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Self-care and development Inspiring Stories

Finding Light in the Darkness: A Coach’s Story of Living with Mental Illness

Rugby coach Adrian Silvester gives an emotional and candid account of the impact mental illness has had on his life. He tells Blake Richardson that coaching is his ‘safe space’ and that his lived experience of crippling anxiety, depression, self-harm, and PTSD has made it easier for him to spot mental health issues in others and offer practical and emotional support and signposting

Adrian Silvester is not by nature a superstitious person but during bouts of deep depression, when his chattering mind hijacks his rational thinking, he is overcome by the fear that he is jinxed, which would account for years of persistent and extreme bad luck.

He is able to trace the origins of his mental health problems to a single traumatic episode in his childhood that left him emotionally scarred. 

And he believes being plagued by further traumatising events in adolescence and adulthood rubbed salt into unhealed wounds, compounding his fragile mental state.

Adrian has given his depression a name: the Darkness. When the Darkness descends it is all-consuming; terrifying; isolating.

Most days I feel that I cannot rest as I believe something is just round the corner that is going to send me down into the darkness. My emotions are like a turmoil; one minute I can be happy, the next I disappear down the hole into the places I don’t want to go. It used to be to self-harm, to escape what I was feeling.” 

By telling his story, Adrian wants to highlight the obvious but often overlooked fact that coaches experience mental health problems too.

A National Governing Body qualification and extensive training on how to provide effective care and support for the people you coach does not grant you immunity from experiencing mental health issues yourself.

Such silver bullet thinking neglects the fact that mental health does not discriminate. It affects people of all ages, all genders, all ethnicities... and all professions.

Concealing my depression behind a ‘mask’

Adrian provides some self-care coping strategies that help him when he is feeling overwhelmed (at the end of the article), but his first and most important piece of advice to those living with a mental health condition is to talk about your feelings.

I am learning that talking is best; don’t hold within. The more I talk about my darkness the easier I have found it to bear. 

In telling my story hopefully it goes towards making people more aware of the need to educate themselves on mental health and to have the courage to not suffer in silence and to voice what’s in their minds. It’s okay to not be okay!”

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the realisation that talking helps to alleviate the adverse symptoms and behaviours of depression was all too slow to dawn on Adrian. 

He says when he first began self-harming at the age of 13 after experiencing extreme anxiety, he would “put on a mask” to hide his feelings.

People wear masks to hide themselves from the world and portray another person. I would put the mask on to give people the impression that I was fine.

For years, until recently, I would hold in that I was hurting and take it out on myself as I was afraid to talk – afraid people would not understand; that they would fear me, see me in the wrong light and think that I was largely a failure and not worth their attention. To have these thoughts going through you is so debilitating.”

Adrian recalls the moment that his world was turned upside down.

He had just arrived home after a two-week stay in hospital with Appendicitis but on returning to school, his friends in Year 9 “thought it was fun to ignore me completely”.

Social cruelty amongst children can have lasting repercussions. The pain of rejection cut deep and being ostracised from his friendship group weakened his self-confidence, fed his insecurities, and would go on to have long-term physical and psychological consequences.

“I remember it vividly. It’s why I am always in fight or flight mode, forever alert for something to go wrong, and it started a journey of over 20 years of mental health problems.

“Since that trauma as a young child I have struggled to express my emotions and find it hard to tell people I am in pain. I also struggle to trust after what I went through.”

Heading deeper into the darkness

It was at university when the Darkness tightened its grip, and when, for the first time, Adrian had the courage to open up to medical professionals and counsellors about his mental health.

It was also established at university that he had dysgraphia, dyspraxia and dyslexia, lifelong learning disorders that had never been officially diagnosed at school.

His downwards spiral culminated in a particularly severe self-harm incident, which required hospital treatment and stitches in his chest.

After withdrawing from his course, he went on a trip around the world, but misfortune reared its head again when he badly injured his knee playing rugby.

His travel plans wrecked, it was, he says, another “mentally taxing” time.

