Psychological Well-Being and Human Functioning Lessons learnt from Sports Coaches and Sport Science Support Staff

Professor Brendan Cropley

Written by: Professor Brendan Cropley

Brendan is a Professor of Sport Coaching in the School of Health, Sport, and Professional Practice. He is also the Head of the Centre for Football Research in Wales.  


When Pep Guardiola resigned from his position as manager of FC Barcelona in 2012 a media frenzy ensued...

 Seemingly astonished by the decision, reporters and the wider football community attempted to understand why, at his and the team’s peak, he stepped down from arguably the most sought after job in football management. However, on closer inspection, Guardiola disclosed that ‘he was empty’, drained by the daily and constant pressure placed on him as a person and as a professional (Pep Guardiola Press Conference). Ultimately, the job had taken a toll on his psychological well-being. Fortunately, Guardiola still had the clarity of mind to take a break from the game before his psychological state diminished further and before the onset of significant mental distress. Perhaps as a result, he has been able to successfully return to the game, first as manager of FC Bayern Munich and now as manager of Manchester City FC.  

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Guardiola’s story is not an isolated one as many coaches (and managers) across sport experience high levels of complex demands that have a significant impact on the way in which they are able to function in both their personal and professional (sporting) lives. Indeed, cases of sports team managers, coaches, and sport science support staff suffering from poor levels of mental health, as a result of their jobs, have been increasingly reported in various media outlets (e.g., Dr Dorian Dugmore - Article: Stress on football managers is becoming worse year after year; Eva Carneiro - How hard it is to be a sport doctor).  

In light of such instances, researchers have argued that those working in sport are as likely, if not more likely, than the general population to experience a mental health issue because of the extreme nature of the environments in which they have to compete and therefore work (A Review of Mental Health in Sport). This appears particularly true for coaches and support staff who, irrespective of the level they are working at, have to operate under high amounts of pressure, have to fulfil an ever-expanding number of roles, have a distinct lack of job security, and often have to function under unrealistic internal and external expectations. At the same time, these professionals have to ensure that their own psychological and emotional states are at optimal levels so that they can perform effectively. 

Linked to this, my own research has indicated the importance of those working in sport developing the necessary coping strategies required to manage these multiple and complex demands that are experienced on a daily basis (Coping with the Demands of Professional Practice in Sport). This is potentially significant because prolonged exposure to demands that an individual is unable to cope with is likely to lead to negative psychological outcomes, such as burnout, ill-being, and the onset of mental health issues. Given this situation, and the growing number of issues associated with mental health being reported in sport, my colleagues and I have begun to explore the psychological well-being of sport coaches and sport science support staff across a range of sports. The aim of our work has been to make sense of the factors that impact on well-being and how we might help these sports performers protect themselves from the demands they experience within their daily lives and therefore help them to flourish in undoubtedly challenging circumstances that are characteristic of both elite and non-elite sport (USW Research News).  


Understanding Psychological Well-Being

Our initial understanding of well-being was not helped by the vast array of terms and definitions available and the way in which mental health and well-being are often used interchangeably. In agreement with the World Health Organisation, we understand that well-being is an aspect of the more global concept of mental health, whereby mental health relates to an individual’s ability to cope, work productively, and make a contribution to society (WHO Definition of Mental Health). Well-being, on the other hand, is linked to happiness, life satisfaction, growth and self-acceptance and refers to an individual’s ability to function personally, socially and professionally. Well-being therefore contributes to an individual’s overall mental health. 

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Whilst there are a number of different forms of well-being (such as psychological, emotional, social, and physical well-being), the term itself cannot be used as a catch-all for everything related to health, including illness. Well-being simply refers to being well – a state where an individual experiences positive emotions, cognitions, and attitudes about the self – and therefore cannot be associated with the negative processes and outcomes associated with being ill (ill-being) – a state where an individual experiences grief, anxiety, and potentially anger. There are many factors that will influence whether an individual experiences levels of well-being or ill-being, including (amongst others): 

  • Sleep, nutrition and exercise
  • Quality of interpersonal relationships
  • Ability to cope with daily demands
  • The level of control an individual feels they have over their life
  • Experience of enjoyment
  • How competent an individual feels/is within their varied roles
  • The level of certainty/uncertainty and individual experiences within their lives
  • A sense of purpose
  • The ability an individual has for growth

Research that has examined the impact of well-being on sport coaches and support staff has been consistent in suggesting that it is linked to improved health (physical, social and mental), productivity, and performance (Stressors, Coping, and Well-Being Among Sport Coaches). 

