Mental Health in Elite Sport
Illustration: Simon Letch
World Mental Health Day is an international day which is observed on the 10th of October each year. The day serves to raise awareness of mental health issues and acts to advocate for greater education and awareness whilst de-stigmatising the subject of mental health.
Much like the rest of the world, the subject of mental health and wellbeing in elite sport is only now becoming a talking point. Whilst it is not uncommon for athletes to suffer poor mental health, the wellbeing of athletes from a mental and emotional viewpoint are now being recognised in the same manner as physical injuries. Recent statistics have shown substantially higher rates of poor mental health amongst athletes when compared to the general population.
As you can imagine, athletes face a continuous bombardment of pressures, whether they are from external sources like coaches, selectors & fans or internal pressures an athlete puts on themselves.
At an elite level, every aspect of an athlete’s performance is subject to scrutiny – beyond training and game day performance, our eating, sleeping, drinking, exercise, rest days and everything else you can think of is reviewed. In essence, our identity is under constant review. For some, surrendering to the life of an athlete may never be an issue, for others, it may not be so easy.
Elite sport is an extreme emotional roller coaster. It begins for many as a childhood dream, which gradually grows into a realistic dream. Something you have continuously worked hard for, to perform better. The day you get the call that you are in the team or you’re debuting in your first match you can only imagine the joy and relief you feel, that it’s all payed off. Your childhood dream has finally come true.
However, it’s not all sunshine’s and rainbows - cricket is one of those sports where generally where the losses outweigh the wins. As a bowler, there are days when I bowl the fastest and most accurately possible, only to have mishits reach the boundary, balls pass agonisingly past the edge of the bat or catches dropped. Then there are the days where, despite bowling absolute garbage, the next thing you know you’ve taken a bag of 5 wickets and are being lauded for winning the match. Cricket, simply put, is really a sport where you can train your arse off and tick all the right boxes, but when you get out on that field you really don’t have that much control of the outcome. It’s emotional turmoil, not helped by the enormous amount of time available to think, reflect and ruminate on every tiny detail of what has just transpired on field – both good and not so good.
As my career progresses, the social impact becomes apparent. The network of friends start narrowing down to the people you train and play with almost every day. You train with them, play with them, travel with them and sometimes even live with them. It can feel like a big bubble that envelopes your life; significant life events are missed or passed by because of commitment that may mean you are playing or training in a different country or state. Simple day to day things such as debating with your partner about what to have for dinner, what to watch on the TV, taking the dog for an evening walk are replaced by prolonged periods of not seeing your friends, family and supporters. Cricket is now more than a game, it has become your new, full-time life.
For many athletes, elite sport can be both extremely gruelling and extremely satisfying. It can build you or break you, and my fear is that far too often, the latter is the prevailing outcome. Whether it’s coming back from injury; losing touch with who you are outside of cricket; travelling for weeks or months at a time; trying to perform at training or in a game; moving away from friends and family; trying to break into the team or trying to juggle work or study externally with full time training; or a combination of all. Elite sport not only challenges your physical capabilities and skills, it challenges you mentally and emotionally.
In recent years support for athletes has come a long way. There are now new avenues for athletes to seek support, from both a performance and mental health perspective. However, there is still such a long way to go. A huge stigma around mental health still exists not only in sport, but in our everyday lives. As we celebrate World Mental Health Day I challenge you to view your mental health in the same manner you view your physical health - check in on yourself and your loved ones, be vulnerable and look after each other.
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For more information:
Head to Health
R U OK?
Embrace Multicultural Mental Health
It's Okay, Not To Be Okay