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Coaches must put mental health awareness front of mind

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mental health

With support from mental health charity Mind, and to mark World Mental Health Day on October 10, this blog provides some advice for coaches on helping participants with mental health problems. It also discusses the vital role coaching and physical activity play in helping people improve their mental wellbeing.

  • Some coaches lack the confidence to talk about mental health.
  • Coaches who understand the person behind the performer will be more alert to any subtle changes in behaviour.
  • Being empathetic and a willing and patient listener can be a valuable trait, showing those struggling with a mental health problems that they do not have to suffer in silence.
  • There is no need to possess a specialist knowledge of mental health.
  • Having a mental health problem can be incredibly isolating. Coaching helps build social connections, which has a big impact on wellbeing.
  • Good coaching equips people with a range of abilities that can help individuals manage their mental wellbeing more effectively – and strengthen their resilience to developing a problem.

Awareness of the stigma that surrounds mental health problems is rising, yet the number of people experiencing mental health problems is also greater than ever.

At UK Coaching, we believe that opening up and talking about emotional problems is a vital first step towards improving and maintaining mental wellbeing.

In September this year, a major study was published by University College London that showed 24% of teenage girls believe they show symptoms of depression. That was double the 12% rate of a decade earlier1 .

When you factor in statistics for bipolar disorder, panic attacks, self-harm, eating disorders, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia personality disorders, it amounts to one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem during their lifetime2.

While statistics can sometimes be misleading, there is no doubting from the wave of recent media publicity that our health care system is struggling to cope with the extra influx of people in need of professional support.

What has all this got to do with the domain of sports coaching, you may ask?

Raising coaches’ awareness

You don’t need to be a mathematician to figure out from these statistics that there is a strong probability some of the people you coach will have a mental health problem.

Learning how to recognise the red flags, how to open a conversation about mental health with a participant you are concerned about, and acquiring the confidence to be able to offer appropriate guidance, can be a daunting proposition for a grass-roots coach.

‘What we see is some fantastic coaches out there, who are doing a really great job. We also see lots of people who don’t have the confidence to talk about mental health,’ says Mind’s Community Programme Manager (Sport) Hayley Jarvis.

‘It’s about getting everyone talking about mental health and making it okay to have those conversations.’

Some of the valuable benefits of effective coaching is that it helps to build resilience, self-esteem and confidence in participants. They learn how to deal with adversity, how to use failure to their advantage, and this improves their capacity for dealing with challenges that life will inevitably throw their way.

In other words, being equipped with such attributes can help an individual manage their mental wellbeing more effectively – by either helping them cope better with an existing mental health problem or strengthen their resilience to developing a problem.

‘Building up resilience so that people can cope better when things don’t go so well is incredibly important,’ says Hayley. ‘We are all going to have big events in our lives and transitions that test us.


‘The sport and the health sector has a real opportunity to support people with that by coaching the whole person, not just the performer, and equipping them with that ability to bounce back.’

That coaching impacts on people’s mental attitudes as well as physical abilities can sometimes be forgotten. But the social and psycho-behavioural elements are as interwoven with coaching as these tactical, technical and physiological components.

‘Something that is coming over very strongly in our research at the heart of communities is the social element of taking part in sport and physical activity,’ says Hayley.

‘Having a mental health problem can be incredibly isolating. You cut yourself off from other people, so having the opportunity to build social connections has a big impact on wellbeing.

‘So for coaches to work on team building exercises and social interaction, and the fun side of coaching – and making it not always about the winning – can be hugely beneficial.’

The coach-athlete relationship

There is strong evidence to suggest that physical activity helps to lower anxiety and minimise the risk of depression by releasing feel-good hormones – endorphins – which help to boost your mood, while giving you greater control over the stress hormone cortisol to help facilitate feelings of relaxation and calm.

But the benefits of coaching and physical exercise on mental health and wellbeing are truly maximised by building a strong coach-athlete relationship.

As you get to know your players better, and they get to know you, the more chance there is of them opening up to you and looking to you for emotional support.

Coaches who understand the person behind the performer will be more alert to any subtle changes in behaviour, and if you have earned their trust and respect, you could be as much, or even more of a confidant, as a parent, teacher or best friend.

Being empathetic and a willing and patient listener can be a valuable trait, showing those struggling with a mental health problem that they don’t have to suffer in silence.

Duty of care and building trust

On the flip side, teenagers and young adults who are at a particularly vulnerable age, and who value the opinion of their coaches, could feel badly let down if they feel their emotions are being ignored.

‘Coaches who support people as part of a team have a duty of care for those who are in their sessions,’ says Hayley. ‘I’d simply say to treat people how you would want to be treated yourself.

‘It’s about them asking what sometimes can be a difficult question – “I’ve noticed that you don’t seem yourself”, or, “There seems to have been a drop in your performance” – and empowering coaches to have those conversations and not be expected to have all the answers but to be prepared to give over some time and listen.’

If we don’t ask meaningful questions – and that does not mean socially acceptable rhetorical questions like “Are you okay?” at the beginning of a session – coaches are not giving their participants the opportunity to say if they are struggling.

