not always clear to those entering the industry, that it can be plagued with stress and pressures.
Coaching courses have a responsibility to inform students about the industry they are about to enter. This in turn can better help prepare them for the pressures of the job, and the many roles that they may be able to take on. All the while they keep athletes and management happy, and bring in results.
Some of the known stressors in this field relate to the many personal sacrifices made. Sports coaching takes quite a lot of dedication and commitment from those in the field. This means getting up super early for training practice, giving up weekends to attend qualifiers and events, and sacrificing personal time with friends and family, for the benefit of your athlete. If you are able to put their needs above all others, including your own, you’re in the right field.
Because, these commitments can have an impact on your private life and personal time, and because of this, it can be solitary or isolating for some.
The effects of stress
Studies show that there’s numerous negative impacts on personal wellbeing in relation to stress. Frey and Olusoga (2007 and 2010), defined these as:
- Behaviours – from the way we use body language to the tone of our voice, these interpersonal behaviours are all very telling about how we are coping with a situation of stress.
- Emotions – the way our emotional state is impacted from the world around us. This can manifest as anger, or even depression – indeed any emotional form, which in turn may also affect our physical wellbeing too.
- Cognitions – specifically losing focus with impacts on negative decision making.
- Physiological Changes – these can be seen in our body, from shaking to tension and sweating palms to hear palpitations. These are very real and make lead to extreme physical exhaustion if not managed well.
Stress not only affects the sports coach and their performance, but also their ability to communicate effectively with their athlete, providing the adequate support and motivation that they may require. As a result, coaches may suffer decreased motivation, emotional fatigue, depression and sadness, all leading to mental and physical withdrawal.
Simply put, this is considered as career ‘burnout’ a familiar outcome for those suffering with higher levels of anxiety.
Therefore, the ability to manage stress is extremely important in sports coaching. Once we can identify stress and understand its role, we are able to utilise it to our benefit, or learn to put coping procedures in place. Out of due diligence, organisations should too be putting adequate procedures in place to support the wellbeing of their teams.
While many believe that stress is resigned to the athlete, it is usually shared with their sports coach in equal measure. Since after all, their fails and gains are viewed as a reflection of their efforts.
But thanks to sports coaching courses, we know how to harness this to its benefit, using it to motivate, inspire and energise our efforts. Some of these techniques include:
- Tension Releasing – this can be in the form of crying, shouting or getting angry (in a helpful way)
- Cognitive Strategies – whereby one focuses on the process and the journey, rather than the success of winning
- Emotional-Control Strategies – such as social support from friends
- Behavioural Strategies – such as preparation ahead of potentially challenging situations
There are also techniques that coaches teach athletes that can be useful to apply in these situations too. These include; self-talk, relaxation, guided meditation, self-control, planning, social support and communicating with those around you. All of these techniques and strategies can improve the outcome for someone suffering with stress.
Additionally, support from employers and organisations is important. Since recognising when team members are loaded with pressure and too much work can have a detrimental effect on performance. Good communication is at the heart of this, it’s good practice to have regular meetings with team members, to listen to feedback, ensure they aren’t overloaded with work and to put support in place before it gets to an unmanageable place.
What more can be done?
One study from Cardiff University (2011), that looked at the in-depth effects of sports coach stress, found that “limited amounts of stress management techniques were applicable to non-elite coaches” and as a result there was no coping strategy provided.
Because of this ‘avoiding coping strategies’ are all too commonplace for sports coaches at every level. Worryingly though, these are linked to long term departure from the industry.
The results found that stress management techniques need to be available to “those coaches who do not have the relevant strategies to limit their stress. The help available to elite athletes and coaches should be applicable to non-elite coaches in an attempt for them to cope with the demands placed upon them and it may also help reduce burnout and withdrawal from their sports”
Research also suggests that this is a profession reluctant to ask for help, so intervention techniques may be beneficial. This could include formal mentoring, encouraging coaches talk through their issues and problems. As well as meeting with other professionals in the sports coach network. The opportunity to share and exchange stories and best practice can be extremely supportive to both parties, offering mutual benefit.
Burnout is a real problem that coaches face in the industry, especially since many don’t return once that withdraw from the field.
It should therefore be a priority that sports coaches are equipped with the right skills and strategies in order to better manage the challenges of their jobs.
Organisations must play their role in acknowledging and addressing the pressure of sports coaches in order to better regulate the industry.
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Related Articles from Sport Resilience:
- Self Talk
- Coaching Through Organisational Change
- Helping Coaches Meet Their Psychological Needs
- High-Performance Coaching
- How Mind Influences The Body?