Mental health and wellbeing in coaches is a subject that not nearly enough ism talked about or addressed. It’s something that most sports are still feeling their way through with athletes, let alone coaching staff. Even in society as a whole, I feel we still struggle to effectively address this issue or what it even means.
Even saying ‘mental health’ doesn’t make much sense to me, as that suggests someone is either ‘mentally healthy’ or ‘mentally unhealthy’ which is very binary. We wouldn’t say that someone is either ‘unfit’ or ‘fit’, as that would not accurately describe or convey the enormous continuum that a persons ‘fitness’ or ‘health’ sits on.
There is such a fundamental lack of understanding around the language we use for this to help us grasp what it is – no wonder we don’t know what’s going on. You can see if you’re putting weight on, you can feel if your physical fitness is slipping – these are tactile things. However in the mind, it’s not so easy to tell what’s going on or why, especially when it’s your own mind.
Mental health is obviously a vast spectrum of things that affect people in many different ways and varying degrees, and as coaches we are not immune to any of those.
I’ve never met anyone in a coaching role who just fell into it as a job, we all want to help people in our respective fields and are passionate about what we do. Someone once told me that if I could do my passion as my ‘job’ and work for myself then I’d never actually work a day in my life, such was the sunshine, roses and butterflies a job would bring.
The reality is that when your passion is your ‘job’, you work massively hard all the time with no boundaries in terms of time, family etc. Your own personal standard of fitness will begin to plummet as every waking moment (and what should be sleeping moments) will be consumed by ‘work’. The slow decline in your own health and well being will be perfectly inverse to the rise in your stress and anxiety levels. You’ll take everything personally, become increasingly isolated and before you know it – you’ve become a lone wolf.
What is the lone wolf? Rather than speak for anyone that’s reading this, I will talk from my own experience and the hugely damaging effect years and years of working alone, thanklessly and never knowing where the next payment is coming from had on my mental health. We all have self esteem, and we should all back ourselves – it’s ok to have a high opinion of yourself and your capabilities as long as you exercise humility with it. Whilst humility was sorely lacking on my part in the early days, as not only did I have a massively high opinion of myself I exercised zero humility with it – in the later years I’m happy to say I found my humility. The athletes played their part in my humbling and rightly so. The problem with the military is it’s a kind of Neverland where lost boys never grow up, much the same as action sports, so whilst there were lots of positives to take forward with me back in the day – it took another 10 years or so for me to ‘grow up’.
Thats great, fine and dandy – however my self esteem and sense of worth was completely baked into my job. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except when you work in sport as a contractor or employee the environment is so volatile and uncertain you are unable to make any plans for yourself past the next month. Again this wouldn’t be so bad, but once you get 10+ years down the line of living like this it starts to take a toll on you mentally. As a contractor (which I am) I was unable to take my foot off the accelerator at any point in the pursuit of work streams and keeping the work I had. Before long I realised that regardless of my ability to deliver, ‘what happened next’ was largely out of my control as I stumbled through the year hoping to earn a living to live. Being employed in a mainstream sports
After 10+ years my fitness was in massive decline, I was working all day every day to find work all day every day, to work. As my fitness declined and my bodyweight increased, my mental health began to suffer. If you’re as anchored to your job as I was from a self esteem perspective, the only reward for all your hard work and capabilities is to not ‘not’ work,
the only feedback you’re likely get is when something has gone wrong – all of that will wear you down mentally eventually.
The lack of negative outcome is in fact usually the ‘positive’, and as much as I bang the drum that it’s about the athlete and not us as coaches, this can be a lonely and utterly thankless existence, because it really is all about the athlete. And you need to understand this on every level in every way if you’re to have any chance.
Unrewarded behaviour becomes extinct, yet as a coach there was no reward for me other than a ‘lack of negative’ which my unconscious mind is unable to process as a positive because let’s be honest, the ‘no bad news is good news’ outlook doesn’t make any fucking sense. Back this up with the fact that regardless of doing a world class job I may still not have any work meaning the reward is in fact ‘bye bye’, which has happened several times, my self esteem was starting to look like Gollum, clinging to anything and everything as ‘my precious’.
