Mental Health and Sport - Noticing the signs in our students

One of the hardest things as a coach is noticing how people are feeling. It’s something I try to concentrate on as much as I can because of my own struggles. The reason it is difficult is that usually you are coaching a physical activity, and to do it properly, you kind of have to be looking at the physical aspects of the activity. Not everyone wears their heart on their sleeve and this can be challenging as a coach because sometimes you can’t intuitively understand whether someone is frustrated, confused or even annoyed at a range of different things. But this is usually the only time as coaches we really take notice of what’s going on inside someone's head when it relates to the moment, the thing we are doing at the time. So what can we do to monitor the meta situation so we don’t end up with the dreaded “I had no idea” realisation? I’m not a professional, but I am certainly an expert through personal experience, so here are some of my ideas.

Mental health is such a broad term, so I’m going to break it down into the most common and relevant terms; Anxiety, Depression, and Stress. This is the simplest way I can categorise a very broad experience.


As with all mental health tags, anxiety is poorly named when trying to describe the whole picture, anxiety can affect people in many different ways, some people can become anxious about something specific, some people can feel the physical effects of anxiety without anything particularly triggering it. My personal experience was a general level of adrenaline that I would say was high, unannounced, and seemingly random panic attacks, and something called oesophageal globus, which i kind of describe as a swallowing panic, where you’re unable to swallow whole foods, inducing a choking reflex. My type of anxiety was severe, but I was able to exercise once the panic attacks were under control. Some people, however, may avoid attending sessions, not because they are avoiding the exercise, but avoiding having an episode during training or around others, so always lookout for people who suddenly have poor or irregular attendance all of a sudden, especially if they usually don’t miss sessions. Another indicator for me is if someone is scheduling and canceling their intro session and takes a while to start the process of training or joining the club. This is something I struggled with in the past, I even sat outside a gym or two trying to overcome my panic attack, leaving and coming back again before I could get through the door. So keep an eye out just in case this happens, it could obviously just be a genuine issue with timing, scheduling, life getting in the way, it’s just nice to consider the possibility and be sensitive to what you don’t know about people when they start training with you.


This is the big one that people miss a lot of the time, it can go unnoticed and often becomes extreme before people can get access to help, so it’s an important one to watch out for. The issue with the word Depression is that it evokes scenes of crying, low mood, and negative attitude toward people or activities, where in reality that’s probably only a small percentage of people's experience. I would describe my depression as the absence of any of those emotions, plus many other positive ones, it’s more like feeling empty, often the only thing I was upset about was the lack of feeling. The issue with real, deep depression is that there are true physical side effects. It can display in much the same way to the outside as anxiety, a lack of attendance, quiet on correspondence, avoiding returning calls or texts, etc. Something to look out for are those who have regular aches and pains or struggle to recover from training well, this is very normal for everyone who trains in sport, but I find it’s about noticing the change in peoples behavior if they are usually fit and healthy, and then all of a sudden are struggling physically with no increase in physical exertion, it could be a sign of depression. Here is a link to a BMC study on the link between Clinical Depression and Inflammation, we know now that Depression is an Inflammatory Disease. Something that can also affect the body’s ability to deal with inflammation is SSRIs or anti-depressants, I certainly noticed since taking regular medication that I have been blighted by injuries, small and regular pains, most recently a chronic inflammation issue in my chest. Again, I have to stress, this may just be a normal reaction to exercise, but is certainly something to look out for. And speaking of stress, let’s move on.


This is the one that everyone experiences, regardless of where you are in your life, stress follows you like a shadow, it's unavoidable, and a natural reaction to the challenges of life, but it can really mask and hide other issues so if you notice the telltale signs of someone who is stressed then take the time to ask them about it, and see if there is anything you can do as a coach to help. I’ve noticed when I am stressed, I struggle to take in information, if someone is trying to show me something it’s like I can’t get it before I’ve even tried, I often feel overwhelmed, so if you get negative or frustrated responses to some advice, you may be seeing the symptom of general underlying stress. Another thing to look out for is people who seem like or say that they are often tired, stress affects sleep, recovery, immune system, EVERYTHING and often makes anxietal and depressive symptoms worse.

The issue with all of the things that I’ve learned from experience to look out for is that they often come across as negative, combative, or sometimes plain rude. It’s hard to understand why someone cancels on you when you set aside the time, or not to take it personally when someone all of a sudden starts valuing your service less, it’s certainly very difficult to accept someone seeming annoyed at something you have said, our natural reaction is to fight against that. As someone who has experienced these things from both sides, however, I have found that the best approach is to assume everyone experiences these things to some degree and that on the whole, people aren’t annoyed, rude, negative, or combative, they’re usually struggling. Once you come to that realisation it's actually very easy to approach these situations in the way that our students need us to the most, with compassion, empathy, and real care for their wellbeing, something that could go a long way to helping someone when they need it the most.

Peace, Love, and Hard work,


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