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UK Coaching Team
Safety and Welfare Supporting Specific Needs Duty to Care Guide

A Guide to Mental Health and Well-being

One of six guides to support you on your Duty to Care journey. Learn how to apply the principles from the mental health and well-being pillar

Each guide in this series introduces the pillar that the guide covers, explaining the importance to participants, coaches, and coaching practice through key messages, practical tips, videos, downloads, and templates. Take the next step and consider how you can apply the principles of the mental health and well-being pillar to improve your coaching and your participants’ experiences.

In this guide:

  • What is mental health? Learn about mental health, mental well-being, and mental health problems.
  • The relationship between physical activity and mental health. Understand the mental health benefits of physical activity and the importance of a healthy relationship with it.
  • Creating an inclusive environment. Learn how to create an inclusive environment for people with mental health problems to be physically active.
  • Spot. Support. Signpost. Learn how to spot the signs of poor mental health, how to offer support, and how to signpost to professional support.
  • Looking after your own mental health. Explore the importance of self-care and how you can support yourself.

The definition of mental health

Mental health is about how we think, feel, and behave. Just like physical health, everybody has it and we need to take care of it.

Why is understanding mental health and well-being important in your coaching?

1 in 4 adults will experience a mental health problem in any given year. That means it’s likely you will be coaching people with a mental health problem.

By understanding mental health, you will be better able to support yourself and other people. You will have improved knowledge to spot the signs that someone may be experiencing poor mental health. You will know how to support them in the moment, before signposting to professional help.

As a coach, you’re not expected to be a mental health expert. But you have a duty to care to support yourself and the people you coach and work with.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is a continuum, ranging from good to poor.

Good mental health means being generally able to think, feel and react in the ways that you need and want to live your life. But if you have poor mental health, you might find the ways you’re thinking, feeling, or reacting become difficult, or even impossible, to cope with.

What is mental well-being?

Mental well-being doesn’t have one set meaning. We might use well-being to talk about how we feel, how well we’re coping with daily life, or what feels possible right now.

Good mental well-being doesn’t mean you’re always happy or unaffected by your experiences. But poor mental well-being can make it more difficult to cope with daily life.

Looking after our mental well-being can help us deal with pressure and improve our ability to cope with life’s ups and downs.

What are mental health problems?

A mental health problem is when the way you're thinking, feeling, or behaving becomes difficult for you to cope with.

Mental health problems are very common. They are not a sign of weakness and can happen to anyone. People experience mental health problems differently, too.

Common mental health problems include depression and anxiety. Rarer problems include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Mental health problems can have a wide range of causes, including:

  • trauma
  • disadvantage and discrimination
  • severe and long-term stress
  • living with a long-term physical health condition
  • isolation or loneliness
  • bereavement
  • poor housing
  • unstable work
  • caring responsibilities
  • relationship issues and many more.

It's likely that for many people there is a complicated combination of factors.

However, different people may be more deeply affected by certain things.

Although lifestyle factors including work, diet, drugs, and lack of sleep can all affect your mental health, if you experience a mental health problem there are usually other factors as well.

It’s possible to recover from mental health problems.

Many people do – especially after accessing support.


How is your mental health and well-being right now?

Have any of your participants shared with you that they have mental health problems? If yes, how did it make you feel?


The Relationship Between Physical Activity and Mental Health

Our physical and mental health are linked. And there’s good evidence that getting more physically active can have real benefits for our mental health.

A healthy relationship with physical activity is necessary

We know physical activity can be an amazing way to support mental health. However, it isn’t helpful for everyone all the time. 

It’s important to recognise that some people can develop an unhealthy relationship with physical activity. This includes over-exercising (exercising for too long or too intensely) and exercise addiction (unable to stop or not in control of how much we exercise).

What to look out for:

The signs to look out for that may indicate a participant is over-exercising or experiencing exercise addiction include:

  • exercising in secret
  • exercising when unwell or injured
  • missing social events due to exercising
  • affected relationships and work.

If you recognise that a participant has an unhealthy relationship with exercise, you can encourage participants: 

  • to seek help, talk to you, or somebody they trust
  • to rest and listen to their body
  • to be flexible and adaptable in their exercise regime, and that it’s fine to miss a day of exercise
  • to rearrange their exercise regime to ensure they don’t miss social events
  • to reduce their exercise regime over a period of time to a sustainable and healthy level.


