Sport is more than just how well you perform technically – it is how it makes you feel when your body and mind are in sync. Being physically active brings multiple benefits to your mental well-being, just as much as it does to your physical well-being. Almost every day we hear about the importance of mental health in sport. In our Safe Sport Action Plan, we are committed to ensuring that all participants enjoy volleyball that is safe and beneficial to physical and mental well-being. Here are some resources to help you understand and feel supported in your mental health and wellness. 

1. MENTAL HEALTH VERSUS MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS

Mental health in sport is as important as physical health. But what does “mental health” mean and how does it differ from “mental health disorders” or “Mental illness”?

MENTAL HEALTH

Mental Health is a state of wellbeing in which every individual  realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can perform productively, and is able to make a contribution to her or his (sporting) community.  Mental health is personal and subjective, and includes: 

  • a sense of internal well-being 
  • feeling in line with one’s own values and beliefs 
  • feeling at peace with oneself 
  • feeling positive and optimistic about life

From a youth’s point of view, mental health means…

  • I feel like I have things to live for
  • I feel that people care about me
  • I feel hopeful and good about the future
  • I feel in control of my life
  • I’m satisfied or happy with life
  • I like myself

MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS

Mental Health Disorders are clinically diagnosed conditions which produce significant and persistent changes in a person’s thinking, emotions and/or behaviours that are associated with significant distress and/or disability in social, occupational or other important activities, like learning, training or competition. Major mental illnesses include anxiety, mood, eating and psychotic disorders.

From a youth’s point of view, mental health disorders can mean some or all of the following…

  • I feel sad, irritable, worried or angry a lot
  • I don’t like myself
  • I feel powerless, and not in control of my life
  • I feel that others don’t care about me
  • I don’t feel good about the future

key concept: mental health is a continuum

This model recognizes that mental health is not black and white. The model goes from healthy, adaptive coping (green), through mild and reversible distress (yellow), to more severe, persistent injury or impairment (orange), to clinical illnesses and disorders requiring more concentrated medical care (red).

The arrows under the four color blocks show that there can be movement in both directions along the continuum. In this way, no one is ‘written off’ simply because they are showing symptoms of an illness. It also recognises  that the earlier that intervention is provided, the easier it is to return to full health and functioning (green). Therefore, it is important to improve understanding and awareness of mental health symptoms and disorders, to recognise the signs, and to create a culture that supports seeking help.

 Mental health and mental illness are dynamic constructs. People’s levels of mental health and mental illness can fluctuate at any point in time across the four quadrants depicted on the left.  An athlete can be mentally healthy, may have a mental health disorder, or may be in-between. Athletes experiencing a mental health disorder can recover and have periods of optimum mental health, while athletes without mental health symptoms or disorders can experience times of poor mental health, such as feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

Optimal functioning is a state of complete mental health whereby individuals are flourishing without a mental illness. However, this does not mean that people with a mental illness cannot reach optimal levels of functioning and the highest levels of performance in sport. What is most important is that individuals get the right support to achieve their performance and mental health. 

2. stressors in volleyball

Playing volleyball can be an amazing way to manage stress and boost your mood. However, sport can also bring stressors that may contribute to poor mental well-being.


As the graphic above shows, student-athletes have been recognized as at risk of developing and struggling with mental health disorders and distress. Student-athletes are expected to balance the responsibilities of academia and athletics which creates stress. For more info visit Student Athletes Mental Health Initiative.

What are key stressors? Key stressors for participants in sport can be split into three categories: competitive stress, organisational stress and personal stress. These three categories are not exclusive and can have knock-on effects or impacts on other categories. 

1. Competitive stress  – these are the demands we place on ourselves to achieve competitive performance. Some of this pressure is self-imposed but pressure can also come from outside sources, most critically from coaches.

During the tournament season, performance anxiety can be a huge issue. Check out our useful handouts for how to manage these feelings. : 
Players – Performance Anxiety
Coaches Handout – Performance Anxiety
Referee Handout – Stress in Tournaments

2. Personal stress  –  factors to do with our “non-sporting” life can bring stress, such as a challenging workload, lack of sleep, or stress at school. In last year’s Annual Survey, the top factors affecting Players’ performances in volleyball were lack of sleep and general life stress. Youth players also highlighted fear of failure while Adult players were impacted by their professional life. Coaches and Referees also ranked general life stress, lack of sleep and professional life as the top 3 factors affecting their participation in volleyball.  The top factors listed by all participants were physical fatigue and mental exhaustion.  