This is what the lone wolf is, I felt isolated in the precarious volatile world of sport, no job security, no meaningful validation of what I’m doing (whether that’s financial or emotional) becoming more and more introverted as my health and mental health spiralled ever lower.
Worrying about something, turns into worrying about everything, turns into anxiety, turns into anxiety driven depression. Coach burn out is a thing, the problem is to get burnt out usually takes years, decades even. We are no different to the athletes we work with because we’re also people. Yet we don’t plan for ourselves like we do for the athletes, we don’t set boundaries because we’re too busy striving for excellence. We’re working on programmes in the evening, responding to text messages at 10pm – we don’t switch off. We have the worst job related FOMO going, driven by all the factors I’ve talked about.
Working at 100% capacity all the time is no different from training an athlete maximally all the time, how long before they would over reach then de-train? Why are we as coaches or our minds any different?
I had to learn the hard way about boundaries, time, family and importantly time for myself – investing in my own health & well being. Being almost 50, overweight and highly stressed meant I was a walking statistic waiting to happen. I’m certain that being so supremely fit for most of my adult life meant I was able to drive myself into the ground for years whilst not training. Everything is about the athlete, but not at the expense of your own well being, you have to be you and find validation from something other than your work even if your work it’s your ‘passion’.
Hence I’ve started mentoring other coaches and writing books, like this one. Not as some faux ego trip, which was always my worry and as I said at the beginning of this book. It’s because I enjoy coaching, I enjoy sharing and most of all I enjoy helping – that doesn’t mean I have to worry myself to death. The key is of course balance, whilst I’d argue there is no such thing as ‘balance’ working in sport – you do need to find that physical and emotional balance between what is still your job and your life. My advice to young coaches isn’t to find your passion then do that as your job, it’s to find your balance – as that’s what’s sustainable and will work in the long term. Otherwise you’ll be on the road to being a lone wolf, suddenly it’s 15 years down the line and you’re wondering what just happened.
Maybe some, all or nothing of this chapter applies to you, but I can’t write a book for coaches and not say any of this as it’s a very real thing that affects everyone as far as I’m concerned. There’s two sorts of people, those that admit to struggling emotionally and mentally to whatever degree that is, and those that lie about not struggling. We say it’s ‘ok to not be ok’, when what we really mean is ‘it’s ok for someone else to not be ok’. We won’t judge them, we want them to reach out and we’d love to help them – but we do the opposite of that with ourselves. We tell people to speak out as they won’t be judged, whilst not speaking out ourselves for fear of being judged.
Would I have listened to any of this as a 25 year old straight out of the military? No. Absolutely not. Remember I knew everything already. Well, this all sounds like great fun doesn’t it! It can be, if you treat yourself like the athletes you plan for.
As obvious as this sounds, apply the same systems and processes to yourself as the athletes – and if you’re struggling to ‘programme for yourself’ as many of us do with training and we get another trainer to write one for us, go see a professional about a programme for your mind. You wouldn’t think twice were it for anything other than ‘mental health’ because that very label suggests to need help you are ‘mentally unhealthy’. We’re quite happy making small talk saying things like, “yeah I’m not that fit at the moment and I need to get back into it” – can you imagine saying the same thing about your mind? “Yeah my mental health has slipped a bit recently and isn’t that good, I need to get back into it”.
Of course you can’t imagine saying that, because of the stigma we attach to it ourselves. The lone wolf would never say something that like, would never admit anything and certainly won’t be addressing any issues. Instead the lone wolf works to put things right by working themselves to death even more.
Don’t be the lone wolf, be the coach you are. Plan and programme for yourself, set boundaries, attach your self esteem to something other than just work and seek professional help if you’re not sure what to do. Everything YOU would tell an athlete to do.