How does being active make you feel?

How could you introduce the mental health benefits of physical activity into your sessions? For example, helping participants to identify changes in mood, encourage calmer thoughts, take time to reflect and learn how to take care of themselves?

How might you spot if one of your participants is over-exercising or experiencing exercise addiction?

How could you support them?


Creating an Inclusive Environment

An inclusive environment is one that caters to everyone’s needs. This includes people with mental health problems.

The first step is to understand the barriers your participants face when taking part in physical activity.

Barriers to physical activity for people with mental health problems

People with mental health problems face many of the same barriers to physical activity as those without mental health problems. These barriers fall into four categories:

  1. Physical barriers such as cost or travelling to venues.
  2. Social barriers such as difficulty meeting people or a lack of self-esteem.
  3. Psychological barriers such as feeling anxious about starting a new activity or believing they’re not good enough to take part.
  4. Technical barriers such as not knowing the rules or having a lack of experience or skills to take part.

Some of these barriers may be worse for people with mental health problems. For example, people experiencing anxiety may find it harder to start a new activity or visit a location they haven’t visited before.

People with mental health problems may face additional barriers to physical activity. These include:

  • Mental health medication can cause tiredness, lack of energy and reduced fitness levels. It can also lead to sensitivity to the sun, increased thirst levels, weight gain and issues with temperature regulation and sweating.
  • Lack of energy due to difficulty sleeping.
  • Increased or decreased appetite, which can affect energy levels.
  • The need for order, structure, routine and consistency.
  • Paranoia, fear of judgement or thinking everyone is looking at them.
  • Negative body image and feeling self-conscious about weight issues or scars from self-harm.

People with mental health problems don’t face all the same barriers. You can create an inclusive environment by understanding each of your participants’ needs and adapting your activities as required.


How can you understand your participants’ needs and any barriers they face?


Creating an inclusive environment for people with mental health problems

By understanding your participant’s needs and barriers, you will be in a better position to support them to be physically active. But to create a truly inclusive environment you could use CARE to apply this knowledge.

CARE stands for:

  • Coaching and customer skills.
  • Awareness.
  • Respect.
  • Empathy.

(For more on this, visit our infographic, Promoting Good Mental Health in Coaching (Part 2).

This table shows you how to use CARE in your sessions. These suggestions benefit everyone, not just people with mental health problems.

Spot. Support. Signpost.

As a coach, you’re not expected to be a mental health expert, but you have a duty to care to support the people you coach and work with. You can do this by spotting the signs of poor mental health, supporting in the moment and signposting to professional support.

Spotting the signs

Here are some common behaviours that you might notice in people experiencing poor mental health, and some examples of what underlying thoughts and feelings might be prompting them. This is not a full list and people will have different signs and symptoms.

It is important not to make assumptions. The participant could be having a bad day or a challenging couple of weeks. Equally, they may be experiencing mental health problems and you have spotted an opportunity to provide support.


What would you do if you noticed one of your participants behaving differently?


Supporting people in the moment

It can be very difficult to see someone who you know becoming unwell, but you don't need to be an expert on mental health to offer support. Often small, everyday actions can make the biggest difference. If you recognise that a participant is experiencing poor mental health or has shared with you that they are struggling, you can support them by:

Someone in urgent need of help

If someone needs urgent help due to their mental health, for example, if they have seriously harmed themselves or you think they might attempt suicide or self-harm, you can support them by:

  • If they are not safe by themselves right now: stay with them and help them call 999 for an ambulance if you feel able to do so. Or you could help them get to A&E.
  • If they can keep themselves safe for a little while: you can get quick medical advice by contacting NHS 111. Or you could help them make an emergency GP appointment to see a doctor. You can also encourage them to call the Samaritans on 116 123 to talk to someone, 24 hours a day.
  • If you or others feel in danger right now: you can call 999 and ask for the police to help. You might feel worried about getting someone in trouble, but it's important to put your own safety first.

Signposting to support

If you recognise that a participant is experiencing poor mental health, encourage them to talk to someone who they trust, i.e., a family member or a friend.

