Steve O’Keeffe – 3 tips for coaching people dealing with mental health issues

I have been coaching and mentoring people that deal with mental health issues for many years. It is these people that most inspire me as a coach. I have a good understanding of mental health from both my own personal experiences and many years of training and education. It has always been an interest of mine and I have always made sure to understand the people I teach in every capacity. Communication is vital and if I do not understand people, how can I help them learn.

I will cover 3 tips that I hope will inspire other coaches to take action and become the best coach they can be. It doesn’t matter if you coach at grass roots level or coach elite adult athletes, 1 in 4 people suffer with some type of mental health issue.

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making the unknown, known is the important thing” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe, artist 1887-1986

Build a relationship

If you have never had experience yourself with mental health you will find it very hard to understand what someone is going through. If you have been coaching a number of years I can promise you that you would have coached many people who suffer with some kind of mental health issue and you would have never known.

If you do suspect that there is a problem or you have some background information for that person it is very important to build relationship with them. The person may not learn the same way as the rest of the group and you will not know that unless you as the coach make an effort to get to know them. Coaches can play an extremely important role in helping someone deal with mental health issues but you need to put in a little extra work.

Like most coaches I spend hours talking to my students before and after class. Of course, I enjoy the conversations but more than that I like to understand my students. I like to know what they are going through and if they have had a hard day at school or work. For years I have coached young people in one of the most deprived areas of London and the UK. I have seen things like depression and anxiety materialise due to other contributing factor in their lives. I have good relationships with all the students I coach this allows me to understand how each individual learns. If they are one of my athletes, I will also know how much I can push someone based on what they are currently going through at the time.

Be aware, if you are trying to build a relationship with someone without a genuine concern or level of care for their wellbeing it will not go unnoticed. If your concern is only retaining them as a customer or for you to be seen doing “the right thing” then you are obviously not the right person to be working closely with them. Do not enter a remit where you are not confident as people will also clearly see that too. Do not tip toe around the issue, if someone is comfortable enough to talk to you once a relationship is formed embrace it.


A lot of people who are dealing with issues surrounding mental health often feel better once they have spoken about it. Whatever they tell you be professional with the information. Do not lose the trust you have just worked for. This information should only be shared with other professionals that need to know. If someone discloses information that puts themselves or others in harm, you need to know who to share that with. Have contact details with local professionals like CAMHS (Child and adolescent mental health service) and also an adult service too. Contact the NHS or local council to find out where these are. Once someone approaches you with information or you have spoken sensitively to them and they have opened up, you need to know your limits.

Sports coaches are often seen as mentors, father figures, youth workers, roles models. Take that role and embrace it. You are not an expert in mental health. Avoid giving advice as you could be blamed for any negative experiences as a result.

Do not treat people differently ( or be seen to )

From my own experiences I have learned that sometimes the biggest worry when someone is disclosing information is that they may be treated differently in some way. It may be necessary to treat them in a slightly different way but make sure your other students do not realise this is going on. It can have a very negative effect on the person in question if they feel they stand out in any way.

Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. Everyone has a mental health, so imagine this. Imagine you have had a really tough time. Broken up with your partner and it wasn’t your decision. You thought everything was fine and it was really out of the blue. Your partner won’t even speak to you or reply to your messages.

You decide to stop worrying about it and go back to training. Coach can see that you are upset and asks you what’s up. You’re close with coach and decide to let him know what is going on. In front of all of the students coach gives you a little hug to make you feel better. Now the whole class knows something is wrong.

Later during class, when you are about to start sparring, coach asks if you want to sit out as he knows you’re feeling under the weather. Again highlighting there is something wrong. After class you get 4-5 students coming up to you asking if you are ok.

How would that make you feel?

As a coach, think about how you would better deal with this issue?