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UK Coaching Team
Developing Mindsets Supporting Specific Needs

Coaching with Heart: How a Rugby League Coach Put Players' Mental Health First

The team at Warrington are proud of and dedicated to standing shoulder to shoulder with their players to talk openly about mental health and honour their Duty to Care

Warrington Wolves RFC know how hard-hitting sport can be, with the highs and lows of competitive sport often giving rise to intense pressure and scrutiny. Recognising the risk to participants inherent in this, the team at Warrington are proud of and dedicated to standing shoulder to shoulder with their players to talk openly about mental health.

Having experienced anxiety and acute depression throughout her career, while preparing for a Rugby League World Cup, Wolves player Jessica Courtman also started experiencing insomnia, and her concerns began to affect her training. One conversation with her coach changed everything.

The moment that her coach discovered that she had anxiety, he knew that the way they communicated as a team needed an overhaul to ensure her mental health and well-being were understood and prioritised.

Looking back, Jessica highlights the severe effect that her mental health was having on her ability to train and compete in the sport she loves:

"I would have a lot of apprehension prior to the training sessions, to the point where I would make myself physically sick about the thought of being in a training environment. I would overthink the situations, which ultimately made my insomnia worse, which meant I could often feel quite lethargic within drills and couldn’t perform to my full potential. This would trigger my anxiety, knowing I needed to be giving my all to be in with a chance to be selected for the World Cup.

At certain times, I just couldn’t get myself into the mindset of going. Even though it was a huge outlet and what I enjoyed, I struggled to battle the little voice in my head encouraging me to stay at home in bed.  Luckily with the support systems around me, I managed to make training more often than not, but would often feel withdrawn."

It was judgement-free, unstinting support from her coach, built on a recognition of Jessica’s unique, individual needs and effective communication, that transformed her experience.  

"Once we had established good communication between coach and player, the support I received was astonishing. My coach would go out of his way to ensure we were regularly communicating, arrange one-to-one chats where we could work through things I had been struggling with, and send me notes that used to give me a lot of confidence and settle my mind."

Her coach at the time, Chris Chapman, was instrumental in helping Jessica manage the pressure of competition and the intense build-up to a World Cup.

It wasn’t always an easy process, as they needed to explore what would be most effective for Jessica, and work on building a spirit of openness that would foster effective communication.

"It honestly took a while for myself and Chris to work each other out, this mainly being down to me not being completely open. But after many conversations and establishing in my mind that he was understanding of my struggles, we developed quite a close relationship. 

"During our training sessions, we established I was a very visual learner and needed to see something to understand it otherwise I could work myself up.

"Chris adapted to what I needed to help me learn best and would make sure drills were walked through and shown thoroughly."

By helping Jessica to understand that how she felt wasn’t something to be embarrassed about and was valid, Chris improved her experience of sport and physical activity and empowered her to apply what she’d learned to other areas of her life, securing broader support for her mental health and well-being from her wider network. 

Chris showed me that it was okay to discuss your struggles and that most of the time there are solutions to issues we might be facing. He made me feel less embarrassed about how I was feeling and made me secure enough to discuss problems with others outside of the sport setting, because my experience of doing that with him had been very positive, which gave me the confidence to be more open about my anxieties."

Dealing with the mental strain that occurs in competitive sporting environments takes time, and the dedicated support that coaches offer continues to be integral to creating healthier, happier athletes who are both ready to give their best and have the support they need to address any concerns and manage their mental health.

Recognising that this can be challenging for coaches both new and experienced, UK Coaching has released the Duty to Care Hub, which contains a suite of resources covering the pillars of Diversity, Inclusion, Mental Health and Well-being, Physical Well-being, Safeguarding, and Safe to Practice to help coaches embed the principles of the six pillars into everyday coaching practice.

"Chris actually got me counselling sessions, through England Rugby League, which really helped me talk through a lot of my issues and apprehensions ahead of going to a World Cup where I’d be out of my usual comfort environment."

Referencing that a stigma still exists around talking openly about mental health, Jessica explains that reaching out felt impossible – but once managed, had a significant positive impact.

"It’s very daunting to approach anyone, and especially someone you’re trying to impress. There’s a big stigma still sadly, so to be open about it made such a positive difference to me and felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders – someone I trust knowing what I was going through."

Jessica continues to reap the benefits of her coach’s holistic, judgement-free support in and beyond her journey in sport and physical activity.

Knowing I can approach this person, without being judged or pressured, it helped me so much. It’s made me more comfortable approaching others in everyday life – once I’d developed that open communication with my coach, it’s given me the confidence to manage my mental well-being in more settings than just sport. That’s what coaching can do for you."

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


Related Resources

  • A Journey Towards Understanding Mental Health, with Clarke Carlisle

  • Person-Centred Coaching Key to Improving Mental Health

  • Coaching, Mental Health and Well-being - Russ Barber's Story


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