Mental Health: Olympian Leon Taylor's top tips for managing mental health

Leon Taylor (left) and Pete Waterfield with their Olympic silver medals after competing in the 10m synchro diving in Athens 2004
Leon Taylor (left) and Pete Waterfield with their Olympic silver medals after competing in the 10m synchro diving in Athens 2004

Great Britain's Olympic diver Leon Taylor was hyperactive and labelled a 'problem child' by the family GP.

Leon's parents tried to tire him out rather than use medication, and that's when his love of activity and appreciation of the benefits began.

During his competitive career and in the past 10 years as a mentor and coach, Leon has learned some valuable lessons about coping with stress.

Here are his five tips for managing your mental health.

1. Find your movement

We spend too much time in our heads and we need to get back into our body. Thinking isn't always the solution. We need to move more!

  • Moving our bodies, even a little, changes everything. Fascinating things happen in the brain when we move.
  • In the short term, by moving we change our state, boosting our mood and disrupting the build-up of stress. Do something simple; get up and go for a walk or change your posture and the rhythm of your breath.

Longer-term exercise changes the brain to improve self-esteem.

  • Make sure you enjoy whatever the movement is. Joy is the magic ingredient. Diving was clearly my movement but during my career I fell into depression until a mentor asked me 'Why do you do this sport?' ... Because I enjoy it!
  • Be creative: Play, dance, shake, swim, run, dive, kick a ball or go to an early morning sober rave.

2. Get out of your head and on to a piece of paper

When our head is busy, it's very difficult to know where to start. Write down what's on your mind.

  • When everything is on paper it seems more manageable.
  • Then be honest - delete the things outside your control.
  • Write down the first step towards a solution - I always have a pen and paper next to my bed.
Leon Taylor trying a variety of sports and activities as a youngster
Leon watched the Olympics Games on the TV in 1984 - when he was six - and told his dad that he wanted to go

3. Breathe deeply

The first thing that happens when I get stressed is I stop breathing properly. Practices like yoga and martial arts have shared the importance of breathing for thousands of years. Bring conscious awareness to your breath and deepen it.

  • Breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of four - in and out through your nose while breathing into your belly as well as your chest.
  • Do this and notice the effect it has on your calmness.
  • At the back of the 10m diving board, I would take a big inhale and exhale to steady my nerves before walking to the end.

4. Do something for someone else

If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else. Make being kind to others a habit.

  • An act of kindness can shift our state as the brain releases endorphins and other chemicals associated with lifting our mood.
  • I find this is even more impactful when you don't know the person. So, let the other driver out at the junction, or help someone with their suitcase.

5. Smile and laugh often

Laughing releases mood-boosting chemicals. Take a moment to recall a funny moment.

  • Start with a smile. Even if you fake a smile the brain starts to believe you are happy releasing the 'happy' chemicals that spur actual feelings of happiness.
  • Try it when you are feeling blue for whatever reason.

I was running in Italy. It was raining and my shoes didn't have enough grip so I was slipping everywhere. I didn't want to smile so I snapped a stick and bit on it forcing the same muscles as a smile. It was enough to lift my mood and I was able to laugh at my predicament. And as Charlie Chaplin reminds us "a day without laughter is a day wasted".