An Examination Of Mental Health and Burnout in Competitive Swimming Coaches

Coaches at NCSA junior nationals

An Examination Of Mental Health and Burnout in Competitive Swimming Coaches

The following academic paper was written by Olympian Earl McCarthy, head coach of the University College Dublin Swim Team. Coach McCarthy approached Swimming World with his work in an effort to support fellow coaches and enact change.


BACKGROUND: Poor mental health and burnout in competitive swimming coaching affects coaching performances. Predominantly mental health in sport has been researched from the athletes’ perspective, while there has been less attention paid to coaches. Therefore, the aim of this research is to: 1) identify the sources of poor mental health in swimming coaching; 2) discuss the consequences of poor mental health; and 3) explore possible solutions to help support coaches. METHODS: International and national level coaches were selected to take part in semi-structured interviews. Grounded Theory was chosen to analyze the personal responses of the coaches. RESULTS: Most coaches experience poor mental health, and the main causes are: (1) coaching culture; (2) excessive workload; (3) poor work-life balance. The consequences are: (1) poor mental and physical health; and (2) personal relationship breakdowns. Suggested solutions to help coaches are: 1) a desire for a better way of coaching; (2) better work-life balance; and (3) improved coach education. CONCLUSION: Swimming coaching can have a detrimental effect on a coach’s mental health, through excessive workload, a misdirected belief system and incorrect work-life balance. Coaches need more support and education as part of any performance program.


Coaching can be a highly satisfying profession, one where a coach works with talented athletes and leads a successful training program (Raedeke, 2004). However, coaching can also be an all-consuming profession that can have serious negative effects on a coach’s personal life (Raedeke, 2004). Poor mental health and stress can result in emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a negative evaluation of oneself (Maslach et al., 1998). Commenting on the unfortunate effects of coaching stress, Maslach et al. (1998:63) write that: ‘burnout is a particular tragic endpoint for professionals who entered the job with positive expectations, enthusiasm and a dedication to helping people’.

Traditionally, mental health in sport has largely been examined from the athlete’s perspective, whereas, the mental health of sports coaches has largely been neglected (Thelwell et al., 2008, Fletcher et al., 2010, Mc Neill et al., 2017, Santos et al., 2018, Sas-Nowosielski et al., 2018). Recently there has been an increase in coaching mental health research (Lawrie, 2022), and while welcomed, there still remain valid reasons for further studies, namely: 1) burnout can have detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of coaches (Santos et al., 2018); 2) coaches suffering from burnout can negatively affect an athlete’s performance (Mc Neill et al., 2017); 3) clubs and federations may owe a duty of care towards sports coaches under health and safety legislation in the workplace (Fletcher et al., 2010); finally, 4) coaches experience their own performance stressors, consequently coaches should be ‘considered performers in their own right’ (Olusoga et al., 2017:3).

The modern coaching role has expanded beyond the technical training aspects of the job (Fletcher et al., 2010, Sas-Nowosielski et al., 2018). This ever-expanding role has led to an increase in workload with abnormal work hours and competition travel, combined with lack of rest, recovery and support. This role overload and time away from home, leads to increased stress and poor mental health amongst coaches (Lundkvist et al., 2012, Bentzen et al., 2016, Santos et al., 2018).

In addition, it appears that coaching culture has many unwritten expectations requiring coaches to be mentally tough, while conversely seeking assistance or support may be interpreted as weak (Olusoga et al., 2017). Lundkvist et al. (2012) found that amongst elite soccer coaches, the performance culture left many coaches struggling with personal identity, perfectionism, over-working, and failing to adapt to the pressure from management and fans.

The consequences of failing coach mental health and burnout are varied. Coaches have deteriorating personal relationships, isolation, depersonalization, a reduced sense of achievement and ultimately, professional burnout (Olusoga et al., 2019, Santos et al., 2018, Sas-Nowosielski et al., 2018). Additional symptoms consist of panic attacks, illness, sleep disturbances, weight gain, alcohol abuse, non-adherence to healthy exercise and nutrition, reduced immune system and psychological mood disturbances (Mc Neill et al., 2017, Olusoga et al., 2019).