As a result of such findings, and the reverse effect of coaches and support staff experiencing ill-being, it appears imperative that individuals and organisations work hard to support the ongoing development and maintenance of well-being. Indeed, in our most recent research (still ongoing), we found that 61.4% of our sample of 389 sport coaches (n = 285) and support staff (n = 104) were experiencing extremely high (35.5%) to moderate/low (25.9%) levels of ill-being. In our study, these ill-being profiles were characterised by the experience of symptoms associated with depression and anxiety, negative mood states, low levels of job and life satisfaction, and high levels of job and life stress. In addition, these participants reported a lack of control at work and high levels of work demands, as well as difficulties in withdrawing themselves from their work roles and responsibilities and low levels of self-esteem (for updates on this research project see USW Sport, Health and Exercise Research Unit).  

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Developing Psychological Well-Being

In support of a number of recommendations relating to the development of psychological well-being, our research has indicated the potential benefit of a range of strategies that can be considered by both individuals and organisations (who aim to create an environment that supports the well-being of their employees) with a view to facilitating functioning. In adopting these strategies, and in doing so attending to psychological well-being, individuals will be in a better position to flourish within the roles that they fulfil in both their personal and professional lives. 


Developing Purpose

Work-life Balance - Whilst it is becoming more difficult to negotiate burgeoning workloads and variable working hours it is important that we attempt to manage the balance between the different aspects of our lives. Prioritising the “right” things, ensuring we “clock off”, leaving our work for work hours, and engaging in regular “mindset cleanses” (e.g., identifying what we need to more/less of and what we need to start/stop doing) would help to manage the balance. 

Be Active - Physical activity will have a positive impact on psychological and emotional states. It is therefore important that individuals prioritise physical activity in and outside of work. For example: break productivity with an activity, change sit-down meeting for standing/walking meetings, and create more opportunities for physical activity in daily life. 


Growth and Mastery

Keep Learning - Learning can help to develop our sense of fulfilment and self-esteem. It also focuses the mind on positive tasks that are associated with personal growth. We should set ourselves weekly, small development goals that can be linked to any part of our lives. 

Reframe Success and Failure - When we’re successful we quite often overlook the process that allowed us to be successful. Additionally, when we fail, we see it as a negative experience that potentially dents our self-esteem and perceptions of competence. We need to see both successes and failures as opportunities for development – making sense of how we can maintain or improve what we do to lead to more successful future outcomes. 


Connection 

Talk to the Right People - Communicating with others and sharing ideas and problems is an important part of the process of managing demands and developing a sense of relatedness required to improve our well-being. Be clear about who you can trust and open up to and discuss the different areas of your life with. 

Be Around the Right People - It is important to surround yourself with “good” people – those with whom you can empathise and communicate freely with. Try to develop networks with people who will challenge you, make you happy, and be able to offer support. 


Developing Autonomy

Set Targets and Monitor Progress - Goal setting has long been identified as a potent approach to developing motivation and directing behaviours. However, people often get bogged down with ensuring their goals are SMART and overlook the need to develop an appropriate plan to understand how the goal will be achieved. Goals afford us a level of control over our developmental journey but we have to ensure that we are interested in, motivated to achieve, and clear about the necessary actions required for goal achievement


Acknowledgements: 

  1. At USW we are committed to developing the well-being of the USW Family. Please see https://wellbeing.southwales.ac.uk/ for more information. 
  2. Research partners: Dr Rich Neil, Professor Stephen Mellalieu, Paul Sellars (Cardiff Metropolitan University), Dr Ross Wadey (St. Mary’s University), and Dr Chris Wagstaff (University of Portsmouth). 

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