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Coaches’ Health: Keys for Sleep, Exercise and Mental Health

By James Onate, Ph.D., ATC on October 05, 2016 hst Print

Coaching is a demanding profession that involves far more than just training athletes at practice and leading them during games. Many of the outstanding coaches in high school sports are committed to teaching their players how to excel not only in athletics, but also in life. However, in order to help athletes on and off the field, coaches have to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The nature of the coaching profession brings on many stressors, such as the pressure to win, time demands away from family and pressure from parents and boosters. Oftentimes, these demands tend to consume coaches at the expense of their own physical and mental health. It is essential, however, that coaches take time to address these personal needs so they can continue to positively influence their student-athletes. In addition, athletic administrators and principals in schools would be well-served to make sure their coaches are addressing these vital personal needs.

Although there are many aspects of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, this article will address three key components: sleep, physical activity and exercise, and mental health.


Although lack of quality sleep is an issue for many Americans, coaches perhaps are among the worst offenders. The saying that “coaches lose sleep over everything” typically refers to concerns about wins/losses, practice performance and parent problems; however, research shows that actually “losing sleep” can be very detrimental to coaches’ health.

Many coaches instruct their players to maintain a regular sleep schedule, refrain from watching television and using the computer at bedtime, and avoid eating large meals before bedtime, but often
ignore these sleep recommendations in their own lives. 

These types of messages are delivered by coaches to their players for optimal performance prior to practices and games, but how many times is a coach up late watching game film and then in early to the office to devise practice plans and start the grinding coaching workday? Some of the best advice that coaches give to their student-athletes regarding sleep should be taken personally.

Physical Activity and Exercise

Many coaches competed as athletes in the sports they currently coach and try to maintain fitness and a variety of skills relative to their sport. Promotion of training and exercise for their athletes is the chief concern for coaches. As a result, their own exercise regimens get lost in the shuffle of diagramming plays, scouting opponents or providing advice to a student-athlete.

Having time to complete long workouts is a challenge for coaches, given their busy schedule throughout the day. As an alternative, coaches can participate in some exercise activities with their student-athletes to role model their commitment to a healthy lifestyle through exercise. In these situations, however, coaches should not try to do too much and think they are back in high school shape. Non-competitive exercises with student-athletes is an excellent way to reflect proper role modeling, while also keeping quality healthy lifestyles at the forefront.

Another consideration is getting exercise completed during practice or game preparation. For example, shagging fly balls in the outfield can get a baseball coach some moderate to vigorous running activity, and running to set up pylons prior to a football game can provide 10 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity that doesn’t need to be carved out separately from an already packed schedule. Of course, the best recommendation is to schedule some personal time for exercise, but improvising and adapting to the situation are hallmarks of all quality coaches.

Mental Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Two quick facts concerning mental health from the World Health Organization:

1. Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders.
2. Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health.

Scientific evidence regarding mental-health issues relative to sports-related injuries has seen a significant rise in the literature. Concerns about student-athlete suicides, body image disorders and depression following injury are among many mental health-related disorders that are a constant concern for coaches; however, they often overlook their own personal mental-health issues.

In addition to coaches addressing their own mental-health issues, it is incumbent on school administrators to assist coaches in reducing stress that could lead to potential problems. Among the many aspects of mental health, depression is one the leading concerns for many individuals, including coaches.

The CDC reports that depression is a serious medical illness and an important public health issue characterized by persistent sadness, which can have negative effects on the families and communities in which depressed individuals live. The CDC provides information from the American Psychiatric Associations diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder:

A person must experience five or more symptoms below for a continuous period of at least two weeks:

• Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, depressed mood
• Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable
• Change in weight or appetite (either increase or decrease)
• Change in activity: psychomotor agitation (being more active than usual) or psychomotor retardation (being less active than usual)
• Insomnia (difficulty sleeping) or sleeping too much
• Feeling tired or not having any energy
• Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
• Difficulties concentrating and paying attention
• Thoughts of death or suicide.

Most symptoms must be present every day or nearly every day and must cause significant distress or problems in daily life functioning to meet criteria for a diagnosis of depression.

While coaches are taught to look for signs of mental health distress in their student-athletes, school administrators should be aware of these warning signs in their coaches because coaches may be reluctant to deal with these issues. No coach would hesitate to contact a orthopedic specialist for a sore knee or a sprained ankle, but recognizing and dealing with a mental-health issue is another matter. However, proactive mental-health strategies can be extremely beneficial to coaches’ current and long-term health.

A few take-home messages for coaches regarding sleep, exercise and mental health can be taken from a study conducted by Miller et al (2012)3 that identified several important themes relevant to being an outstanding high school coach. The study concluded that all important themes concerning outstanding coaches were found in one coach’s response:

“Be true to yourself and your beliefs, work hard, don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help, surround yourself with assistants who share your philosophy and passion, respect your athletes, be fair and consistent, de-emphasize winning and emphasize the journey – what can be gained by being part of a team and the life lessons athletics teach – don’t neglect your loved ones or your health.”

1. World Health Organization. Strengthening Mental Health Promotion. Geneva, World Health Organization (Fact sheet no. 220), 2001.
2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 5th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.
3. Miller G, Lutz R, Fredenburg K. Outstanding High School Coaches. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. 2012; 83(2): 24-29.