‘I’ve grown up in my sport with the impression I was meant to be a superhero. You’re supposed to be able to handle things. You are in high pressure situations so you are convinced you should be able to handle those situations yourself, so it is hard to get help, it is admitting you have a weakness.’- Natasha Danvers (Olympic 400m hurdler).
One in four individuals will experience a mental health problem each year (Mind, 2015), so it should not come as a surprise that sports people will experience these issues too. However, talking about mental health problems is traditionally seen as a taboo in sport. Recently, Clarke Carlisle former chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association revealed he had been trying to take his own life when he was hit by a lorry in December 2014, following an 18-month battle with depression since retiring from the game. Highlighting that mental illness is indiscriminate, with no respect for position, standing or sporting form. Conversely, perception indicates that sports people are mentally tougher, fitter and healthier than others- elevating them to a superhero status. Thus, making it harder to seek help because showing vulnerability is seen as showing weakness.
Mental health issues are not always visible and many athletes might not admit how they feel. For example, ex-England cricketer Mike Yardy commented that with his experience of depression he become a very good actor instead of admitting his feelings. Moreover, issues can come on steadily or be with the individual for several years. Individuals may deal with symptoms without fully recognising them, until a trigger causes symptoms to surface on a more powerful and negative scale, for example, retiring from boxing acted as a trigger for Frank Bruno’s depression.
Through athletes such as Mike Yardy revealing the difficulties they have faced, a message is sent to other sports people that it is okay to talk about mental health. Through discussion, athletes can develop self-awareness about well-being and begin to recognise triggers that could cause symptoms which potentially could have a negative impact.
Within sport there is now a great appetite for addressing mental health issues; however sports people such as Clarke Carlisle have deemed support to be inadequate. Sport can be an uncertain and changeable environment and support is key in mitigating the impact of such a unique working environment on an individual’s mental health and well-being.
Research by Mind (n.d) into elite sportsmen/women’s mental health has found that more needs to be done to pro-actively support athletes especially at key transition points (e.g. retirement); coaches and managers need to engage and understand the value of mental health and well-being to support athletes. Furthermore, by educating coaches they can see that dealing with problems early can be not only be beneficial for an athlete’s personal well-being but for sporting performance as well.
Often as sport psychologists we may be the first to observe mental health issues, nevertheless, we must remember that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to addressing mental health in sport. Highlighting a value of establishing a pan mental health network; which enables the sharing and cascading of good practice, helping to create an environment where all sports people can fulfil their potential.
Thankfully, we are talking more about mental health issues in sport; however we need to be more pro-active in the provision of support and build upon existing initiatives. Sports people might have extraordinary jobs but they are not infallible superheroes. We are all born with mental and physical health and just like our bodies our minds can become unwell too. Asking for help for your mental health is nothing to be ashamed of and it is not admitting weakness. You might require a break to heal as would with a physical injury; however, there is a route back; recovery does happen!
“However bad life may seem, while there is life, there is hope”– Stephen Hawking
Mind. (n.d.). Performance matters: Mental health in elite sport. Retrieved from http://www.mind.org.uk/media/1085139/Mental-Health-and-Elite-Sport.pdf
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About Nicole Wiggins
University of Portsmouth Graduate. BSc Sport & Exercise Science and MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology