Mental Health and Coaching

Last week I finally completed the Summer edition of the Members’ Journal – a bit behind, though we did have a late start to something resembling Summer!  Included is a Long Read about a client’s very personal journey in mental well being whist competing at a high level – generously shared and written up as a contribution to the campaign Time to Change, led by the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

The Time to Change campaign is all about addressing stigma and getting more people talking openly about mental health.  How might this apply in our coaching?

Two quick caveats before we get going.  First, coaches are not counsellors.  As someone who has benefited from the professional care of counsellors and psychotherapists, I think as coaches we need to be very aware of our boundaries.  And someone we coach who opens up about their struggles is not looking for us to provide a ‘cure’ – far more likely is that they are hoping for a listening, sympathetic ear and a degree of understanding to inform the coaching relationship.

Second, there is of course a very wide range of mental ill health conditions, each manifested in very different ways.  Each person’s experiences are also unique to them.  Again, our role is not to diagnose or determine what treatment might be relevant – though having an understanding and alertness to critical signs, such as of eating disorders, ought to be a basic for all coaches.

Here’s where an online course developed by Mind and UK Coach, Mental Health Awareness for Sport and Physical Activity, provides an excellent foundation – a must have for all coaches.

So, on to three reflections about mental health and our coaching relationships.

Stigma and Isolation

There is something of a vicious circle around the stigma surrounding mental health and the overwhelming feeling of isolation that can be experienced by someone suffering depression or other forms of mental ill health.  The stigma comes in part from our general unease or reluctance to talk openly about mental health.  When we hear of someone suffering from depression or anxiety, we may also think of it as a form of weakness of character (in a way we wouldn’t about an athlete suffering Achilles tendonitis or other debilitating physical conditions).  The hidden nature perhaps makes some suspicious - that it’s “all in the mind” as if that made it any less real. And the language used in coaching circles – resilience, motivation and, I have to add, confidence – all play in to a sense that there is something sadly lacking in those admitting to deeper struggles.  In my view – and what comes through the story in the Journal – is that actually the opposite is often true.

As the story of my client and others’ underline, journeys in mental well being are often marked by extraordinary resilience and ambition, sometimes in the very worst moments of feeling an overwhelming hopelessness.  In addition, Confidence Centred Coaching is grounded in a view of confidence and other emotional states as fluid, dynamic and interactive – rather than fixed givens that people either have or don’t have.

it is too easy to smile and cover up what is going on inside
— Client: from the Long Read in the Members' Journal

So day to day, as the Time to Change campaign sets out, we can make a change by the simple step of not shunning away from conversations about mental health.  We can also be more alert to the way in which we describe others and their qualities, the language we use and assumptions we make. And we can ask the question how someone is doing with genuine interest, generous with our time and attention, ready to look beyond the mask and to listen with compassionate intent.

Connection and Belonging

A second reflection from my client’s story follows on from isolation – the feeling of being alone and out of place, even in environments where previously they felt they belong.  The sense of connection and belonging is a cornerstone of mental health and well being.  In the blog post We Find Ourselves at Sea I’ve written about the various ways connections can feature in Confidence Centred Coaching.   Here of special interest is the connection to others.

This has a special significance for those with mental health struggles precisely because of feeling out of place, not worthy of fitting in or not having the energy to engage with others.  The answer for many, obvious though it might seem, isn’t necessarily to join a club.  At times this may compound those feelings, creating a sense of expectation and pressure to perform and fit in.

Instead I think there are other forms of coach-supported connections to others that can have a powerful, positive effect.  These can start with those closest to the person we are coaching.  In my client’s case I was surprised and touched to find out from him that his wife feels more a part of his endeavours simply through the fact that I ask after her and am ready to change training schedules to fit with her commitments, as well as his.  Second, the regularity of our contact and our two-way, open conversations about trying novel approaches all help to establish trust in our coaching relationship and a sense of shared discovery.

I was back where I belonged
— Client at the start line of the Brighton 10k: from the Long Read in the Members' Journal

One other aspect of well being and connection with others is the difference between fitting in and true belonging.  This is the central theme of Brené Brown’s recent book Braving the Wilderness.  For her, the key is in being authentic, true to ourselves, not following the crowd even if this means being on our own.  In the coaching context, I think this leads us to keep a discerning eye out for those moments when those we coach are not just falling in with what others expect of them but are truly in their element.  So, in my client’s case we might dwell on and celebrate that moment of realising he was back where he belonged, amidst thousands of other runners, as in the quote. For others it might be about cherishing the feelings of excited anticipation and being ready on the starting line or of it all coming together in the very moment of their event – not just the end positions or times.

Ambition and Belief

A final reflection and something that stood out for me from my client’s journey in well being was the range and quality of his ambition, for want of a better phrase.

We first met and started working together after he had experienced a really hard time and had stopped all competing and training.  As recorded in the Long Read, at that point he said his aim was to “get back the love”, returning to a more active lifestyle without previous pressures and stresses – and then added in an extra challenge, stepping up to a big event beyond anything he’d done before.

I have seen something similar in others and in myself – a deep yearning simply to ‘get back to’ things not being so hard, to the comfort of something resembling ‘normal’ and, at the very same moment, setting our sights on a really challenging goal.  And when others heap on the praise for achieving those big, daunting challenges I have found myself feeling their attention is misplaced and even a little distancing – don’t they realise what a bigger struggle and achievement it has been to hold things together, to move from getting through each day to feeling alive and well?

In this respect, I continue to be struck by the effect we can have as coaches on others’ self-confidence and belief through the relatively simple act of giving space to their ambitions – being curious about what lies behind their chosen goal and ready to offer our support.  Obviously we need to bring a realism and concern for safety as part of our duty of care.  As I’ve written about in the blog post Three Views of Belief, my experience with a whole range of people – from triathlon novices, beginner swimmers and young children with disabilities, as well as those competing at a high level – encourages me to look with an open mind at the possibilities and to treat people’s ambitions as a special gift I’m privileged to share in.

With many thanks to my client for so openly sharing his journey in well being.  You can read the account of his story in the Members’ Journal – membership is free to all sports coaches so Sign Up and become part of the network developing great coaching practice.

And don’t forget to sign up to the Mind & UK Coaching online Mental Health Awareness online course.

Comments as always welcome below.