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UK Coaching Team
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Safety and Welfare Supporting Specific Needs

Person-Centred Coaching Key to Improving Mental Health

Passionate runner Charlotte Rudden tells Charlotte Potterton about making the difficult decision of joining a running group for women living with mental health issues and the positive effect of regular, coached exercise on mental and physical health

Two years ago, Charlotte Rudden made the life-changing decision to join Up and Running, a beginners' running group for women living with mental health problems. At the time, her experience of serious mental health issues meant that her lifestyle was largely sedentary.

Today, she is proud to say that not only is she still running, she now heads out on a run not just once, but twice a week. 

To fully comprehend the immense strides that Charlotte has taken, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning. 

Charlotte has a Functional Neurological Disorder (FND), which means that she experiences symptoms likely caused by problems in the nervous system but that have not been linked to a physical neurological disease or disorder. The symptoms can vary, but in Charlotte's case, FND has caused her to experience serious mental health problems.

She explains that her condition "comes with severe depression and severe anxiety" and can even affect her ability to talk. 

"In dealing with that, I just became a recluse."

Understandably, this had immediate and long-lasting ramifications for:

  • her confidence
  • her ability to maintain friendships
  • her physical health.

It stopped me from going out, socialising, getting any sort of exercise, and I put on weight.”

Up and Running: The helping hand Charlotte needed

Lasting ten weeks (one hour-long session a week), the Up and Running beginners’ course is designed to help people like Charlotte – women living with mental health issues – get started with running. 

The set-up is deliberately pressure-free: the women who attend are encouraged to run a little at a time (separating time running with time walking), and to increase the amount only when they feel capable of doing so.

But it is the coaching that Charlotte asserts is the crucial factor in Up and Running’s effectiveness. Running coach Shona Campbell and Harriet Heal (a clinical psychologist and regular runner), who lead the sessions, both support the learning process as the people who attend get to grips with the physical challenge. Notably, they also provide emotional support, acceptance and understanding. The impact of this cannot be underestimated. 

“Shona was fantastic,” Charlotte explains. “If you had a worry the night before or even during the week about going on Saturday, or you were having a bit of a wobble with everything, you felt comfortable enough to message Shona.”

She was a support for us mentally as well as getting us out running on a regular basis."

It was that level of person-centred support from her coaches – given with no expectation that Charlotte would ever have to share more information about her condition than she was comfortable with – that made her determined to keep coming back to build on her progress, and that ultimately enabled her to reap the wide-ranging physical and mental benefits of an active lifestyle.

That was a huge step for someone living with serious mental health issues. Given that one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year, it's clearly a step that we should ensure that more people feel empowered to take.

'When you run, your brain stops trying to fight you'

In plain terms, Charlotte asserts that she wouldn't have been able to make the significant lifestyle changes she has if she hadn't discovered Up and Running.

"Without Shona, Up and Running, and the other ladies, I don't know if I would be doing what I'm doing now. I think I would still be shut in the house."

She explains that before discovering Up and Running, her inability to communicate easily led her to isolate herself.

It was easier to shut myself away rather than go out and not be able to communicate with anyone. My house is my safe place, but it's my prison at the same time. Trying to get out the front door sometimes is the hardest thing in the world."

Up and Running helped Charlotte find a solution.

"I had kind of forgotten about being able to talk to a certain degree. But when you're running and trying to get your breath, it's amazing how your brain goes: 'you can talk right now.' It stops trying to fight you.

"Even if it wasn't proper sentences, I could get what I needed to out."

Rediscovering her ability to communicate had an immediate impact on Charlotte's confidence and self-esteem. Over time, she found getting out to go running easier and easier, to the extent that it became something to look forward to. 

"I didn't have to think about going on Saturday, because it was then automatically in my diary. It wasn't a chore."

Add in the positive endorphins from engaging in physical activity, and, Charlotte says, you "just feel so much better about yourself." The mental health problems that she was living with lost some of their grip on her daily life, and her well-being was given a boost.

While it didn't cure her condition or make the depression and anxiety that she lives with disappear overnight, it alleviated the severity of some of the most pervasive symptoms, enabling her to do more of the things she enjoyed. 

As a result, she could make positive changes to her lifestyle that are still paying dividends, two years later.

It's the best thing ever. It aids my recovery, week in, week out. I could not do without running now, not at all."

Personal touch key to positive behaviour change

Charlotte first heard of Up and Running when an article appeared in her local newspaper. She was interested in its strong association with mental health, which distinguished it from other running groups. 

Her GP also raised the idea.

"I wanted to try something with like-minded people that suffer with depression and anxiety," Charlotte explains, "so I knew I wasn't going to be on my own feeling the way I was feeling."

Still, getting in touch with Shona wasn't easy, and the prospect of committing to a weekly run with a group of strangers was understandably daunting. The problem was compounded when she found out that the next ten-week course was due to start in a few months' time. 

