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‘It takes a toll’: Campaign shines light on mental health of coaches

by ZwemZa on October 16th, 2019

For about 15 of Nick Pedrazzini’s 27 years as a swimming coach, he would take a total of one week in holidays. For seven days out of every 12 months, he would step away from an all-consuming job  devoted to aspiring athletes and their families.

There was great reward but a heavy price. A marriage was lost, and there was a spiral into depression. He saw the family pressures his mentor, Laurie Lawrence, endured yet followed the same path.

Swim coach Nick Pedrazzini knows the toll coaching can take on mental health.
Swim coach Nick Pedrazzini knows the toll coaching can take on mental health.

“You end up living the life of the athlete. That puts a lot of strain on family. I went through a divorce and a lot of that was probably based on not earning much money and being away from your own kids,” said Pedrazzini, the head coach at Redlands Swim Club in Brisbane.

“You do it because you love it but it takes a toll on you. Maybe you don’t admit it, or may not recognise that. You’re trying to be committed like the athlete, or they don’t feel like you’re putting in the same work they are.

“A lot of the time, you fear losing kids, ones that you have worked with for a long time. There are many parents that see their child as the next champion and, if you’re not there, they may go elsewhere if they believe they aren’t getting enough attention.”

Coaching can be a thankless task, regardless of the level. From volunteers at football and cricket clubs to the elite ranks, the stresses are real and tend to get magnified as the stakes get higher.

The pressure on coaches at every level and in every sport can take a huge personal toll.
The pressure on coaches at every level and in every sport can take a huge personal toll.Credit:Dallas Kilponen

But mental health is often left by the wayside as coaches deal with spot fire after spot fire, taking care of not just the training habits of the athletes but their welfare out of sport. Who looks after the ones looking after everyone else?

Pedrazzini is one of the community voices for a new campaign aimed at putting the mental health of coaches on the agenda and trying to create cultural change in a career defined by results and often judged on the hours you spend on the job. In coaching circles, being a workaholic is standard practice and a viable performance metric.

The brainchild of long-time athlete manager Phil Stoneman, current and former athletes around Australia will be asked on Wednesday to post a message on social media with the hashtag #lookafteryourcoach. A Facebook page has been set up to share stories and messages. It may just be a simple thank you.

Pedrazzini intends to post a shout out to Lawrence, who he said taught him lessons that stuck throughout his life. He hoped it would lead to discussions about expectations and cultural change.

“You meet some fantastic people and they check in on you. But you tend to only hear, most of the time, from people that have something negative to say,” he said.

“Maybe it could spark some cultural change on how coaches are perceived … most coaches are volunteers, for one, and the ones in paid industries, only very few can make a real living from it. I had depression for about 15 years and, when the times were tough, I always go back to the lessons Laurie taught me when I was swimming.”

Triathlon great Craig Alexander, who entered coaching after a brilliant career that included five Ironman World Championships, has been an early endorser of the campaign, saying the sacrifices coaches make are rarely noticed, and burnout and mental health issues were a constant concern.

“For many it consumes their every waking moment. I’ve seen firsthand how they regularly make personal sacrifices for the sake of their teams and athletes,” Alexander said.

“The passion and intensity often comes at a cost and their health and relationships can suffer. They experience intense scrutiny and they are either a hero or a zero depending on the result. They should be able to recognise the early signs of burnout and take self-care action early. Coaches can feel very isolated but the support is there.”

Phil Lutton | The Sydney Morning Herald

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