There is therefore a need to develop coping strategies for coaches, as a correct work-life balance can be a good defense against burnout (Hendrix et al., 2000, Malinauskas et al., 2010). Such measures can be preventive, reactive, and finally in the form of rehabilitation (Fletcher et al., 2010). Many of these strategies Fletcher et al. (2010) argue could be incorporated into coach education programs. Federation and professional bodies are responsible for providing support: ’however, so far, coaches’ need for well-being has commonly been neglected within the high-performance community’ (Olusoga et al., 2019:16). Indeed, Thelwell et al. (2008) questions whether national federations are even aware of the stress that coaches experience. That said, recent interest in this area has led to new initiatives emanating from The Coaching Association of Canada and British Swimming’s Mental Health Working Group (Lawrie, 2022).

Nevertheless, despite the recent increase in academic interest, still little is known about the sources and consequences of coaching burnout and poor mental health (Olusoga et al., 2017, Sas-Nowosielski et al., 2018). Therefore, the aim of this research is to: 1) identify the sources of poor mental health in swimming coaching; 2) discuss the consequences of poor mental health; and 3) explore solutions to help support coaching mental health.



Olusoga et al. (2019) note that while there has been an increase in research into coaching mental health, this increase has predominantly been quantitative in nature. Quantitative studies, however, fail to capture the lived experiences of coaches, and there is a need for more qualitative research to redress this imbalance (Olusoga et al., 2019).

Mental health is personal and subjective. Each reality is constructed by those who live it as it exists within individual minds (Sarantakos, 2012). Given that each experience is unique, an interpretive approach has been chosen as the philosophical basis for this study. Interpretivism assumes that access to reality is through social constructivism. Interpretivism adopts qualitative methodology, using flexible research instruments such as semi-structured interviews (Sarantakos, 2012, Scotland, 2012). These methods are well suited to the social sciences as they enable researchers to examine the social, cultural and situational context in which humans live (Myers, 1997, Sarantakos, 2012, Scotland, 2012).

Grounded theory was chosen as the research method for this study. Grounded theory is a qualitative, inductive research method where a theory evolves from a systematic analysis of social research and provides a practical method for analyzing research data (Glaser et al., 1967, Charmaz, 2014). Grounded theory uses in-depth personal interviews examining the personal perspectives of the participants (Glaser et al., 1967, Charmaz, 2014). Interviews were chosen to collect data, as it is believed that the coaches’ personal feelings could not be adequately captured using quantitative methodologies.


Purposive sampling was used to recruit participants for this study (Etikan et al., 2016). Overall, 16 coaches were interviewed, 8 world class coaches (WCC) and 8 national level coaches (NLC). World class coaches had 15-20 years’ coaching experience and had coached at least one Olympic or World Championships medalist within the last 12 years. National level coaches had at least 5-10 years’ experience, having coached at least one finalist at British Championships within the past 8 years. All coaches were still actively coaching. Of the 16 coaches interviewed, 15 were male and one was female, all participants were de-identified.

Data Collection

The semi structured interviews lasted between 1 and 2 hours. Ethical approval was obtained [HREC-LSE1447] before any interview took place. The interviews were audio digitally recorded. Recognized interview techniques were used to establish rapport and allow the data to emerge using a natural free flowing conversational style (Patton, 2002).

Data Analysis

Once the data collection was completed, the interviews were transcribed. Grounded theory was used to analyze the transcripts, with an overall theory emerging from the data (Ritchie et al., 2003, Charmaz, 2008).

Overarching Theme: Swimming coaching can negatively affect a coach’s mental health, mainly through excessive workload, a misdirected culture and an improper work-life balance.

The transcribed interviews were analyzed using a three-step method. First, the researcher became familiar with the transcripts by repeatedly reading the interviews. After the familiarization stage, open coding was used, a process where the data is broken apart from the overall transcripts. Those substantive themes that appeared important to the coaches were identified and tagged (Charmaz, 2014).