"I went back and forth with the decision countless times. It probably took a good two, three weeks before I actually contacted Shona."

Shona's friendly response, in which she articulated the benefits of attending without applying pressure, silenced many of Charlotte's doubts. But the real gamechanger was the fact that Shona stayed in touch all the way up to the launch of the course. Checking in regularly, she was happy to answer any questions and give what reassurance she could.

If not for that personal touch, Charlotte says, none of the rest would have happened.

If I had booked myself onto a running course and then three months later had had no information, no correspondence with that person, no reassurance, no nothing, I don't think I would have turned up."

At Up and Running, coaching doesn't just happen at sessions – it's a crucial aspect of every interaction with everyone interested in attending, before and after sessions. The provision of emotional support is recognised as the catalyst that often gives people the confidence to make a firm commitment.

On-the-run support

A similar degree of support is also available while they're running. Shona and Harriet provide on-route encouragement, reassurance and an open, accepting attitude that Charlotte identifies as crucial in facilitating an environment of trust.

"I'm very comfortable around Shona," she explains. "I could probably tell her a lot more things than I thought I would ever be able to. It never comes back with anything bad. She's always there for you and she doesn't resolve the issues, because sometimes there isn't an issue to resolve, but she gives you that support."

That isn't to say that it was always plain sailing. The first session, she freely admits, was horrible! But, she clarifies, meeting a group of total strangers in a carpark was never going to be anything else.

"Everyone had the same expression on their face. Everyone was thinking: 'what have I done? Why am I doing this?' But we were all in the same position."

It was important that it was a shared experience. Attendees were in it together, going through if not the same things, then similar experiences. They could relate to one another.

While the first session was tough, Charlotte confirms that it was worth it. 

"I think I was sold from that first session. It was very difficult, but by the end, when we were doing our stretches, we all had smiles on our faces."

A toolkit for managing mental health

Shona and Harriet established Up and Running nine years ago.

As well as a shared interest in running, they were both intrigued by the positive connection between running and mental health. Thinking it a shame that no running groups explicitly for mental health existed in the area, they dreamed up the idea of starting their own. 

Many studies have examined this connection between physical exercise and mental health. 

Among other things, they demonstrate that:

UK Coaching's own research has also demonstrated a positive association between the two, revealing that the benefits can be felt both by people who attend sessions and by coaches.

"It's not a magic wand," Shona explains, "and it's not going to solve all your mental health issues, but if you look at it as being part of a toolkit of things that you can do to manage your mental health, it's quite a powerful tool to use."

Shona is clear that most coaches do have the skills to engage with potential issues surrounding mental health, but she acknowledges that some may feel underqualified to tackle mental health challenges. Her advice is to be clear as to your own position – and that signposting to resources and organisations that can help may sound simple but can be really effective.

"I would say that mental health is not something to be afraid of.

I can't give advice to somebody on how to manage their condition, I can't recommend treatment or anything like that, that's not my role, but I can listen, I can be sympathetic, and I can try to understand."

Mental health awareness

Mind's Head of Physical Activity Hayley Jarvis notes that coaches already support the people at their sessions, but also need to be prepared to recognise when people may be struggling and ready to offer both acceptance and guidance. She recommends that all coaches upskill with mental health training to ensure that they feel comfortable with providing key support.

It's about getting everyone talking about mental health and making it okay to have those conversations."

In aid of this, a new online course has been developed in partnership by Mind, 1st4sport, Sport England and UK Coaching. Lasting 2-3 hours, Mental Health Awareness for Sport and Physical Activity has been designed to empower coaches with the knowledge, skills and confidence to support people living with mental health problems.

Shona has witnessed first-hand the brilliant positive effect that those conversations can have. This, she claims, is her key motivation for putting so much time and effort into Up and Running. 

"The thought that you may have helped people get a handle on how to have a slightly better quality of life, that's about as much as I could ever really wish for."

As well as inspiring people to enjoy and continue running, her intention has always been to empower people to continue running together, whether that's with the new friends made at Up and Running, or with other running groups.

That's the way we want it to go forward. A community, a family of runners who are there to support each other and encourage each other."

A final few words from Charlotte

Without Shona's person-centred coaching and ability to recognise Charlotte's specific needs, Charlotte may not have made it to the first session or felt able to make the commitment to attend the full course. As a result, she would never have had the opportunity to reap the life-changing benefits for mental health and well-being that she now enjoys. 

I just want to get the message out there that it's good for you. It's a horrible decision to make and sometimes you're not in the right space to make that decision, but once that person is looking for something, I would definitely recommend getting out there."

Mental Health Awareness for Sport and Physical Activity

Gain the confidence to support people living with mental health problems to feel comfortable and capable of engaging in sport and physical activity by completing our online course, developed in partnership with Mind, 1st4sport and Sport England

Learn More

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