He enrolled again at university the following year before finally accepting that “university life is not for me”.

“I struggled with the way people were judging me and treating me, unable to offer any support for my mental health problems, and I couldn’t cope with being on my own.

“The darkest times were always when I was alone. I had no one to physically stop me hurting myself. At least when someone was there, I could be strong and put the mask on to hide that I was fine.”

The positive link between coaching and mental health

In 2008, Adrian was volunteering as a rugby coach whilst taking his coaching badges. A chance meeting with a member of the Malta RFU led to him being offered a job as National Youth Coordinator.

He spent four years in Malta, going on to coach the Under-16s, Under-18s and Under-20s, and became Assistant Coach of the national Women’s Rugby Sevens. 

There was a brief mental health relapse in 2009 when Adrian fractured his neck during a match and was forced to retire from playing rugby.

“I battled with physio, frustration and pure rage at the injustice.”

His love of coaching helped him emerge from the darkness and get his life back onto an upward trajectory.

It was a good time in Malta. I thrive in any type of coaching environment. 

I’ve always been lauded for my people skills, and I love interacting with kids, teenagers, and adults alike. Coaching takes my mind off the Darkness. It is my safe space.”

 

UK Coaching research has revealed that people who actively coach are more likely to report good mental health than those who are not actively coaching and those who have never coached (The Coaching in the UK report surveyed over 20,000 adults about their experience of receiving coaching and their experience of being a coach).

 

Adrian, a Level 3 coach, has gone on to enjoy a successful career in rugby coaching and rugby development.

He worked in Brazil for four years, employed by a conglomerate of Premiership Rugby, the British Council and Land Rover in community development roles. 

This included working on a number of social inclusion projects targeting young people in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and schools’ programmes in São Paulo.

It was also in Brazil that he met his wife.

A further highlight of his time in South America was coaching players from the Brazilian men’s and women’s team in the build-up to the Rio Olympic Games. 

Living the dream, surviving the nightmare 

On his return to the UK following the Olympics, Adrian got a job with London Scottish as a Community Rugby Coach and then joined Harlequins in the same role, before becoming Quins’ Rugby Development Officer for Sussex and Hampshire.

At first this was a dream come true. To work for the club I supported, what a feat, what an adventure and what an opportunity.” 

In 2019 things took another turn for the worse when he was in a car crash and was off work for three months after suffering nerve damage to his leg.

And then…

Totally unrelated to the car accident but where I’d broken my neck, a bit of scar tissue had fallen off and it lodged in my heart. I had a seizure and wasn’t breathing. My heart stopped.

 

“At this time, I was also having operations on my leg from the accident, which still wasn’t fixed – and still isn’t four years later!

“It got to the point where I was mentally drained. I was showing symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis too, including spasticity [stiffness of muscle that interferes with movement]. I have since found out the spasticity is genetic and there is no medication, and I have had to learn to live with the pain in my joints and back. I still need crutches at times.”

The calamitous chain of events brought his coaching career to an abrupt end.

He left Harlequins (unable to drive and without the funds to get the train to work) and soon after left his role as Head of Junior Rugby and Coach Co-ordinator at his local rugby club, Tadley RFC, near Basingstoke.

Adrian is currently Deputy General Manager of a popular restaurant chain but is desperate to return to coaching and his “safe zone” after more than a year away from his life’s grand passion.

Building a strong support network

While immersing himself in the physical act of coaching helps to keep Adrian’s depression under control – giving him the mental energy to blow away any gathering storm clouds – so the ability to lean on coaching colleagues, friends and family is another crucial support mechanism.

“In all my roles I have had someone I have been close to. At Harlequins it was Rob Gould. We would talk to each other about anything and everything and it would give me the opportunity to get things off my chest.

“I do some mentoring myself, trying to help people through difficult patches, but two people right now who are a massive support are former senior England Women head coaches Kevin Moggridge and Gary Street, who has been my rock, and has been open about his own mental health problems.”

