Mental Health for Coaches: Are You Living a Sustainable Lifestyle?

He’s called a coach and it’s a different job. There is no clear way to succeed. One cannot copy another who’s a winner, for there seems to be some subtle secret chemistry of personality that enables a person to lead successfully and no one really knows what it is. Those who have succeeded and those who have failed represent all kinds.

They are young, old, experienced, they are soft, tough, good natured, foul tempered, proud and profane. They are articulate and even inarticulate. Some are dedicated and some casual. Some are even more dedicated than others. Intelligence is not enough, and dedication is not enough.

They all want to win, but some want to win more than others and just wanting to win is not enough. Losers almost always get fired, but winners get fired also. He is out in the open being judged publicly for six or seven months out of the year by those who may or may not be qualified to judge him. Every victory and every defeat is recorded constantly in print. The coach, this strange breed has no place to hide. He cannot just let the job go for a while or do a bad job and hope no one will notice as most of us can. He cannot satisfy everyone, seldom can he even satisfy very many, and rarely does he even satisfy himself. If he wins once, he must win the next time also.

They plot victories-, they suffer defeats; they endure criticism from within and without; they neglect their families, they travel endlessly and they live alone in the spotlight surrounded by others. Theirs may be the worst profession in the world. It’s unreasonably demanding, poor pay, insecure, full of unrelenting pressures and I ask myself: Why do coaches put up with it? Why do they do it? I’ve seen them fired with pat phrases such as, “Fool”, “Incompetent”, or “He couldn’t get the job done”.

I’ve wondered about that, having seen them exalted by victory, and depressed by defeat. I’ve sympathized with them having seen some broken by the job and others die from it. One is moved to admire them and to hope that someday the world will understand them; this strange breed they call coach.

The above is an excerpt from the book ‘Coaches’ by Bill Libby. Libby’s book contains interviews with legendary coaching figures such as Red Auerbach, Paul Brown, Leo Durocher, Mike Holovak, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi, Billy Martin, Ara Parseghian, Adolph Rupp, Bill Russell, Casey Stengel and John Wooden. After studying these great coaching minds he seems to understand the lifestyle extremely well.

I started coaching almost immediately after I stopped competing. I instantaneously fell in love with the job and dedicated the next 20 years of my life to the profession.

Although I still love coaching the lifestyle was not one that I learned to live in a sustainable manner.

Most coaches will have morning practices at 5 am a minimum three days a week, returning to the deck in the early afternoon and continuing to coach into the evening hours.

Along with the hours of planning and monitoring off of the deck many have responsibilities that include marketing, pool negotiations, parents education and the politics that come with dealing with a board.

Add in swim meets, which can be four days in length with 10 hours or more on the pool deck.

Many coaches do not give themselves days off. They are committed to the goals of the athletes and the team, they see themselves leading by example and simply there is always work to be done.

Some coaches will spend more time on the job than others, but there are almost none that are not emotionally invested in how their team performs.

For me when athletes swam well it was because they put in the work, had the motivation and wanted to excel. When athletes swam poorly I blamed myself, I questioned not only how I had gone about the planning and training of the swimmers, but I began question myself at my core.

I did not set myself up for success often ignoring both my physical and psychological health.

Today my interactions with coaches are frequent whether it be in social circles, working with teams in the capacity of a yoga teacher or conducting interviews for this website. I know I am not alone in these feelings for that reason I decided to write a few pieces of advice I would have given my younger self upon embarking on a coaching career.

Develop Self-Awareness

Examine your behaviours, your health and your responses. When you do be honest with yourself.

The only way you will grow is through introspection. Understand how you interact with others, how you react in different environments and monitor your health. By doing so you will be aware of the things you need to develop and adapt to live not only a sustainable, but extremely enjoyable lifestyle.

Tip: Journal. Currently I use a program called optimism every morning. It tracks many different things such as wellness strategies, triggers and symptoms. I also record my sleep cycle, three things I am grateful for, three things I am good at and one thing that would make the day great. At night I write down the things I did well and one thing I could have improved on.

Believe it or not this only takes about 5 minutes to do each morning and each night.


How much sleep do you average a night?

Even though you may think that you are tough enough to get by on little sleep you are fooling yourself. Your focus is compromised, your energy levels are compromised and your emotional health is affected negatively.

It is not a badge of honour to put in work until the wee hours of the night and wake up for morning practice to start all over again. Work more efficiently, not more.

When you get enough sleep you are happier, healthier and more enthusiastic. This will only benefit you and all the athletes who train with you. When you are rested everything comes together just a little more smoothly.

Tip: Many sleep specialists and performance coaches suggest to set a time each night to hit the hay. Even if you are not successful at following it each night it gives you something to aim for, which will help you start to create healthy sleep habits.

Stay Fit

How many times a week are you working out?

As a coach you profess the value and benefits of an active lifestyle, too often you aren’t practicing what you preach. Each time you go for a run and feel like a slug or step on the scale and see a number that doesn’t seem to stop increasing it is not good for your physical health or your self-esteem.

Being fit feels amazing and allows you to live with a little more ease.

Make working out a priority.

Tip: Put it in your weekly schedule. Too often we have the intention, but don’t actually set aside the time. If possible workout at the same time each day. There will be days where you can’t fit it in, but once again it gives you a goal to aim for and will be the beginning of a healthy habit.

Watch What You Eat

What does your diet look like?

You arm athletes with the knowledge and encourage them to develop solid nutritional habits, but do you follow that same advice? What you put into your body as a huge effect on your quality of life; your energy levels increase, you think with greater clarity, you make better decisions and you have greater emotional stability.

