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Sports Coach UK: Guest blog - Coaching athletes on mental health.

Read below a guest blog from Managing Director of Believe Perform, Adam Morris on the importance of instilling positive mental health and well being into athletes:

Prior to this blog, articles have focused on the role of the coach and how they can support their athlete’s psychological needs. The first blog looked at the different transitions athletes go through from childhood to adolescence, the challenges this may present and the changes coaches need to be aware of to help develop more resilient athletes. The second blog highlighted different aspects relating to athlete well-being through an infographic and what role coaches have in developing the whole person.

As a coach our number one priority is the athletes that we work with. They are the people who we want to support, grow, develop and build so that they can master any physical or psychological skills. Coaches sacrifice many hours of their week putting in extra work so that everything can be prepared effectively for the training environment and competition. However, how many coaches think about and focus on their own mental health and well-being? How many coaches are aware of their emotional states and the influence that they have on their performance? How many coaches spend time building positive mental health? One in four people experience mental health problems in the United Kingdom and 4-10% of people will experience depression in their lifetime. Sport coaches are just like everyone else, they will experience the same stressors and anxieties.

As a coach, it is important that you take time to look after your own mental health, after all if you want to support your athlete to be the best they can be you need to be on the top of your game to help them flourish.  You are an important ‘tool’ in their development and you need to ‘keep your emotional and physical batteries charged’. It is important that you start thinking about how your psychological and emotional states can influence your coaching.  At this point you might be thinking ‘I don’t have a mental health problem so why do I need to work on building positive mental health?’. To perform at the highest level, you need to be able to understand your own thoughts, emotions and behaviours; the relationship and interplay that they have amongst each other. The best coaches will have high levels of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. They will be aware of when they are becoming stressed and underperforming, what is causing the stress and what they need to do to reduce it. Therefore, it is important to understand that you don’t need to be experiencing a mental health problem to start developing and working on your own well-being. This is an investment in you, which will ensure significant returns for you as an individual, as a coach and for your athletes.  Within this blog I provide a number of tips and advice for building positive mental health.

When working with individuals I use something called subjective units of distress (SUDS). Imagine it as a thermometer where you can measure your feelings. What you need to do is put your feelings on a scale from 0-100. Let’s imagine one morning you wake up and feel stressed. On your scale 0 is feeling totally relaxed and 100 is feeling really stressed.  What you can start to do is monitor and notice your levels of distress and over time and in different situations. This is a great tool to help you to be aware of how you are feeling throughout the day. Once you become aware of where you currently are on the scale you can begin to develop your psychological tool box to improve your mood or reduce any anxiety, stress or fear you are experiencing.

Here are five ways that coaches can start to look after and build positive mental health:

Let people know how you feel – don’t be afraid to talk to people about the problems that you are experiencing. Often people, especially men are afraid to tell people how they feel and what they are thinking. Speak to your colleagues or other coaches to support you. There are several fantastic mental health charities like Mind and Rethink which can also help you.
Learn to problem solve – often when something goes wrong we tend to catastrophise or think about the worst-case scenario.  Ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen? What is the most likely thing that can happen? What is the best thing that can happen?
Exercise regularly – sometimes when coaching you can forget about the important things like looking after yourself. You might think that you are exercising by walking around and demonstrating skills, however it's key that you spend time taking part in an exercise activity that you enjoy. Exercise is a great tool for reducing depression and anxiety.
Try some breathing techniques – there are a number of breathing techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, which can help to relieve any tension that you are experiencing.
Challenge your thoughts – we experience hundreds and thousands of thoughts each day. Not all of these thoughts will be positive. If you are experiencing negative thoughts take a moment to challenge them. Write down a list of the negative thoughts going through your mind and next to them write down some more rational positive ones.
There are many more tools that you can go out and explore for yourself as a coach. It is important that you start to build your own tool box so that you can learn a number of psychological skills, which will help you to thrive in different situations. Start to adopt a positive mindset towards your own mental health. View it as a lifelong process whereby you will be constantly developing your well-being. Remember that you don’t need to experience a mental health problem to start building your psychological resilience. If you put in the time, energy and effort towards building yourself as a better person you will start to see more positive results when coaching.

Adam Morris, Managing Director, Believe Perform