Supporting Positive Mental Health

Sport and physical activity have a large role to play in influencing positive mental health and with the support of the English Institute of Sport, British Rowing has put together information about mental health, understanding signs and symptoms of poor mental health, and a series of resources and tools to support rowers and all those around them.

umbrella and boat on beach

Read On for information, advice and top tips to support your mental health

What is Mental Health?

The World Mental Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stressors of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. Individuals in this state of wellbeing are experiencing positive mental health.

It can be argued that mental health ‘problems’ develop when we are unable to achieve any of these four elements of this definition. A Mental Health Problem is a pattern of behaviour, experiences, thoughts and feelings that causes significant distress and/or impairment of daily functioning and/or difficulties in relationships with others. Such distress or impairments are most likely to be experienced over a period of time and are not easily alleviated by an individual’s typical coping strategies. It is very common for individuals to find themselves in a place where some of these problems are a reality. We have likely all been there at some point in time.

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Our mental health is dynamic. It can go up and down for all of us depending on our current circumstances. Most of the time, we find ourselves able to manage out ups and downs using our current coping strategies and by utilising the support from those around us. Sometimes, we are less able to manage those ups and downs and our mental health and behaviours are sometimes effectives, over periods of time.

Think of it like a continuum whereby we will fluctuate from one end where we experience positive mental health, and the other end where we may experience mental health illnesses, or somewhere in between. Positive mental health is characterised by normal mood fluctuations, physically and socially active, good energy levels and sleep and remains calm taking things in our stride. At the other end of the continuum, mental health illness may be characterised by aggression, excessive anxiety or panic, finding it difficult to perform ‘normal’ duties or control behaviour, physically fatigued or ill and struggling to sleep. Somewhere in the middle can be characterised by distress such as irritable, impatient, overwhelmed, low energy, reduced activity or socialising, sadness or intrusive thoughts. More mental health difficulties may be recognised as increase anxiety, negative attitude, restlessness, withdrawn, and experiencing feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness.

Why is Mental Health Important?

We all have mental health, just like we all have our physical health. Whilst not everyone will have a mental illness, we all have mental health. Therefore, just like our physical health, by understanding our body and our minds a little better, we can take effective steps to improve and maintain our mental health.

Looking after our mental health and experiencing more positive mental health enables us to navigate stressors, connect with others and have fruitful relationships, and make good and helpful decisions leading to good health and performance in work and life.

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Mental Health in High Performance Sport

Working in high performance sport can bring about great experiences and opportunities. However, it can also bring a unique set of challenges. The nature of high-performance sport often means we are pursuing performance excellence and striving to advance our competitive advantage and reach our full potential. Stretching our comfort zones and operating on the edge of our capabilities can feel ‘messy’ at times, and uncomfortable feelings are likely commonplace.

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Meanwhile, the environments we operate in whilst navigating these challenges are often dynamic, fast-paced and prone to uncertainties and pressures, placing increasing demands on us as individuals and teams.

As humans, we are capable of managing these demands and challenges, and are known to deliver exceptional performances. However, we need to ensure we look after ourselves, our minds and our bodies and promote a healthy balance between performance pursuit and personal wellbeing.

Understanding the specific challenges and demands of the sporting context we are in, identifying potential risks and impacts and then mitigating against these with actions and effective strategies can help us navigate these ‘messy’ and tricky times.

woman on rowing machine in countryside

Promoting positive mental health & wellbeing through self-care

What is self-care?

Self-care is any action or behaviour which is under our own personal control, is deliberate and self-initiated, which promotes positive health and wellbeing. It is a fundamental part to maintaining positive mental health and often are part of our day to day lives. Self-care is about doing strategies for you that make you feel better, recharged or re-energised.

We will all take care of our wellbeing in different ways, so the key is knowing what works best for you and your energy restoration. These can involve doing the little simple things consistently and feasible to day to day or weekly routines. Often however, when our energy dips, the first things we stop doing are the things that we enjoy the most or are most useful to managing our energy effectively.