3. Organisational stress – these stressors are associated primarily with the sport organisation or team in which you belong. It may involve coaching style, team dynamics, or the sport culture. For example, the stronger your team identity or “bond”, the harder it can feel for you to express ways that you may feel differently which may in turn create stress and pressure to conform.

3. creating a supportive culture

Having a good support system is crucial for positive mental health when you are playing volleyball.

The IOC calls this support system the “athlete entourage” which consists of all the people associated with an athlete including family, friends, coaches, physical trainers, and anyone else who supports an athlete’s sporting career.

Your “entourage” members have an important role to play in supporting your mental wellness. These are people who have frequent contact with you and so are in the best position to recognise when you may need support. They can help you to identify stressors in your life and support you in developing healthy coping strategies. Your volleyball club, team mates, and coaches play an important role in fostering athletic environments which are psychologically safe and encourage help-seeking.

Not everyone has a supportive entourage or feels able to confide in their support network. In a recent SIRC article, 5 key barriers were identified that discourage athletes from disclosing psychological distress:

Traditionally “Tough” Sport Cultures: – Many sports place an emphasis on mental toughness which means that psychological distress or mental health challenges are often perceived to be a sign of weakness. Consequently, athletes fear disclosure because they do not want coaches to label them as weak.

Power of CoachesA second barrier is the power coaches hold in their relationship with athletes. Coaches determine starting line-ups, who participates, and ultimately which athletes will compete. Athletes fear disclosing any mental issues because they worry coaches will perceive their performance abilities as being impaired and subsequently lose playing time. 

An Athlete’s Position on the TeamPower dynamics amongst teammates can also act as a barrier to disclosure. Athletes in leadership role – like team captains – may not disclose distress as they fear it will damage their reputation. Alternatively, new or younger players often fear disclosure because they do not perceive themselves as valued members of the team.

Previous Negative Experiences with DisclosureAthletes are sensitive and highly attuned to the responses of their coaches when disclosing any personal challenges ranging from mild injuries to more serious distress. If players perceive a negative coach response during these instances of disclosure, it subsequently discourages them from future help-seeking and reinforces a mindset that sport is not a welcoming environment for distress.

Poor Visibility of Psychological DistressUntil recently, the topics of psychological distress and mental health have not been widely discussed in sport. Fortunately this is changing as more high-profile athletes come forward to speak up about the importance of mental health and seeking help when you need it.

tips for coaches: Creating a supportive culture

Volleyball organisations and coaches play an important role in creating and fostering a culture that recognises the psychological wellbeing of athletes and encourages help-seeking behaviors. In the SIRC article, 5 key tips are outlined for coaches:

Adopt a Holistic Coaching PhilosophyRather than emphasise mental toughness, adopt a more holistic philosophy that minimizes the importance of performance and winning. Focus on athlete wellness through the prioritization of such elements as recovery, nutrition, and sleep, and encourage athletes to strive for balanced lifestyles which will improve well-being.

Invest in Coach-Athlete RelationshipsMinimize power differentials between players and coaches by developing open and honest coach-athlete relationships. Be clear to players that if they need to seek help and temporarily step away from volleyball, this will not impact their position on the team. . Schedule regular meetings with your players to help build stronger relationships. 

Addressing Team HierarchiesReduce the negative impacts that team hierarchies can have on players’ mental well-being by techniques such as:

  • Using transparent selection criteria to dispel any myths that certain athletes are treated more favourably than others.
  • Designating practice time to increase the skills and confidence of athletes who receive less playing time. This may be done using small groups or in a one-on-one fashion. 
  • Assigning each athlete with a role that makes them feel like a valued team member who is deserving of your attention, regardless of their performance contributions to the team

Observational LearningMake conscious efforts to respond positively when addressing any concerns brought to you by your players.. Over time, athletes who may be worried about disclosing any mental health concerns will see these positive coach-athlete interactions and learn that it is acceptable to bring distress.

Enhancing Visibility of Psychological DistressSpeak openly with your players about mental health, whether through anecdotal stories or your own personal experiences. Discuss high profile athletes who have come forward with their mental health concerns or disorders. Encourage your players to self-reflect on their emotional states and hold them accountable for taking action if there are issues that are negatively impacting their wellbeing.