Step two involves intermediate coding, a process whereby the identified themes are compared and contrasted against each other and formed into higher order categories. The constant comparison and contrasting ensures full explanatory power (Charmaz, 2014).

The third step is to use selective coding. Selective coding uses the higher order categories from the intermediate stage and further compares and contrasts these categories until higher levels of abstraction are obtained. Importantly, the themes are not predetermined, rather the categories emerge from the analysis of the data itself. The comparing and contrasting continues until theoretical saturation is reached, meaning a point where no new themes or categories emerge. From this final process an overarching theory is developed (Charmaz, 2014).

Results and Discussion

Coaching burnout and poor mental health emerge as a strong and emotive theme for all the coaches. The results confirm previous studies, that the commitment necessary for effective coaching can be adversely affected by coaching burnout and poor mental health (Raedeke, 2004, Lundkvist et al., 2012, Santos et al., 2018, Mc Neill et al., 2017). The results reveal that most coaches at some point experience difficulties with poor mental health and the main causes are: (1) coaching culture; (2) excessive workload; and (3) poor work-life balance. The consequences of these causes are: (1) poor mental and physical health; and (2) personal relationship breakdowns. The results suggest solutions to support positive mental health amongst coaches, namely: 1) a desire for a better way of coaching; (2) better work-life balance; and (3) coach education.

Coaching Culture

The results are broadly in line with previous research, showing that culture plays a role in coaching mental health (Lundkvist et al., 2012, Olusoga et al., 2019). The results reveal that there is a belief system that underpins the coaches’ attitude towards success, namely, that somehow a coach must ‘pay the price’ for success, moreover that coaching requires sacrifice, and a 100% ‘all or nothing’ commitment:

… you’ve got to do it full-time. If you want to take it to that level pay the price, sacrifice themselves, and there is sacrifice there. (NLC8)

A world class coach reflects such sentiment:

… whereas most people don’t want to pay the price … but whatever it takes, what I’m saying is, you need to pay the price. (WCC 5)

It appears then that there is a cultural belief that successful coaching can only be achieved with full uncompromising commitment to the sport:

I think that determination that drive, to win Olympic gold, you have to go over the top. You have to do certain things that are different, that can make you apart from the rest. Otherwise, you can end up a national champion, but you can never end up Olympic champion. (WCC4)

While personal drive and ambition appear necessary, the results also show that such drive can lead to overzealous coaching:

…it can be a lonely trek and you’ve got to be driven because it ain’t normal. It’s that kind of mind-set and obviously sometimes that over-spills a little bit because you know, sometimes it can get a little bit too driven, a little bit too focused. (NLC 4)

This belief that somehow coaches need to ‘pay the price’ meant that they can drive themselves too hard, sometimes even willfully into negative personal situations:

Sure, I think if you want to be a coach at this stage, it’s all or nothing … I’m fully in it for these competitors regardless of what impact that has on my social life, and it has a massive impact on my social life. (NLC7)

Excessive Workload

The results also confirm studies showing the expanding role of coaching, in particular, the anti-social hours, the workload in managing clubs and the commitment to competition travel (Fletcher et al., 2010, Lundkvist et al., 2012, Bentzen et al., 2016, Sas-Nowosielski et al., 2018, Santos et al., 2018). All the coaches understand the enormous personal sacrifice needed:

Huge. It’s massive … I’m separated, you know … it has to do with the sport. Hard work … At one stage in the last three years, I was doing seven days a week. I do six mornings at 4:30 … (NLC6)

Another national level coach spoke of the excessive workload trying to manage a large swimming club:

Again, running an enormous club with almost 1,000 members, um, a huge turnover and a lot of staff. It takes a lot of work … (NLC1)

The results show that travel away from home can become problematic. One world class coach spoke of how national duties were negatively affecting his family:

… I made the Olympic Team … but then my boss at work started counting all the trips away … my wife was getting up me for using all my holidays for that, so I kind of didn’t put in for teams … (WCC1)