Tip: Make your eating habits a routine. Recently there has been a lot written on decision making fatigue by making your dietary habits part of a routine you don’t have to use decision-making energy to decide what to eat. As an example Nick Saban has the same breakfast and the same lunch at the same time every day.

Have Balance

Get a hobby!

Honour the things you love in your life other than coaching; literature, philosophy, writing, climbing, trail running, kayaking and yoga. Just because you are committed to your craft and are determined to lead your athletes to success does not mean you have to sacrifice all of your other interests.

Some of the most successful coaches you know have been the ones you love talking to about things other than coaching. Discussing art with Rick Demont and Ayn Rand and Hunter S Thompson with Paul Yetter have been as enjoyable as talking about periodization and the development of stroke technique.

Having other interests makes you more engaging, more enjoyable to be around and more adaptable. Don’t become a one trick pony.

Tip 1: Make time in your schedule. Take time out at least three times a week to spend time on these interests. Never neglect them.


Socialize with people outside of the sport.

Some of your best friends will be coaches, but it is important to create a social network outside of coaching. It can be hard when you keep coaching hours many times you are working when others aren’t and your schedule will be open during the time that many are working.

It is important to expand your world outside of coaching. This gives you an opportunity to look at the things from a different perspective, which at times will be exactly what you need to be at your best.

Tip: Join Meetup groups. Pick one of your interests outside of coaching and join a Meetup group in your area that is centred around that interest. Commit to finding time each week to socialize with others outside of the sport.

Separate Person From Performance

Ensure that you do not let the performance of the athletes you coach affect your emotional health.

An important lesson you teach athletes is that their performance does not define who they are. Make sure you remember the athlete’s performance does not define who you are.

Your behaviour and how you treat others defines who you are. There will be times when you have put in the hours, given the effort and searched for answers under every stone, but it will still not equate to the athletes having great performances. You can be invested, but not to the point where you are sacrificing your mental health.

Tip: Develop a practice of mindfulness. Meditate, do yoga, do something that brings you into a state of mindfulness. You will learn to accept things for what they and how to let things go (among many other insights).

Habits are More Important Than Goals

Goals are important and provide direction, but can create win/lose scenarios. Habits allow you to make small changes and develop consistency. Small changes and consistency add up to big things.

Once you make a goal determine the most important behaviours that will help you achieve it and build those behaviours into habits.

Tip: Measure them. There is a great website where you can measure and track your habits.

This is the advice I would have given myself 20 years ago because I know that they are the things that create happiness and emotional stability in my life now. Some of these may work for you others may not.

I encourage those in the coaching community to share the things that they do to create a sustainable lifestyle in our comments section.

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5 years ago

Good stuff. Thanks for the article.

5 years ago

Unfortunately, many coaches do not follow this advice. The coaching lifestyle is unsustainable for many years without major sacrifice. I’m not saying that major sacrifice is wrong, it’s just a decision many coaches make. How many coaches do we all know that are out of shape, do not take care of themselves, eat poorly (thanks processed hospitality food), never take a day off, consume their lives in the swimmers, get divorced, rarely see their families, neglect other interests, and take it upon themselves to be a martyr of the sport. Wearing it as a badge of honor that they haven’t take a vacation in 7 years or had more than 24 days off in a calendar year.

IMO, the… Read more »

5 years ago

Well said. Those multiple 10 hour marathon meets have taken years off of my life. It is extremely difficult to have a balanced lifestyle and relationship if you are a competitive swim coach. Another thing that I have seen is being exposed to so many kids in such a small environment, I found myself getting sick more often. Maybe not so much if you coach in an outdoor setting, but in my experience as a coach in the Midwest, being contained on a pool deck inside a building is tough.

I think something has to be said about all the recent (and previous) cases of coaches getting in trouble/banned. The sheer routine of running a practice, spending so much time… Read more »

Mike Higgs
5 years ago

I was lucky to have a wife Pam,also committed to a group of swimmers. We both gave our collective time to the swimming squads and look back on our thirty three years with pride and no regrets. I had two jobs for the 21 years and during the 33 years I was coaching I never had a working day off in the period. I had the water time and inner drive to produce swimmers to World, Olympic,Commonwealth and European Champioship levels. Swimming became a second family and now I am in retirement I still enjoy the comfort of regular contact of ex swimmers who have found their way in life to successful careers. That’s something I always liked about the… Read more »

5 years ago

Love the article – perhaps “they” should have been used throughout the article. SHE is also called Coach.

Ryan Woodruff
5 years ago

“Most coaches will have morning practices at 5 am a minimum three days a week..”

1. The above statement is false. These practices are not a requirement to be great at swimming.
2. If the schedule/hours of practice are what makes the coaching lifestyle unmanageable or imbalanced, imagine what it is doing to the swimmers who are actually stressing their bodies that entire time.

I do feel that this article brings up a real issue and many good points, but we also need to be aware that we have a mental health issue among swimmers that is silently ruining the lives of many.

5 years ago

I have been coaching for the last 15 years but the last couple years I am ready to give it up. All my time is donated and each year seems the parents and kids don’t appreciate it. Going to work at 3 a.m. and getting home at usually 9p.m. after wrestling has taken its toll on me and makes me wonder why I love this sport so much it would take time away from other family members. I am happy my wife is so forgiving because I never could of been able to do this without her constant understanding of where my time goes.

5 years ago


3 years ago

I was surprised to not see a sub title for Family! I am married to a coach that puts 150% into his team! Part of a balanced life needs to be Family first!

About Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace

Jeff is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher who holds diplomas in Coaching (Douglas College) and High Performance Coaching (National Coaching Institute - Calgary). He has a background of over 20 years in the coaching profession, where he has used a unique and proven teaching methodology to help many achieve their …

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