Mental Health First Aid: Tools and Skills to Help Support Athletes

“Why should I take Mental Health First Aid?”

That is a reasonable question for coaches to ask. How many different certifications/recertifications are required for you to take each year just to be able to step on deck to coach? 

Why should you add another course to an already packed schedule?

Simple, because mental health affects us all.

  • 20.6% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2019 (51.5 million people). This represents 1 in 5 adults.
  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24

Too often many young people do not have the opportunity to learn coping skills until it is too late.

“I think we need mental health certification. It should be our number one certification,” says Mike Murray of the Victor Swim Club. 

One Athlete’s Story

Samantha Arsenault Livingstone stood on top of the podium at the 2000 Olympic Games. She achieved a dream almost every swimmer has since they first step on the blocks. 

An amazing moment, an incredible accomplishment, but not everything was as it seemed, “I was an athlete who looked like they had it all together, but on the inside was navigating a darkness that I know now was mental illness,” says Livingstone. “I did not have the tools to cope with it at the time.”

Like so many she was tormented by a relentless inner critic, “Being on top of the Olympic podium and knowing that when I got there that it wasn’t enough to quiet that inner critic. No achievement, no accolades, no amount of wealth, no status will quiet that inner voice from the outside, we have to do that work internally.”

She suffered many consequences resulting from that destructive self- talk including; developing an eating disorder, depression, suicidal ideation and injury, “I was on top of the podium and I came crashing down because I didn’t have the necessary tools.”

In 2000 she arrived at the University of Michigan. After a short period of time her coach, Jim Richardson, noticed Sam needed a different kind of support. Richardson suggested she see a mental health professional named Greg Harden, “It was in his noticing that I needed support and then knowing where to send me that saved my life.”

“I met with Greg for two years every single week and we worked on developing different tools, controlling the controllables and  having a strong sense of identity. He taught me I wasn’t a swimmer, it was just something I did.”

“It was because of the work with Greg and shoulder surgery that I ended my career faster and healthy. I felt free. I was in recovery and I went out literally on top winning NCAA Championships with Georgia.” 

“I felt whole.”

What she has learned from those experiences she now wants to share with as many athletes as possible, “I can pay forward what I know now.”

The Power of a Coach

Once starting this journey the question was how can she have a meaningful impact on as many athletes as possible? 

The answer; coaches. A coach is one of the most influential voices in any athlete’s life and one coach interacts can with 1000s of athletes throughout their career. 

“The role of a coach is so powerful,” explains Livingstone. “I am also a mother of four and they all play sports and you see how powerful the role of the coach is in that child’s life.”

“Our kids are hurting. I subscribe to the belief that it takes a village to raise our kids, to help them become capable, fierce, brave leaders. We are navigating a mental health crisis. It is not that our kids are broken, we are just not giving them the tools they need to cope.”

When an athlete suffers a physical injury we as coaches have education and resources to get them the appropriate care. When an athlete is suffering emotionally do we have that same knowledge? 

That is where mental health first aid comes in.

What is Mental Health First Aid?

“Just as CPR helps you assist an individual having a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid helps you assist someone experiencing a mental health or substance use-related crisis. In the Mental Health First Aid course, you learn risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for how to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations, and where to turn for help. (as described on”

I took Mental Health First Aid just over three years ago. After facing my own mental health challenges as an athlete and a coach I had become an advocate and knew a lot about navigating the mental health landscape. 

Even with that knowledge and experience this course taught me more about signs and symptoms, provided me with more tools for effective intervention and further resources and support all in one place. 

It is a unique and powerful experience.

“There are resources for coaches that talk around the issue (mental health) and don’t necessarily equip you with strategies for athletes that might be struggling and staff members that might be struggling,” explains Murray.

“This course gave me a baseline foundation of skills that I can use. An hour after the course ended I was already implementing some of the things. A lot of it was just the way you approach speaking with your athletes.”

For many coaches this is an uncomfortable topic. When you take the certification through Whole Sport Health you become part of a community of coaches going through similar experiences with many of the same questions.

The course includes:

  • Six weeks of challenges focused on applying skills learned in MHFA to your community/campus.

  • Themed monthly round tables to dive deeper and share best practices.

  • Resource bank with tips, tricks + tools dedicated to coach and athlete well-being.

  • Private community space to share best practices and build a network of support.

Livingstone wants coaches to have the support they need to implement the strategies they learn through the course, “The difference between coaches that are supported by a network (college coaches) and stand alone club coaches are like, where do I go? Where do I find a therapist? How do I do this?”

“One of the things that has come up is what if the parent is the problem? That is a great round table discussion.” 

Tools You Will Learn From Mental Health First Aid

Learning about mental health challenges is one part of the training, but the most powerful aspect of this course is you walk away with practical tools. Don Schwartz learned a through this certification, things he wished he had known in 1972 when a swimmer he was coaching, Rick DeMont, was stripped of his gold medal, “I could have been better equipped to serve him more adequately…he ended up being a lot stronger than most would have envisioned after they took his gold medal away.”

Murray shared a few of the practical skills he took away from the course, “The most important thing that I took away from this is that you really have to be aware of meeting athletes in their space every single day.”

“I am trying to be very mindful in the first 10 minutes of every practice now to evaluate based on what I am seeing, what headspace the athletes are in, what headspace the staff is in and do I need to follow up my evaluations with important questions.”

“Listen, reflect and respond. What I am starting to learn and this course hit home is that you need to learn to become a better listener. You need to pause and reflect on what someone is saying and then you need to respond with something that is going to validate the way your athletes are feeling.”

“Having the self confidence to respond to them in a way that is going to validate their feelings.”

Schwartz had similar takeaways, “Listen to learn vs listen to know, listen non judgmentally and the multiple helplines available.”

The Bottom Line About Mental Health First Aid

As a coach you want the best for the people you work with both as athletes and individuals. Mental wellness is part of everyone’s lived experience. Challenges with mental health is not abnormal or uncommon.

We have a choice to turn away from it or turn towards it. The people we work with, athletes and fellow coaches, need our support, “We are often pushing the issue aside rather than turning towards it and saying our kids are capable,” says Arsenault Livingstone. “They just need the tools. It is about helping them navigate what is already there.” 

“In the same way we would do when we are coaching technical pieces of sport. If there is something that is not working then we figure out what tools we need to provide the athlete with the help they need so they can make the shift that they need.”

I asked both Murray and Schwartz, “Why should a coach add this course to an already packed schedule?”

“It is critical for your program to get mental health first aid certification if you are going to adapt and evolve both as a successful swim club and as a business,” says Murray. “You are going to need to learn how to better connect with your athletes, parents and coaching staff. 

“You are going to need to learn how to create a space where your membership feels supported and validated for who they are.”

“All reasonable coaches know and will admit that physical is only one component to the training process,” explains Schwartz. “The mental and emotional (I would argue two separate things) components are actually far more important than the physical.”

“Need proof? Every coach has witnessed more than one occurrence of an under trained athlete being unaware of that “fact” and winning or crushing due to supreme confidence. Confidence rests squarely on mental health and emotional wellbeing.”

Upcoming Mental Health First Aid courses offered by Whole Sport Health include:

Monday, March 15th – 10A – 3P ET
Sunday, March 21 – 3 – 8P – ET
More SwimSwam articles with tools to improve your mental wellness:


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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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