Have you noticed that elite sportspeople have started speaking out about their mental health? Perhaps you have an opinion about that? Maybe it feels like they’re just whining about losing, and they need to grow a backbone?
From Tyson Fury, Joe Marler, Jonny Wilkinson, and Dame Kelly Holmes, the list of sportspeople opening up about their mental health challenges may come as a surprise. And with the recent self-withdrawal of gymnast Simone Biles from the Tokyo Olympics, the mental health of elite sportspeople is in the news.
In this article, we will explore the impacts of training, performance, notoriety, and retirement on elite sportspeople, asking what can be done to better cater to the mental health needs of sportspeople in training and practice.
Why we should start talking about mental health in sport
At school, sports were compulsory for the majority of us. And those of us who have gladly relegated team sports to the annals of unfortunate memory probably have painful recollections of being the last one picked for the team: the humiliation.
And this, at the most basic level, crystallises the pressures of elite sportspeople – even if our own performance was considerably short of the mark.
Participation in sport is about being chosen – being the best – and sustaining continuous improvement to maintain your position on a very tenuous pedestal. Each time a professional sportsperson performs, they risk losing. And when the stakes are so high (and the audience so vocal), losing represents a colossal plummet to the ground.
Sportspeople are expected to continually exceed their best performance in training; nothing other than improvement is acceptable. That involves a lot of failure and inevitable injury.
In short, there is tremendous and perpetual pressure on sportspeople to perform and to win.
The highs and lows of winning and losing
Consider the pressure felt by each player in the penalty shoot-out during England’s Euro 2020 football final. For those players who succeeded in scoring during those tense closing moments, they walked away triumphant.
But for Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka, those few seconds in their lifetimes were potentially defining. And a glimpse at social media minutes afterwards affirmed the aftermath for those unlucky players.
Physical strength does not necessarily equate to mental strength. And training rarely prepares a sportsperson for the lows they will undoubtedly experience countless times throughout their careers.
Michael Jordan famously said:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Indeed, losing is part of winning, but it seems that there’s no place for mental vulnerability in the journey to physical strength.
Joe Marler is a professional English rugby union player, known for his relentless pursuit of victory. He describes his own reputation as “the pantomime villain”: unpredictable, ruthless, tough, and uncompromising.
Working within the hyper-macho world of rugby, he eventually withdrew from the England squad’s 2019 tour of Australia due to an overwhelming mental health condition that affected his family life as well as his ability to perform professionally.
Joe talks of his depression, which eventually led him to withdraw from the game in the Sky Sports documentary, Big Boys Don’t Cry. The documentary follows his therapeutic journey, addressing the triggers that have exacerbated his condition.
Dame Kelly Holmes
Dame Kelly Holmes first spoke out about her mental health challenges in 2005, after experiencing crushing depression following injury that resulted in self-harm.
But, at the time, nobody in the industry was listening. It has taken until very recently for the recognition of the mental pressures of training and performance to be taken seriously.
Mental Health in Elite Athletes (2019, Purcell, Gwyther & Rice) explores the mental health and wellbeing impacts experienced by high-profile sportspeople, suggesting that mental health literacy and early-sign recognition of mental ill-health are imperative for improved sustained high-performance.
“Mental health literacy” is a key term used throughout the report, calling for a new intervention model to help recognise the mental health needs of training and performing athletes.
Their recommendations include a range of self-management skills to help manage the intrinsic psychological distress resulting in sports participation, along with coaching approaches that integrate mental health support with physical performance.
They discovered no existing comprehensive model of care supporting mental health in most sports organisations, with a range of recommendations to change this current oversight.
The mental health triggers for sportspeople
The principal triggers for episodes of poor mental health in sportspeople include:
- Sports-related injury and involuntary/unplanned retirement
- Performance failure and the pressure to continually win
- Overtraining syndrome
- The stress of being a role model
- The possibility of disappointing teams and fans
- General life events involving relationships and finances
- Poor sleep
- The upheaval and isolation of extended performance-related travel
- The post-retirement void
How to support the mental health of sportspeople
Purcell, Gwyther & Rice (2019) suggest that support for sportspeople should begin during the junior development years by nurturing more supportive relationships with coaches and parents.
But their key recommendation is cultural: tackling the stigma and negative attitudes towards help-seeking. And this, inevitably, starts with coaches who can create a non-stigmatised environment that normalises help-seeking and mental health literacy programmes.
What is Mental Health Literacy?
The term Mental health literacy refers to the knowledge and understanding of mental disorders, recognising the conditions that trigger, manage, and prevent the effects of mental ill-health.
This includes the ability to:
- Recognise disorders as they occur, and
- The know how to seek help and information, understand treatments, and be aware of the various risks
Sportspeople speaking out
Dame Kelly Holmes, in conversation with ITV’s Loose Women, discussed the dangers of denial when it comes to poor mental health. She explained that her self-harm behaviours – in part – helped her cope with her silent struggle with depression. She discusses how – had she known how to seek help – she could have prevented a lot of her suffering.
Jonny Wilkinson recently publicly spoke about his mental health challenges at the height of his career. He suffered anxiety, panic attacks, and depression as he pushed himself to the limits while seeking performance perfection. In an interview with Shortlist, he explains how his total focus and dedication meant he overlooked essential parts of his life.
Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty publicly announced that he intended to take time-out to mentally recouperate after the Tokyo Olympics. He explained that “it isn’t a normal job. There is a huge amount of pressure.”
He went on to explain in an interview with the BBC that he was intending to take a break because he had “been going extremely hard” for as long as he could remember. I”ve averaged two weeks off a year for the last seven years.
There was social media backlash to his decision. He lated Tweeted:
How can we help?
Sport England has been promoting the mental health benefits of sport for many years by partnering with mental health charities such as Mind to help improve the general population’s mental health through participation in sports and wellbeing activities. But is enough being done to protect the mental health of professional and training sportspeople?
For the moment, mental health remains largely stigmatised within professional and amateur sporting environments. And we think that it’s time to take stock and recognise the stresses sportspeople experience when they pursue their dream of sporting success.
But it’s not just the existing players who suffer from poor mental health. There’s a prevalence of mental health disorders in retired sportspeople, with 16% reporting issues with distress and over a quarter admitting to episodes of prolonged anxiety and depression.
Is the sporting world honouring its duty of care for participants in high-profile performance sports?
SupportRoom is an online platform that connects individuals and businesses with qualified therapists from their smartphones, tablets, and desktop/laptop computers. We recognise the importance of supporting athletes in their training – our mission is to make mental health support accessible for everyone, including para-athletes.
We believe that not enough is being done to recognise the pressures that sportspeople experience due to their training and competition and want to make therapeutic support accessible to all.