News from Ohio State University

Ohio State’s Coach Beyond program trains coaches to support athletes

Of all the students who play sports in high school, between 3% and 5% go on to play sports in college and less than 1% will play professionally. Still, sports are an excellent vehicle for educating young people about life and leadership, said Samantha Bates, assistant professor of social work at The Ohio State University.

“Sport is a great context to learn about these other life leadership things that we know go into jobs, go into relationships, go into families,” she said.

Samantha BatesMany people choose to coach sports because they want to help student-athletes learn these lessons, Bates said. Unfortunately, many feel they do not have the resources to do the job well.

Over the last three years, the Coach Beyond program has sought to provide those resources. Through a partnership between the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OSHAA) and Ohio State’s LiFEsports Initiative, Coach Beyond has trained more than 15,000 coaches across the state in positive youth development practices with an emphasis on how to support student mental health.  

Those coaches are part of an effort by the Susan Crown Exchange, which funded Coach Beyond, to train 1 million coaches by 2025. Bates said including OSHAA and area athletic directors and coaches in the process is part of what sets Coach Beyond apart.

“The collaborative structure has been amazing,” Bates said. “You have academic researchers, athletic directors and coaches who handle the day-to-day, and then OSHAA, and we’re all sitting around the table and asking, ‘What are we seeing? What’s missing?’”

This led to a statewide survey of 6,000 coaches, the first of its kind.

“We learned things like coaches did not feel confident in providing mental health support but two-thirds wanted more training about it,” Bates said.

Another key insight the research team gained from coaches? The training needed to be short: one hour.

“Believe it or not, coaches have very short attention spans,” Bates said with a laugh, “and they’re not being paid a lot.”

Emily NothnagleIn addition, researchers spoke with 50 student-athletes to hear their perspectives about coaching. This perspective clued researchers in to one of the larger issues facing coaches and student-athletes today: the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These kiddos were telling us that they were so stressed and busy, that they’re not feeling up to snuff,” said Emily Nothnagle, a social work PhD student. “Some of these kids are now sophomores and juniors in high school – they’re expected to be team captains, but the pandemic stopped them in middle school.”

“When we think about the ripple effects of the pandemic, we lost a lot of relational currency,” Bates said. “When you’ve had two years of being unable to see each other and touch base, those rapport-building things are absent. And we know those are the foundation of a great sports experience. A lot of people, including coaches, needed tools just to re-enter that environment.”

Another issue facing coaches today is proximity to their players. Between 50% and 70% of coaches are not educators in their school buildings, Bates said, which is a change from the time when teachers were coaches as well as educators. While this demonstrates community support for athletics, these coaches are missing training and day-to-day interactions that are part of being a teacher.

“If you saw someone in the building struggling the day after a game, you could do some wrap around [support], maybe connect them to the right people and sit them out of practice for a day,” Bates said. “If I don’t see a student until 4:30, there may be some gaps in our understanding of what kids are experiencing.”

Josh DeVoll, athletic director of Granville High School, said his district has been part of the Coach Beyond program for about two years. He said high school athletics have become more professionalized for students, leading to more stress for some students.

His coaches need training and a toolkit that includes more than a rulebook and a whistle.

“Creating content education that we can get in front of all our coaches, especially the ones who are non-educators, is invaluable,” he said. “We go through CPR training. We go through the concussion protocol information. But until recently, there was nothing in that coach training toolkit to provide them an opportunity to gain those types of skills to help support students.”

DeVoll said coaches today need to be more aware of the emotional and mental well-being of their players, a mindset that has changed over time. Bates agreed and said students appreciate it when coaches recognize their needs have evolved.

“One of my favorite things that came out of the focus groups is that students said they hate when coaches say, ‘Back when I played…’ because it’s not the same,” she said. “All they want is to be validated and have someone walk alongside them and help problem solve.”

Bates and the Coach Beyond team have recently published two peer-reviewed articles about Coach Beyond and focus groups with student-athletes. Articles are linked here: