What We Learnt About Mental Health From Elite Athletes This Summer
This summer, sports became a beacon to hold our focus while the world continued to flip and tilt with uncertainty. Wimbledon, Euro 2020, Formula 1, the Tokyo Games: sports in 2021 have enthralled spectators, giving us the chance to experience relatable emotions, collectively, in the face of much that has been abnormal and solitary.
What’s more, these events have been a platform for more than just sporting achievement. First Ms Naomi Osaka, currently number three in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, withdrew from the French Open rather than compromise on her decision to skip the post-match press conferences that exacerbate her social anxiety. Ms Simone Biles, the most decorated living gymnast, withdrew from the team competition and all but one of her individual events in Tokyo, explaining that her mind and body were not in sync. Mr Adam Peaty became the first British swimmer to defend his Olympic title, then announced he was taking a month’s break to mentally recharge. Mr Ben Stokes, the cricket all-rounder dubbed England’s talisman, started an indefinite break from all forms of cricket less than a month before England’s Test series against India and just seven months after the death of his father.
Athletes, revered for their drive and toughness, were setting boundaries and saying no to what was harming their mental wellbeing. Reaction was mixed. But their decision to take a step back has stepped up the pressure to reframe the conversation around mental health. For Mr Sam Cumming, head of mental health at the English Institute of Sport (EIS), it’s been a positive move: “We sometimes misattribute ‘superhuman’ status to these athletes and forget that they are still ordinary people, albeit achieving the extraordinary. It is a good reminder to us all that we should prioritise both our physical and mental health to sustain performance in our endeavours.”
Here, then, are seven lessons we can learn from the world-class athletes who are leading the way in championing good mental health and wellbeing.
Reflect with empathy
According to the UK Office of National Statistics, our wellbeing is currently in decline as we try to reset under the longtail of Covid-19. “The brain loves familiarity because familiarity equals safety,” explains Mr Kevin George, a clinical consultant and counsellor specialising in emotional literacy, and author of Soccology. “But [in the] pandemic, our routine was snatched away and we were being asked to stay in what is usually the safest space, home. It’s created a level of discomfort and anxiety that is tied to being in our homes.”
Dr Jennifer Serlin, a licensed psychologist whose specialisms include sport psychology, tells us: “It’s interesting, thinking about Simone Biles, because we’re experiencing collective ‘twisties’ now as we head into this new phase. We’re a bit horizonless and don’t know where we’re going to land. That’s incredibly disorienting. It’s important we acknowledge that this is hard and that we don’t have a road map.”
“We have used the analogy of everyone experiencing the same storm in different boats – the pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone and we’ve all had our unique experience and response,” says Cumming. “Because we are experiencing the same storm in different boats, it is important that we interact with others using empathy rather than judgement.”
Build in more balance
Peaty’s decision to take a break following what he described as “going extremely hard for as long as I can remember” should be an essential part of a healthy approach to work and life, whatever work might be. “You’re seeing it in all sports now,” Peaty explained, after his win. “Mental health matters. It is about getting the balance right at that elite level.” For Cumming, making rest part of your routine is essential. “We can’t live in a high-pressure environment indefinitely, so it’s important to balance that high pressure with the appropriate dose of support and recovery.
Peaty will use his break to “recharge his batteries,” connect with those close to him and have some time to reflect. This relaxation and recovery time (both mental and physical) plays a key role in providing the balance that allows athletes to return to these high-pressure environments with renewed purpose and motivation.
We need to challenge the expectation of perfection that comes with today’s lifestyle, says Serlin. “We need to shift from an endurance attitude, where we are expected to be ‘on’ all the time, to working in sprints and then taking time to recover… We need to build in more balance so it becomes OK to recognise and admit: ‘Today is not going to be my A game, so what does good enough look like?’”
Set supportive boundaries
“Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted,” Osaka said in a statement earlier this year. “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.” Witnessing the 23-year-old navigate through work obligations that exacerbated her depression raises the question: how do you cope in an environment that isn’t set up to support you? In situations like this, Serlin urges us to take stock of our feelings and use that data, rather than external expectations, to guide our actions. “Practise checking your emotional vitals. Pause and ask yourself: ‘Where am I at? What’s going on for me emotionally? What’s happening for me physiologically? How do I reset into the centre?’”
The more we do this, Serlin explains, the more connected we become to ourselves. “We realise, as Osaka did for example, that ‘I’m an introvert so this is difficult for me’. We recognise that the system is the problem rather than doing what we do all too often and internalising it as something wrong with us. Setting that boundary allows us to discover how to exert our agency and play to our strengths. And if you are in a position of power, call it out – just because this is how things have always been done, does not mean that this is how things should be done, or that it is the best way to do things.”
Cultivate happiness from within
“It isn’t a normal job. There is a huge amount of pressure. Money does not buy happiness,” Peaty said, after reading negative responses to his decision to prioritise his mental health.
An undercurrent to criticism of athletes speaking out was the belief that success and a big pay packet mean you can’t be unhappy. “It’s partly due to the way information is given to us, explains George. “If I was still playing football today, one of the first things to happen is that I would lose my name. Rather than: ‘Kevin goes to the shops’, the papers would write: ‘£100,000-a-week player Kevin goes to the shops.’ Now Tony from down the road thinks: ‘I’m in a pandemic with all this stress and this guy is on £100,000!’”
For Serlin, this is compounded by the ideas we hold around happiness. “The myth of ‘I’ll be happy when…’ is often connected to success. ‘I’ll be happy when I’m in a committed relationship’ or ‘I’ll be happy when I make X amount of money.’ When people have these successes we think they have happiness, so how can they say they’re suffering? These things give us a happiness boost for a while, then we go back to our baseline. So, while we’d all love to win the lottery, it won’t make us happy because that’s an inside job.”
Can we raise our baseline happiness? “There are strategies,” says Serlin. “One of my favourites is identifying three positives from your day. My family does it over dinner but you could write yours down – to get the benefit, you need to get them out. It retrains our minds to look for what is good. There’s a lot of data that indicates wherever you are on the wellbeing or depression spectrum, this takes you up in a positive direction.”
Become a better ally
The England Men’s Cricket team rallied around Stokes, following his decision to take a break. “Ben has shown tremendous courage to open up about his feelings,” said England managing director Mr Ashley Giles. “Our primary focus has always been and will continue to be the mental health and welfare of all of our people.”
Mental-health issues in sport are not new. What is new and positive are the conversations being had. “There’s a book on my shelves called Coming Back To Me. It’s the autobiography of ex-England cricketer Marcus Trescothick,” says Mr Michael Caulfield, one of the UK’s leading sports psychologist. “The book is over 10 years old and in the opening chapter, Marcus recounts having a breakdown at Heathrow Airport. He tried to board a plane and join his teammates in Dubai, but something snapped and he couldn’t do it. Marcus was the pioneer for this in cricket, opening up, saying: ‘I struggle.’ Now, whether it’s Ben Stokes, Tom Daley, Helen Richardson-Walsh or Gareth Southgate, we talk about it in a way we wouldn’t have a decade ago. We may still be at base camp, but that’s better than not having a go at all, because there’s a huge mountain range of problems to conquer.
“In mental health, so much is about timing – if you ask at the wrong time, if you give advice at the wrong time, if you judge at the wrong time, you’re done for good. I’m old enough to know myself pretty well so I’m likely to spot the signs that things are not right with me – not sleeping, overeating and drinking, under loving. But when you’re 21, or even 31 or 41, you’re still figuring yourself out. Sometimes, we need to help others spot the symptoms. We need to ask if they’re OK. My golden rule is: I ask and I ask again. And then if I’m not sure, I’ll ask one more time and eventually, the person might say: ‘No, I’m not great.’”
Take a holistic approach
“We also have to focus on ourselves because at the end of the day, we’re human, too,” Biles told the press in July. We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
The negative reaction to accomplished athletes admitting they need time to release and recalibrate is an indication of the continued separation between mental health and our overall wellbeing. “To perform at such an elite level, you need to be in top-notch shape throughout, particularly when you’re taking a risk,” Serlin points out. “In speed climbing, if the harness started to fray, we would never expect an athlete to take a chance and climb up into the air. To my mind, that’s exactly what Simone Biles did. Her body, her whole self, is her instrument, and it needs to be whole, congruent and settled for her to perform. Ultimately we need to transition to where we no longer make this distinction between physical and mental health. It’s a false dichotomy – it’s health.”
Return to wellbeing basics
With all the complexity and challenge surrounding matters of mental health and wellbeing, Caulfield finds resilience in simplicity: “We all have a breaking point and it’s never normally the big thing, it’s just suddenly something snaps and you think: ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”
For Caulfield, what we have seen with our elite athletes reminds us how important it is to build our awareness of how we are when things are good for us and the signs that things are not. We also need to develop habits that boost our mental wellbeing. “We find ourselves in a really awkward moment and we all have to be careful that we don’t get snapped,” he says. “I think we need to realise there are no magic secrets or shiny things to solve mental wellbeing. I never move away from the basics: rest, diet, exercise, connectivity, sleeping and helping out. I have this list in my trusty notebook, and I always go back to it:
A. Connect with people – and not just on the internet, meet them outside.
B. The brain loves to learn new stuff so keep learning.
C. Keep active – for example, walk to the shops and back again rather than having things delivered to you.
D. Notice things (how much the grass has grown overnight or the colours of the sky at dusk): it means you’ve got your head up rather than down, looking at your feet the whole time. Body language plays a huge part in our lives.
E. Help and give back to people.
F. Eat better, rest better and sleep better. Because if you sleep, you have a good chance of surviving.”