Basic interpersonal skills, in other words, as opposed to specialist knowledge of mental health is all that is required.

‘We’re definitely not advocating coaches to start thinking they are mental health counsellors,’ says Hayley.

‘But equally, I think coaches are in a really trusted position. And ultimately people tend to open up to people they look up to and trust.

‘There’s also a perception that some coaches don’t bring certain things up because they are not comfortable talking about it. They think they’ve got to fix everybody. Actually that’s really not the case.

‘It’s exactly the same with mental health as with physical health, when you would suggest someone go and see a doctor or physio if they have a problem. Coaches just need to be aware of the signposting that’s out there so they know where to best direct them.’

Mind offers the following advice to coaches on how to open a conversation about mental health with a participant they are concerned about:

  • Choose an appropriate place – somewhere private and quiet.
  • Encourage your athletes to talk – ask simple, open and non-judgmental questions
  • Don’t make assumptions – don’t try to guess what is going on.
  • Listen to your athlete and respond flexibly – adapt your support to suit the individual and their circumstances.
  • Be honest and clear – address specific grounds for concern at an early stage (eg, they might be concerned they will be dropped from the team or that they are overreacting).
  • Ensure confidentiality – where appropriate. If your participant is under 18 or you believe is at risk of harm to self or others, seek support from your Welfare Officer.
  • Encourage your athlete to seek advice and support – from a GP, mental health charity or support of close friend or family.
  • Seek advice and support yourself.
  • Reassure your athlete – people may not always be ready to talk straight away but letting them know you are there.
  • Remember to keep sessions fun as excess pressure can make anxiety levels worse.
  • Challenge inappropriate behaviour: The way others behave can impact on someone with a mental health problem.
  • Many people feel anxious when joining a group so ensure you create a supportive environment where everyone feels welcome.

Mind’s mental health warning signs – things to look out for in participants

  • Not turning up for sessions.
  • Change in usual behaviour/mood/interaction with others.
  • Changes in training (over/under).
  • Neglecting self-care.
  • Changes in work output /motivation.
  • Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed.
  • Changes in habits (appetite, smoking other behaviours).
  • Wanting to talk about how they are feeling.
  • It is important not to make assumptions about a participant’s behaviour. Talk to them about how they are feeling and any changes in behaviour you have noticed.

[1] http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0917/200917_girls_deprssion


[2] 3. McManus S, Meltzer H, Brugha T, Bebbington P, Jenkins R (eds), (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: Results of a household survey. [online] NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care, pp.1-274.


Next Steps

There is lots of support available to help you in the area of mental health awareness. Below are some resources that you might find helpful.

mental health infographic

  • Eating disorders – a coach’s guide: As a coach, you may be aware that eating disorders exist in your sport, but may not know how to spot the warning signs and the best way to approach an athlete you suspect has problems with their eating. This blog post, taken from an information sheet produced by Beat, is a guide designed to help you do this.

BEAT logo

  • Promoting Good Mental Health through Coaching animation – working in partnership with Mind, the UK’s leading mental health charity and with support from Public Health England (PHE), UK Coaching produced this short animation that will help you better understand what mental health is; the barriers faced by those living with or recovering from a mental health problem; and the CARE acronym – a useful tool for coaches when promoting good mental health through their coaching.

UK Coaching has also produced infographics to condense information from the animation into easy to remember key points. You can find this and more on mental health on the UK Coaching website.


If you need support for your own mental health or are concerned about a friend or family member, Mind, the mental health charity, provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They offer a range of support, including a confidential info-line, free information resources and support through their network of local Minds.

Update 2019

Mental Health Awareness for Sport and Physical Activity is a new online course produced as a result of a collaboration between Mind, 1st4sport, UK Coaching and Sport England. Complete the course and you’ll gain the confidence to be able to support people experiencing mental health problems, helping them to thrive inside and outside of your sessions. Learn more about this course.

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Comments (2)


Useful content for this often overlooked aspect of the Coach's role.

"Fortunately" I have had a long bout of depression several years back so have some personal experience of problems associated with mental health issues. I have used my experiences to keep a close watch on my charges and try to engage with as many of the players as often as I possibly can - if they know you care you will be able to pick up on the often subtle signs that a problem is developing/present in a player.

In my own case, participation in the sporting world helped me to pull through my depression.

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Rob Maaye, registering to get a monthly newsletter requires yet another password, etc. - is it not possible to receive the newsletter via CC? Also, I am a Member of UK Coaching, surely that is enough "registering" for a person in this instance?

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Hi Lawrie O'Keeffe . Hope all is well with you. Some good news for you. In the spring 2019 you’ll hopefully be able to manage all your UK Coaching related accounts and access all they have to offer (including the ConnectedCoaches community) from the one account, which will remove the need to have multiple login details and passwords etc. That master account is going to be a ukcoaching.org account (members will be notified in due course) so you won’t have that issue but it’s good to get ahead of the game by setting up an account if you haven’t already got one, it will just make the transition smoother. If you prefer not to at this stage though I’m happy to drop you an email personally when the eLearning becomes available if you’d like?

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