It is the the middle of the COVID lockdown period.
Martin Yelling and I are sat in our respective homes chatting over Skype but both with one eye on our children who scurry around in the background. Martin’s eyes widen as he watches his children clamber up a tree just as a storm erupts. His face lights up in fascination at their next move, intrigued by their movement whilst happy to let them work this one out. The situation feels ironic given I am interviewing the founder of Stormbreak, a charity on a mission to improve children’s mental health through movement.
Martin’s career includes an impressive array of achievements, but he downplays his sporting success describing hanging on to the coattails of his wife Liz and his sister Hayley. Perhaps understandable when your wife represented Great Britain at two Olympic Games and your sister was once described as “the most successful British cross country athlete of all time”.
But Martin was an England international cross country runner and a sub 30min 10km runner. Add to this a catalogue of academic qualifications in physical activity, hosting the hugely popular podcast Marathon Talk and founding a coaching consultancy. In short, Martin is incredibly well equipped to be advising on the use of movement for better mental health.
“I was lucky that my participation in elite sport was something that supported my childhood and led into positive adulthood experiences through endurance sports. For the first 30 years, my focus was always on performance gains but, for most of my adult life, I have been exercising to support my physical and mental health. When I realised that the majority of my life won’t be spent exercising for performance, I started to wonder why we solely focus on that in education”.
Stormbreak is not just on a mission to increase the amount of time children spend exercising.
Whilst that is a welcome bi-product of their approach, Martin explains that this has never been about counting steps and increasing participation rates. The charity aims to improve children’s mental health through movement, equipping them with transferable skills and coping strategies to help them thrive during the complex demands of growth into adult life.
My personal mental health ebs and flows and I’m a grown up
“We know that children’s experiences track with them through life and we also know there is an increase in incidents of children reporting mental health issues. Yet I am still seeing things in primary education that haven’t changed over the last 20 years. My personal mental health ebs and flows and I’m a grown up. For me and lots of people I know, movement has been a key vehicle to help us understand how to put simple steps in place that will support and shape our mental health.
A stormbreak is a period of mentally healthy movement embedded into the life of the child in their school every single day. They are short 15 minute practices which coach children how to understand their mental health, how to understand their responses and how to regulate them. Essentially to give themselves a break from the storm, so when they go home and a million things are kicking off they have some coping strategies.”
Whilst Stormbreak is a small charity that has only been going for two years, it has been embedded in twenty schools across Hampshire and Dorset. The initial idea came from Martin, but it has been designed, backed and implemented by an impressive range of experts.
“I couldn’t do this on my own so pulled together a team of teachers, CAMHS experts, nurse practitioners, psychologists and movement specialists. We fleshed out a program to work with school staff that supports them to deliver movement for mental health and not just for physical health and fitness. We built a model that uses movement to improve resilience, relationships, self-worth, self-care, hope and optimism,
Unfortunately for many children, home is not a safe space. We want to have healthy children and happy environments but that is incredibly complicated. Try explaining that to a child whose home life is in crisis. Simply running around won’t fix that. Maybe there is some temporary escapism, moments where the mental stress subsides a little. But if we can show these kids that moving around and taking a stormbreak can give them the time and a method to process their emotions, then that is an incredibly positive step.”
Empowerment is a word that crops up several times in the conversation.
Martin is adamant that the principles and applications of Stormbreak must be embedded in the culture of the school but delivered by the staff themselves.
“We don’t go into a school to say “we are going to improve the mental health of your children”. Our role is to empower and enable organisational change. Our first job is to explain what Stormbreak is about and then we try and change the entire culture in that school. We work with the leadership team, lunchtime supervisors, pastoral carers and class teachers. We try and shift the perception around mental health and movement across the whole school. We’ve established foundations, rules of engagement and core domains on mental health but we want you to deliver it through Stormbreak. We empower the teacher to decide how best to implement it.”
If I am coaching running or triathlon, my goal is to make myself redundant.
“If I’m coaching running or triathlon, my goal is to make myself redundant. That’s not lofty if you are driven by financial aspirations or have a big ego, but if those things don’t motivate you, you can really support or empower an athlete to do something in their life in a way in which they thought they couldn’t. You help them find a different solution.
My coaching philosophy is a relational one.
If we happen to improve your running, that’s fantastic but if we also support your life through your running then that is a wonderful outcome. You have no more value as a human if you run faster. Your identity is not shaped by your finish time. You might feel like it is, but it isn’t.
My coaching usually starts with “I want to run faster” but typically we end up having a human-coach relationship. We use running to work through illness, relationships and challenges. Often people get faster too, as when you focus on process over outcome, you generally achieve the outcome.
Your identity is not shaped by your finish time
You only have to look at Parkrun to see how running or just moving can support someone’s life. That is now backed by significant research supporting movement for better mental health.
Those of us who exercise regularly know the benefits to our mental health and shouldn’t keep it to ourselves. It is almost negligent to not tell people. Our role is not too preach to the converted, we need to preach to the people who say “You’ll never get me in that pool, I hate exercise”. Those are the personal stories that carry real weight .”
Join the Stormbreak Summer Challenge.
This summer Stormbreak are inviting schools, children and families to take part in the Stormbreak summer challenge. An interactive, fun and simple way for families and children to develop mental and emotional well-being skills through movement with the support of BBC Children in Need,
Sign up on the website today www.stormbreak.org.uk