4. supporting others

What do you do if a teammate, a player, or your coach is having a rough time or does not seem themselves?  Bringing up mental and emotional well-being can be tricky and challenging to handle.

tips for coaches

Coaches can be the first point of contact for a player to express their feelings.  When athletes come to you in emotional distress and they do not present an immediate threat to the safety of themselves or others:

DEMONSTRATE COMPASSION – Some helpful tips for calming the individual and demonstrating compassion are: 
Remaining calm yourself — maintain calm body language and tone of voice. 
Listen to the individual. Allow him/her to express his/her thoughts. Provide him/her a forum in which he/ she can be heard. It’s OK to have a moment of silence between you. 
Avoid judging the individual. Provide unconditional support. You do not have to solve his/her problem. Normalize the experience and offer hope.

GATHER INFORMATION – Ask questions, including questions of safety (“Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” and “Are you thinking of suicide?”) Asking the important questions will NOT plant the idea in his/her head. By asking questions about suicide, you will receive valuable information. If he/she hesitates or confirms, you know to elevate the intervention.  

Triage the severity of the situation to determine if the issue can be managed or requires professional support. Professional support should be sought in any instance when you do not feel adequately equipped to manage the situation, and when the athlete is an immediate risk to themselves and/or others.

CONNECT WITH SUPPORT – Present the individual with options for next steps. Connect the athlete to the appropriate support resources if you have them within your organisation or refer them to external organisations if needed. If the individual is a minor, contact their family or appropriate agencies.

RESPECT BOUNDARIES AND ABILITIES – Know what you’re comfortable doing and what you’re not comfortable doing. Don’t promise secrecy. If necessary, you can say, “It took courage for you to disclose this information to me. And, by telling me, it says you want to do something about what is going on. The best thing we can do is to inform someone else, such as a mental health provider, who can give you the care you need.”

DON’T FORGET THE FOLLOW UP – Once athletes have accessed the appropriate resources, coaches should engage in the following long-term support practices:
Respect and maintain the athlete’s confidentiality. These are sensitive topics and should be handled as such.
Keep the athlete engaged with the team (e.g., invite, but do not force athletes to attend practices, games, team social events, etc.).
Follow-up with the athlete on a regular basis. Be available to chat with the athlete on an as-needed basis.
Be flexible with sport-related demands, such as training times, to accommodate any needs. Be patient and sensitive to the fact that dealing with distress takes time, similar to physical injuries.

Additional Resources: Talking to Teens about Mental Health

Tips for players

The Step UP Program has these tips for how you can speak to a team mate or friend if you notice that they are behaving differently and you are concerned about them:

Be curious/ask questions to understand from their point of view. 

Ask permission if the topic is sensitive.

Avoid gossiping and rumor spreading.

Take care of yourself — it can be difficult on helpers as well.

Tell someone if you believe that the individual is in danger from themselves or from/to others. 

If you or the individual are minors, find an appropriate and responsible adult to get help and support.

5. Seeking support

If you feel your mental health is suffering or you are having persistent negative thoughts, here are 4 suggestions for how to take action.

1. Remember you are not alone 

The Canadian Mental Health Association reports:

  • Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time either through their own experience, or that of a family member, friend or colleague.
  • In any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.
  • Approximately 20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorders.

Reminding yourself that you are experiencing what many other people are will help to normalise your feelings and help you to be compassionate and gentle with yourself.

2. Practice self-care

Self-care is the practice of taking an active role in preserving or improving one’s health and well-being through lifestyle design and daily choices. Selfcare extends  beyond  your basic physical needs and includes your psychological, emotional, spiritual, social, financial and academic needs.. The Canadian Olympic Committee has developed this easy-to-use template to help you create a Self Care Plan to maintain your mental health on an ongoing basis and cope with uncomfortable emotions and distressing events.

3. Seek help

Speak to a health professional to find out about resources and strategies to handle what you are experiencing. There are also many free, confidential, and easy-to-use resources that you can access for help and support:

4. Consider sharing your story and experiences with your team.

Sharing your story and experiences with your team or with your coach can be a good way to educate them about mental health and destigmatize the issue. It might also help them understand how they can support you. However, sharing your story can also be a deeply personal experience. You may want to start with a select group of individuals whom you trust. This can be a good way to develop a smaller group of supporters, before opening up to the rest of the team if you feel that is needed.

When you share your experience, it’s important that you feel safe to do so. It would be advisable to ensure one or two of your trusted teammates can be there to give you support. Expect that your team may ask for ways they can help. Have some ideas about what would potentially help, and what would not be helpful (this is just as important!)

Sources and Useful Information