Adrian has also found solace and support through italk – a Hampshire-based NHS talking therapy service. 

Opening myself up to others after years of isolation and shielding was a big step for me, and it’s one I now take gladly.”

‘Still a happy-go-lucky person’

In no way does Adrian’s mental health problems affect his competency as a coach.

He has always been able to detach his personal demons from his professional practice.

“I have the darkness and maybe I always will, but it will never affect my coaching or other people,” he says. 

“You are not going to see any signs when I coach. It doesn’t stop me being a happy-go-lucky person. When I am in my safe space coaching, I feel great.”

Indeed, Adrian’s lived experience means he is perfectly equipped to provide practical, emotional, and psychological support to those experiencing mental health problems.

His history of living with mental illness has helped him become more empathetic and better able to help others by either finding solutions, or just being there for someone if they are troubled.

I can read the signs in people in seconds. I am able to relate to them and support them while quietly nudging them to seek professional help or inform the relevant safeguarding officer.

“I am always focused on fostering a positive attitude and an empowering mindset.

“I can sometimes struggle to help myself – which I think is quite natural – but I have helped loads of people through their own dark times.”

‘Always the sun will shine after the darkness’

Which brings us to the present day.

Adrian says he hasn’t self-harmed in nearly ten years.

And only yesterday, his doctor told him his resilience was something he should be proud of. 

“She actually called me a ‘fantastically resilient person’.

It does help to remind myself that, while day to day it can be difficult sometimes, always the sun will shine after the darkness.”

Adrian urges coaches at every level to improve their knowledge and understanding of mental health issues.

Mental Health and Well-being is one of the six pillars of duty to care and our newly-enhanced Duty to Care Hub and Digital Badge contains a library of resources, videos and tools that will give you the confidence to provide appropriate and effective support to people living with mental health problems.

“I have pushed UK Coaching’s Duty to Care Toolkit out to so many people. My children’s teams, Colts, adult squads, and also through my consultancy work and mentoring; even outside of work in other volunteering roles. 

“I would tell my Under-18s that, one, it will give them life-skills; and two, learning more about the key identifiable pillars that make up duty to care will help them if they want a career in sport or coaching – or any other job for that matter.

“At Quins I would encourage my fellow coaches to take the digital badge, so they had an understanding of what our safeguarding lead was going through and what our mental health lead had to deal with.”

Adrian’s Coping Strategies

  1. If negative thoughts are getting you down, write them on a piece of paper and scrunch them up and throw them away or burn them. Writing them down and getting rid of them is you throwing them away, saying ‘they don’t control me’.
  2. Build some Lego if you have access; distract yourself, allow your mind to focus on the moment not the before or after.
  3. Install a blocker app on your phone, so you are not bombarded the whole time by news and information.
  4. Create a happy feelings book, that when you’re down you can read to remember all the positive things you have done.
  5. Listen to comedy, get yourself laughing and make the endorphins shine.
  6. Do the household chores, read, or do some gardening to allow yourself to be distracted to calm down.
  7. Put up post-it notes around the house to remind yourself of what you are good at (mine are: be positive, don’t give in, I will fight the darkness etc)
  8. If mindfulness or meditation helps, find something on YouTube. I use a program called Leaves on a Stream. You allow your feelings and thoughts to float on by; they don’t control you but you acknowledge they are there.
  9. Exercise when and where you can, even if it’s just a video game to switch off your mind.
  10. Build a daily schedule so that you know when and what you are doing so you have stability.
  11. Most importantly, talk to others to help you get those feelings off your chest.

UK Coaching Duty to Care Digital Badge

Earn our free nationally recognised Digital Badge by demonstrating your knowledge of the six pillars of Duty to Care (Diversity, Inclusion, Physical Well-being, Mental Health and Well-being, Safeguarding and Safe to Practice).

Find out more

Related Resources

  • A Journey Towards Understanding Mental Health, with Clarke Carlisle

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  • Self-Care in Coaching

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  • Promoting Good Mental Health through Coaching

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