Self-care assessment

There are a number of self-care assessment tools available that can help us broaden our awareness of our current self-care strategies for wellbeing. One developed by Therapist Aid LLC (2018) recognises five different areas of self-care: physical, psychological/emotional, social, spiritual and professional. Including self-care strategies that represent each of these areas will be a strong foundation for looking after your wellbeing. You can also think about strategies reflecting a variation of ‘switching off’, ‘recharging’ and ‘reconnecting’.

Self-care plan

Once developing a better understanding what self-care looks like for you, designing a plan can be very helpful to put these things into action. Consider what you need to look after your self-care, what you would like to improve, what may get in the way, and what actions you can put in place and commit to. Periodizing this self-care plan across the weeks and months, reviewing it regularly and adapting it as you learn more and practice will be a helpful approach to build as a wellbeing habit.

Your self-care plan could be one that reflects a ‘day to day’ plan that promotes a good maintenance of mental health. Whilst another self-care plan may be designed specifically for a specific event or key milestone. Consider sharing this self-care plan with others to encourage commitment and seek support for when you may need it.

rowing crew in sunset

Supporting positive mental health in rowing

Physical Activity and Mental Health

Physical activity can have a profound and positive effect on mental health and wellbeing. Being physically active can improve mood, decrease the chance of depression and anxiety and lead to a better and more balanced lifestyle.

There are various ways that physical activity helps mental health, including:

  • Improved mood
    Studies show that physical activity has a positive impact on our mood. One study asked people to rate their mood after a period of exercise (e.g. walking or gardening) and after inactivity (e.g. reading a book). Researchers found that people felt more awake, calmer and more content after physical activity.

For more information about the study, please see the Mental Health Foundation website.

  • Reduced stress
    Being regularly active is shown to have a beneficial impact on alleviating stress. It can help manage stressful lifestyles and can help us make better decisions when under pressure.Research on working adults shows that active people tend to have lower stress rates compared to those who are less active.
  • Increased self-esteem
    Physical activity has a big impact on our self-esteem – that’s how we feel about ourselves and our perceived self-worth.This is a key indicator of mental wellbeing. People with improved self-esteem can cope better with stress and improves relationships with others.
  • Depression and anxiety
    Exercise has been described as a “wonder drug” in preventing and managing mental health. Many GPs now prescribe physical activity for depression, either on its own or together with other treatments.It’s effective at both preventing onset of depression and managing symptoms.

Five ways to wellbeing – promoting positive mental health

The five ways to wellbeing was a campaign launched with the aim to promote positive wellbeing through five practical and manageable behaviours:

  1. Connect: social connection and relationships are fundamental to our human needs and critical for promoting wellbeing. Talk to someone, listen to others, find a few minutes in your day to connect with someone purposefully.
  2. Be active: regular physical activity has been shown to help support good mental health. This doesn’t need to be strenuous exercise, but gentle walks and moving your body whilst enjoying what you do can be hugely beneficial.
  3. Keep learning: continued learning enhances our self-esteem. Embracing new experiences and taking opportunities to engage in activities outside of work to learn, develop and feel a sense of achievement are all ideas associated with greater levels of wellbeing.
  4. Take notice: is about being in the present moment and noticing the small moments of joy in your day. Build your awareness about what you enjoy, what motivates you, what our values are and try making choices that bring your you closer to these things and have them part of day.
  5. Give: research has shown that helping others, giving back to others and giving back to your community can promote our own feelings of happiness. Try committing to an act of kindness once a week (these don’t need to be financial, but with time or resource), over a period of time and notice if your wellbeing shifts.