There are also lots of mental health support services available both locally and nationally. This includes:

  • NHS 111: for urgent help that isn’t an emergency, get help from NHS 111 online or call 111. Call 999 if it is an emergency.
  • GP: book an appointment with a GP/doctor. They introduce people to the right mental health services for their needs.
  • Free listening services and helplines:
    • Mind Infoline: call 0300 123 3393 (available weekdays 09:00-18:00 except for bank holidays)
    • Samaritans: call 116 123 (available 24/7)
    • SHOUT: text SHOUT to 85258 (available 24/7).
  • Side by Side: an online community where you can listen, share and be heard. Available 24/7 for everyone over the age of 18.
  • Mind’s website: lots of information about mental health and accessing support.

Your boundaries

Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour for your staff, volunteers, and the people in your session. They exist to protect everyone.

Your organisation’s policies should support you to establish boundaries.

The following are likely to be outside the boundaries of your role:

  • Being contacted outside of coaching hours including through social media to provide emotional support with mental health and well-being.
  • Providing participants with lifts to appointments with their GPs, therapists etc.
  • Providing therapy or counselling support.
  • Diagnosing people, offering medical or clinical advice or interventions.
  • Dealing with challenging behaviour such as abusive or threatening behaviour.

Breaking confidentiality

There are some circumstances in which you might need to break confidentiality and inform someone about a situation, such as:

  • where there is immediate danger to the participant
  • the participant is physically present at your session and is experiencing a crisis
  • the participant is planning to take action that will put others at risk
  • the participant is under 18
  • a safeguarding issue concerning a coach, child, or adult at risk.

If you need to do this, we recommend:

  • getting support from your Safeguarding Lead or Welfare Officer. If they aren’t available, discuss it with a relevant manager or committee member
  • following your organisation’s policies for reporting concerns.
  • discussing it with the individual and encouraging them to seek help and support.
  • continuing to discuss the decision after it has been taken, looking out for the well-being of any staff/volunteers involved.

Being a point of contact for conversations about mental health can be very rewarding. However, it can also be time-consuming and emotionally overwhelming.

We encourage you to think carefully about how you will look after your own well-being. It's essential to make sure you have appropriate support in place.

Looking After Your Own Mental Health

As a coach, you have a duty to care for the mental health of your participants and peers. But you also have a duty to care for yourself.

Self-care and looking after your own well-being isn’t selfish. It’s fundamental to being a good coach. If you don’t look after yourself, you will find it harder to support your participants.

Tips for improving your mental well-being

There are lots of things we can try to take care of our well-being. But it’s not always easy to start. Give yourself time to figure out what works for you, going at your own pace. And only try what feels comfortable to you.

Tools to support your mental well-being

There are many tools you can use to support your mental well-being. Try a few and see what works for you.

  • 5 Ways to Well-being: an evidence-based set of actions that we can all take every day to improve our well-being. For more on this, read Coach Well-being: Ways to Boost Your Physical and Mental Health.
  • Wellness Action Plan: an easy, practical way of helping you support your own mental health. It will help you to reflect on the causes of stress and poor mental health and take ownership of practical steps to help address these. They are used across many sectors including national governing bodies and elite athletes such as Team GB.
  • Self-care battery: helps you to reflect on where your well-being battery is currently and the things that may recharge and drain your battery.


How do you relax away from coaching and take care of your own mental well-being?


Have a go

Complete Mind’s Wellness Action Plan, which includes considering what things help you to stay mentally healthy and boost well-being in your role.

Complete the Self-Care Battery to help you reflect on things that may drain or recharge your battery.


Earn A Digital Badge

Learn about the importance of Duty to Care with our newly-enhanced Toolkit and demonstrate your commitment to looking after the people you coach by earning our Sport England-funded Digital Badge


Related Resources

  • Fifteen Ways to Improve Coach Well-being

  • Guide to Understanding Lifestyle, Health, and Well-being

  • Coach Well-being: Taking Time for Yourself


Duty to Care: Mental Health and Well-being

Learn how to promote psychological and emotional well-being in your participants. Use the knowledge and skills you gain from our suite of learning to help support and guide the people you coach to develop resilience, self-esteem, and confidence, and watch them flourish under your expert care


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