Poor Work-Life Balance

On the issue of the correct work-life balance, one coach summed up the struggle in trying to establish a healthy personal work-life balance:

… my work-life balance … as I said, I’m still struggling. Maybe I was put off because those first couple of years I really went at it hard it. It wasn’t the only reason, but it didn’t help with my relationship at home breaking down … I’m still perhaps a little bit worried that if I give too much time to the job, that that may happen again. (NLC1)

A fellow coach comments on the necessary commitment, succinctly summing up the feelings amongst the coaches:

I think you could have an un-relentless passion for what you do, and there’s no, you know, there’s no 90%, it’s got to be full-on and I think that’s dangerous what we do at times. (NLC 3)

The observation that somehow coaching can be ‘dangerous’ promoted further inquiry, as to what are the consequences of failing to establish an effective work-life balance.


Personal Relationship Problems

Previous studies have shown that coaching can be a rewarding occupation, however, it also has the propensity to have a negative impact on a coach’s personal life if unchecked (Raedeke, 2004).

One of the biggest negative consequences of coaching appeared to be in the loss of personal relationships. Due to the excessive workload and commitment necessary for competitive swimming, personal relationships suffered:

My personal life is a catalogue of disasters, you know … So now I’m one divorce down the line…and you know, rightly or wrongly there are times when family comes second. (WCC 6)

Another national level coach offers a similar point, commenting on the effects of full-time coaching on one’s personal life:

I remember when my youngest boy was born … I went that day to the National Championships, because I had to … that didn’t go down that great … [coach’s name] had similar problems with his partner, and they’ve split and all that … our job is not that easy … (NLC 6)

Given the commitment required for coaching, the data shows that most of the coaches do experience relationship problems when trying to coach fulltime:

It cost me my relationships at home, and all that sort of thing. I’m not prepared to go down that route again …(NLC 1)

Poor Physical & Mental Well Being

Olusoga et al. (2019) note that excessive coaching increases levels of personal distress which often results in isolation and depression. Certainly, such sentiment is reflected in the current data:

I’ve lost three good girls, you know, girlfriends, that all three could have been great wives. I’ve lost friends along the way … it’s like that isn’t worth it but I only know that now because I’ve been able to stand at two Olympic poolsides and I realize that the next day, nothing’s any different … So what? I’ve lost those girls. I’m in my 40s now and I’m not married, ain’t got kids. I think to myself, “You know what, is that worth it? No, it bloody ain’t “ … (NLC4)

Confirming Mc Neill et al. (2017), the results show that there seems to be an understanding within the coaching community that coaches tended to neglect themselves, putting others before their own needs:

We spend our life looking after athletes’ lifestyles, but we never look after our own lifestyle. (NLC6)

One other national level coach provides a more detailed description about his own personal experiences and observations of other fellow coaches:

… you do see a lot of swim coaches who are single or divorced or stressed or overweight or, you know, we don’t look after ourselves too well. You know, there’s a lot of, a lot of people who aren’t as healthy as they should be because we just commit everything to it and this is a dilemma that I’ve had as a coach … (NLC3)

These highly personal and sad experiences concur with previous literature, showing depression, loss of identity, isolation and the development of a negative self-image (Olusoga et al., 2019, Santos et al., 2018, Sas-Nowosielski et al., 2018). One particularly emotive quote describes the effects of poor mental health, and the additional stress felt in response to the death of a fellow coach:

I think one of the things that hit me hard was when he [coach’s name] died [by suicide] because we were best mates … you could argue that it wasn’t the sport, it was something else. But the sport had a lot to do with it … he died on his own … it changes your mind on some things. You know, right now … If you had said to me ten years ago, “What’s the most important thing?” I would have probably said, “What I want is to go to the next Olympics,” but right now my mind-set is do the best job you can, but make sure you’re happy. (NLC4)


Most of the coaches acknowledge that coaching required a high level of devotion. That said, the data also revealed that there is a desire amongst the interviewees for more education and support for coaches.

