I’ve learned so many lessons speaking to sports stars about their mental health

I’ve learned so many lessons speaking to sports stars about their mental health

May 12, 2021

I’ve had times when I’ve felt very alone in my self-doubt. An incredibly loud voice in my head relentlessly telling me that I am not enough would often strip me of any feelings at all.

In fact it’s been there ever since I can remember, at the start of a running race when I used to compete in junior athletics to the first time I stepped into a live studio and felt like everybody else’s voice was worth far more than mine.

I’d battle so hard, taking them on toe to toe, determined to win – not realising I was beating myself up in the process and squashing my emotions which ultimately made them want to fight and hit me even harder.

However, the more I learned to explore my own mental health and become more open about it (which has taken me a good while, by the way!), the more I realised that there are so many commonalities in the way we feel. 

I remember sitting in a mental health group a few years back, listening to someone else who almost took the words right out of my mouth about what was going on in my own head. 

It was a lightbulb moment: hang on, it’s not just me? 

The penny started to drop and I realised I wasn’t the only one who struggled mentally. 

That’s why I began to share more and be more honest with others and myself, allowing myself to sit with my feelings that I would normally keep at bay, tell my family and friends when I wasn’t ok – this can sometimes still be a work in progress – and post openly on social media.

It also sparked the need in me to explore what was going on for other people and share those stories.

In my career, I’ve interviewed a lot of sports people, but it was always in the context of achievement, results and highs. Less so the lows and reality away from the public perception of them and the perfection that their sport demands of them. 

But that was what fascinated me more than an athlete’s moment of euphoria – how did they get to that place? What kept them going when things were tough? 

Feeling it was time to disrupt the expected and find out about the struggles and the doubt behind the ‘brave face’, I started my podcast, My Sporting Mind.

I soon found that the same themes kept coming up, no matter who you are – self-doubt, anxiety, depression, dark moments. 

The struggle between exposing how you’re feeling and the stigma we face outwardly and the one inwardly from the judgement of ourselves. The ‘I should be able to cope with this, will people think I’m weak, damaged?’

The cutthroat nature of sport seems to lend itself to that negative connotation of failure. 

One guest I spoke to about it was England rugby player, Chris Robshaw, as it was something that drove him to a very dark place in his life. 

He captained his country in the worst World Cup campaign ever by a host nation in 2015. After, he was depressed for a long time and told me, ‘I had nothing behind the eyes. I was going through the motions.’  

Chris didn’t want to go outside anymore and broke down in a flood of emotions that he’d been trying to control. 

Going back over his career he said it’s been ‘up and down, up and down the whole way.’ 

We discussed how people don’t seem to like uncertainty, so we desperately try and take control of things, and prevent the downs. 

Unfortunately no matter how hard we try there are so many factors out of our control and if we hold on too tight to everything it can cause a real sense of resistance, anger and frustration. 

So many of the athletes I’ve spoken to talked about this and used the phrase ‘control the controllables.’ 

It may sound simple but it works. Instead of trying to control everything in times of anxiety and uncertainty, control what is actually in your control. 

Right now athletes are training for the Olympics, some haven’t even had the chance to compete to qualify, never mind the fact whether the Games are actually going to go ahead or not. It’s incredible how athletes have adapted and stayed motivated. 

When I first really thought about this ‘control the controllables’ concept I was running 250 miles for charity to 40 different football clubs and I was struggling. I had a dodgy stomach, at one point I had to sprint into a kebab shop in Rochdale to use their toilet. I had hardly eaten anything and was sucking on an After Eight mint to convince my brain I had the energy to keep going and, wait for it, it started to snow whilst I was running over hilly moors still miles away from my end goal for the day, Leeds. 

A friend of mine who works in performance with Premier League footballers said to me the night before as I ran onto the pitch at Anfield, Liverpool’s ground for the Merseyside Derby ‘control the controllables, think about what you can control and shape it.’ 

Gritting my teeth whilst I dragged my feet and listened to the complaining in my head that everything was against me, I also remembered my friend’s words: control the controllables.

I knew I couldn’t control the fact it was snowing or that my guts felt like they were about to fall out but ‘I can control how I approach this and what I need to help me get through this.’ 

I smiled, told the team how I was feeling and then put some music on that I love, telling myself ‘I can do this’. And I did – even though the snow got worse! 

Chris Robshaw also talked about how sport, even team sport, can be a lonely place, especially when going through an injury. 

He made a really good point which is something I’ve thought a lot about myself, saying:  ‘I’m not a massive sharer, I have to work on that and improve. You have to be willing to share… don’t wait for someone else to do it, it’s sometimes very hard to see when someone is struggling. Reach out.’ 

I know we hear ‘speak out’ ‘talk to someone’ quite often in mental health awareness campaigns, it’s something I’ve always whispered under my breath with a ‘it’s not as simple as that’, as it’s actually really very difficult to do when you’re depressed because part of the illness makes you go inside yourself.

 I liked the way Chris put it, as I’m also not the best at reaching out, when I’m struggling I tend to go quiet and close off but it’s challenged me to recognise those feelings, and to reach out to someone before it gets harder to do so. 

It reminded me of chatting to Rotherham United manager Paul Warne, who talked about letting out his emotions and how important that is for him. ‘The dark holes are dark – but I need to feel the defeat to get the group going and motivated again.’ 

The job of a football manager is a fascinating one and absolutely brutal. It all ends up at the managers door, no matter what happens. There can be so many other factors at stake but if a team loses, it’s straight away ‘the manager will go.’ 

Interestingly Paul spoke about not being a prisoner of success, a quote he uses with his staff at the club. Just because something is going right it doesn’t mean it can’t change. 

I heard something in a similar vein when hosting a chat with former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward, the one thing he kept going over was ‘be a sponge,’ soak everything up, learn from things and keep on learning.  

Paul said he struggles with defeat but sees it is a strength to push change. Harnessing that I reckon is the key, and I’m talking in everyday life not just on a sports pitch. When things don’t go right, an opportunity doesn’t happen, a job is a no, it feels like such a rejection. 

However, switching that to: yes, feel the disappointment and hurt feelings but know that things change and so many other factors come into play. Rather than beating ourselves up with a stick over and over again.

Out of the 45 interviews on My Sporting Mind so far, with a complete range of sports people, one thing kept coming up again and again: routine – and the fact it is crucial, having a focus, a purpose to the day and structure. 

Every single athlete I’ve ever spoken to says how important this is for their mental health and the importance of having other things in their life, something other than their sport, so their entire self-worth doesn’t hinge on whether they win or not. 

GB race walker and multi world recorder holder Tom Bosworth found that this led him on a very self-destructive path to the point of suicide attempts. His achievements defined how he felt about himself, if he achieved he felt good, if he didn’t it felt like his whole world was crashing down around him. 

Tom talked about how low he felt and that when he was feeling low or suicidal, he found that 1% he had in his life outside of his sport that he enjoyed and held on to that and found more of it, so that his worth didn’t all come down to how he did in a race.

I’ve managed to nearly write a whole article on mental health without mentioning social media but if I didn’t I’d be doing a disservice to every single one of us.

It does have an impact on our mental health no matter who you are and it’s a big problem in sport, especially amongst younger sports people who suffer so much abuse and criticism. 

Imagine every day walking down the street and people shouting vitriol at you about everything you were doing in your life. Constant judgement.

Australian cricket coach, Justin Langer spoke a lot about this: ‘If I could give any young player any advice –  actually, if I could give anyone any advice that is in the public eye – it is zero social media. I say that because I don’t need any stranger telling me how good I am and more importantly I don’t need strangers telling me how bad I am because I know if I am playing well, I know if I am playing poorly. 

‘I don’t need strangers telling me that. What I do need is the people who I respect, my family and friends, they will let me know. You talk about mental health, you have to be so flipping tough if you think you can get through that and you learn about that through wisdom and experience.’

Swansea City defender Ryan Bennett said something similar, that football is a self-doubt industry anyway.  ‘You are always going in your head doubting you, and you have other people doubting you,’ he told me.

Over the years I’ve learned that it’s crucial to listen to the people you trust and value, not the people who don’t know you, or cause you to doubt yourself. 

Be kind to yourself. We all have that self critic, but what about training it to be more supportive and compassionate?

This has been essential in my mental health and being able to take my life where I want it to.  

My favourite pieces of advice from guests

 I’ve gathered a few key quotes from some pretty amazing people from my podcast that I hope help in some way, whatever you are facing in your life. One thing I can guarantee is that whatever you’re feeling you are not the only one.

Amber Reed, England rugby player – ‘Ask someone three times how they are. The third time is when you’ll get the honest answer.

Justin Langer, Australia cricket coach – ‘No matter how bad life gets, you CAN get through it! When that sun comes up in the morning, you have a choice whether to like it or not.’

Dan Evans, British no. 1 tennis player – ‘It’s not as bad as it seems at the time.’

Ellie Simmonds OBE, 5 time Paralympic champion  – ‘The power of self acceptance’

Ellyse Perry, Australian cricketer – ‘If everything’s important, nothings important.’

Jonny May, England rugby player- ‘Choose persistence over perfection. Be in the moment and focus on the process.’

Oisin Murphy, champion jockey – ‘Things change and life revolves, constantly.’

Jo Pavey MBE, GB long-distance runner- ‘You can only do your best. Be proud of that.’

Zharnel Hughes, British sprinter – ‘Keep inspired and be patient.’

Mark Warburton, QPR manager – ‘Talk to your friends about how you feel. Don’t talk and hold back what you want to say, because then you’ll feel worse and more isolated.’

Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover

This year, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Metro.co.uk has invited eight well-known mental health advocates to take over our site.

With a brilliant team that includes Alex Beresford, Russell Kane, Frankie Bridge, Anton Ferdinand, Sam Thompson, Scarlett Moffatt, Katie Piper and Joe Tracini, each of our guest editors have worked closely with us to share their own stories, and also educate, support and engage with our readers.

If you need help or advice for any mental health matter, here are just some of the organisations that were vital in helping us put together our MHAW Takeover:

  • Mental Health Foundation
  • Rethink Mental Illness
  • Samaritans
  • Mind

To contact any of the charities mentioned in the Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover click here

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