THE GAME 29 Aug 19

Mental Health in Sport

Mental Health in Sport

Former Great Britain and England international and Olympic Gold medalist Helen Richardson-Walsh is currently studying for a Masters in Organisational Psychology. Here she discusses the relationship between mental health and sport. 

When you hear the term ‘mental health’, what do you think about? I get the impression that most of our brains tend to automatically imagine mental ill health, such as depression or anxiety; I know mine does. It’s understandable to a certain degree that this has become the default, as the majority of what we hear about in the media is the negative side of mental health. Unfortunately though, over decades, or even centuries of negative press, this has lead to an unwillingness to talk about mental health due to the stigma that accompanies it; thankfully this is beginning to change.

As with physical health, we all have mental health, or a level of psychological well-being. Again, as with physical health, I believe we all sit somewhere on a spectrum from mentally well to unwell, and most of us have the potential to slide down that continuum throughout our lives due to the various life stressors that affect us all at some point along the way. What I’ve come to learn is that there are steps we can take to slide up the scale as well, to ensure we stay well, and continue to contribute productively to our families, work and communities.

Unfortunately, I had to find this out the hard way and that’s part of the reason why I’m so passionate about this subject. I was part of the England and GB team for 17 years, which is a long time to be in a demanding and competitive environment. There were plenty of highs but also many lows, mainly for me involving injury.

From my experience within sport through the noughties, us athletes spent all our time maintaining and improving our physical health. Mental health wasn’t even on the radar; it genuinely just didn’t exist in anyone’s world at that point, so there certainly wasn’t any support for us. In all honesty though I didn’t think I needed it. I just used to love playing hockey, and being someone with a relentless ambition to be the best I could be, when it was taken away from me on numerous occasions, it hit me pretty hard.

I slid right down the spectrum towards mental ill health a couple of times, I was in a very dark place, and it wasn’t a passing phase or a few days where I wasn’t feeling myself. It was months of feeling low, waking up and not wanting to do anything or even get out of bed. The first time I tried to ignore it and somehow worked my way through, but not properly.

It wasn’t surprising then that the second time it came back with a vengeance, completely taking every last bit of confidence and self-esteem away from me. At this time I was lucky to some degree, because now there was access to therapy through the English Institute of Sport’s partnership with The Priory Hospital, which had never been there before. A combination of taking time away from hockey and receiving this support helped me start the process of recovery. Looking back, it probably took about six to eight months to get back to feeling myself again.

Helen Richardson-Walsh - Mental Health in Sport

Along with society and many leading companies, the culture and attitude towards mental health is changing, and the importance of engaging with, and nurturing our mental health is also becoming more understood and accepted in elite sport. The conversation is opening up, and people from sport are talking about the benefits that positive mental health can have on them, not only as people but also on their performances. It’s absolutely not about one or the other, looking after athletes and coaches mental health does not take anything away from performance.

Although it took for me to be at my lowest point to get support and to do something about it, it doesn’t need to be that way.

How we improve our own mental health is completely individual to each person, but it’s something that we can all build into our daily and weekly routines. Just as physical rest days are an integral part of an athlete’s training schedules, rest days to mentally switch off are equally important, as they are for everyone needing to switch off from work. Towards the end of my time as a hockey player this started to be recognised. As a GB women’s squad we therefore talked about ‘giving back to yourself’, meaning giving yourself time to recover mentally and building this into the programme.

Being a massive thinker I personally benefited from doing mindfulness, to help accept my thoughts without judgement. Being out in the fresh air helped to clear my head so I enjoyed a round of golf and spending time with friends and family was something I consciously built in. I’m not an elite athlete today but I still actively do these things, along with continuing to eat healthily and do some sort of exercise to maintain my own positive mental health.

We will all go through various struggles throughout our lives, and the more we actively stay on top of our mental health when we’re well, the better equipped we hopefully will be to deal with any difficulties that do arise. This of course includes using the support of the people around us. The more we talk about mental health in day-to-day conversations the more it is normalised, and the more we will ask for help when we need it, which has to be a good thing.

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