Five tips towards feeling better in rowing

  1. Start small – you don’t need to row hard and fast to feel better, just going out for a paddle, or doing a gentle row on the rowing machine, socialising with other members of the club can go a long way to help you feel better.
  2. Be kind to yourself – if you are doing more than you normally would, that’s a great step in the right direction. Keep a diary or share your achievements with a friend!
  3. Everyday things count too – it doesn’t have to be going out on the water, clearing out the boathouse, cleaning or tidying or even doing some gardening of the grounds also helps.
  4. Clear your head – taking part in physical activity gives you something else to concentrate on other than your unwanted thoughts or worries.
  5. Celebrate your achievements – reward yourself when you have done well!

girl carrying bow of boat

Spotting the Signs

This informative video from the English Institute of Sport shows you how to spot the signs of someone struggling with mental health, and how you can support them.

Mental Health First Aid

In a world where mental health is being more readily recognised as an area that needs greater support, it’s becoming clearer that we need as many Mental Health First Aiders as we do physical First Aiders.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a training course which teaches people how to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue.

MHFA won’t teach you to be a therapist, but it will teach you to listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis – and even potentially stop a crisis from happening.

What’s more, you’ll gain an understanding of how to support positive wellbeing and tackle stigma in the world around you.

Find out more about Mental Health First Aid Training

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Seeking Help for your Mental Health


Talking to a family member, a friend, someone you trust, can be helpful and sometimes a really good starting point. For those who may be on the other end of the conversation, don’t force them to talk, listen don’t judge and let them know that you and others are there for them.


Speaking with your GP can be a helpful first point of contact for seeking help. GPs have a good general knowledge of mental health problems and can also be a gateway to specialist’s mental health services.


IAPT or ‘Improving access to psychological therapists’ is an NHS online self-referral programme. You can find out more about it here.

Private Referrals

Local Services

There are a range of different support services and local groups that target specific difficulties such as bereavement and alcoholics anonymous. These groups may vary across different geographical regions. Speaking to your GP or conducting an internet search may be able to provide you with further detail to meet your needs.

Self-Help Resources

There are a wide range of self-help resources available. The following are recommended as a quality assured signpost:

Helplines, Charities and Organisations

CALM’s helpline is for men in the UK who are down or have hit a wall, who need to talk or find information and support. Webchat is available.
Nationwide: 0800 585858
London: 0808 8025858
5pm –midnight 365 days a year

ChildLine is a private and confidential service for children and young people up to the age of 19.
0800 1111
24 hours / 7 days

Mind provides confidential mental health information services.
0300 123 3393
Mon-Fri 9am – 5pm

Young Minds
Young Minds is a charity that supports children and young peoples (under 25 years) mental health. Resources, information, training, helpline and email contact available.
Parent helpline: 0808 802 5544
Young person crisis: Text YM to 85258
Mon-Fri 9:30am – 4pm

Under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings, or you are concerned about a young person.
0800 068 414
Mon-Fri: 10am – 10pm
Sat-Sun and bank hol: 2pm-10pm

Confidential, non-judgmental emotional support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair.
116 123
24 hours / 7 days

Saneline is a national mental health helpline providing information and support to people with mental health problems and those who support them.
0300 304 7000
4:30pm – 10:30pm Every day

A free, confidential and anonymous service for anyone in the UK which won’t appear on your phone bill. To start a conversation text the word ‘SHOUT’ to 85258
24/7 helpline

Provides expert advice and information to people with mental health problems and those who care for them.
0300 5000 927
Mon-Fri 9:30am – 4pm

Emergency and Crisis Support

In an emergency or a situation where you think that you, or someone you know, is at risk of harm to themselves or others:

  1. Call 999 for emergency response or attend the Accident and Emergency department if there is an immediate risk of harm
  2. Call the local GP and request an emergency appointment
  3. Call 111 for advice when help is needed but not a 999 emergency. For example, if:
    You think the person needs to go to A&E or needs help from a crisis team
    You don’t know who to call or you don’t have a GP to call
    You need health information or reassurance about what to do next.

Workplace support

Speaking with your Line Manager of Human Resources Manager could open up a range of support options for you and future mental health support. In most cases, organisations have access to private employee confidential helplines or resources ready to access.