One of the most common themes was the need for coaches to look after themselves. The profession, according to the coaches, was one which predominantly focuses on looking after athletes, with coaches placing their own needs in second or even last place. While all the coaches interviewed recognized the personal cost involved, the results also suggest that there is a need for a better way of coaching, one which can encompass performance coaching, as well as the balance necessary for a healthy coaching lifestyle. One coach reflects such sentiment and advocates the need for an alternative way for coaches:

The current culture is the coach is there always. Doesn’t matter what. And I’m not sure it actually is productive. I don’t think we’re productive as coaches, and I know I’m not at times just because I’m knackered. (NLC5)

A fellow coach acknowledges the coaching culture and suggests:

I do believe that, that there needs to be in coaching…a better way of doing it. (NLC6)

The correct work-life balance can be a defense against poor mental health in coaching. The results are broadly in line with previous studies (Maslach et al., 1998, Malinauskas et al., 2010). One successful world class coach commentating:

So, you just got to play at balancing it I think, that’s the secret. (WCC 1)

A similar sentiment is also offered by a fellow national level coach:

So that’s something that I think so, a better work-life balance and … me being able to prioritize a bit better at work. (NLC 1)

While such advice is recognized by the coaches, it appears that coaches either cannot or do not adhere to such advice. One national level coach illustrates the poignancy of such advice admirably, by stating:

Yes, work hard, yes, become knowledgeable, yes be driven and motivated and all that lot, but you don’t need to bleed for the sport. Just get it in balance. Make sure you look after your friends. Make sure you look after your girlfriends and your family. Because at the end of the day when we’re too old to coach, that’s all that’s left … (NLC 4)

There is in the results a palpable sense of coaches needing more support and advice on how to protect themselves and live balanced and effective lives; a balance that maintains their mental health, and also their passion and dedication to the sport. Asked if there was anything more national federations or clubs could do for coaches, one national level coach passionately replied:

Absolutely right, and that’s what I said to [coach’s name] at the BSCA conference. I said, “We need to get an element every year on lifestyle skills for coaches, look after ourselves because so many of us are knackered.”(NLC 4)

A significant number of coaches felt that the topic of work-life balance in coach education was disregarded or ignored by the wider swimming community. One national level coach replied to the question on what more the federation could do for coaches, stating:

I think they could and it wouldn’t cost them a penny. I think what they could do is they could start driving the program of help and well-being of coaches … (NLC5)

The results therefore, confirm previous studies from Thelwell et al. (2008) and Olusoga et al. (2019) that federations appear not to be fully aware of the issues surrounding coaching mental health. There is a lack of awareness around the subject and perhaps more open conversation nationally would help coaches develop more support structures, with one coach suggesting that:

The PD, the head coach, you know people like that, talking on the bulletins that go out by email all the time about coaches needing to take more time off, look after themselves. (NLC5)

While the coaches acknowledge the personal cost of coaching, it must also be recognized that not all coaches were so abjectly unsuccessful in their personal lives. Indeed, some coaches looked to fellow peers whom they deemed to have been successful in creating a work-life balance. One national level coach looked to a mentor coach:

I think [world class coach’s name] is a real good example of that because he has a happy marriage, you know, healthy lifestyle, healthy relationships and of course, he coached you know, an Olympic champion as well. So, it’s proof that you can do it, and we need to be taught those skills, … I think that’s a really important thing. (NLC4)


Swimming coaching can have a detrimental effect on a coach’s mental health, through excessive workload, a misdirected belief system and an incorrect work-life balance. The topic is an important and emotive subject for swimming coaches yet, it is given less attention and recognition than athletes’ mental health. Coaches need more help and support from their clubs and federations. Moreover, it appears that there is scant acknowledgement of the distress and sacrifice that many coaches go through. It is recommended that clubs and federations acknowledge the coaches’ contribution, provide support, and recognize that the club coach is an integral part of any high-performance strategy.


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Bruce Lawrie
Bruce Lawrie
1 year ago

What is  PSYCHOLOGY, T. I. S. F. C.?

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