The purpose of this article is to highlight the issues of mental health within sport and how the current support systems can be improved. We spend hours in the pool and on land training our bodies to be the best that we can, but do we pay enough attention to the biggest influence on our performance, our mind-set and how we and others around us are feeling?
Swimming or competing in any competitive sport can be a very regimental lifestyle, a little bit like being in the army. You get up at a specific time each day, eat, go to practice, recover, go home or to school and do it all again in the afternoon and the next day. You are used to following directions and being surrounded by the same people, you are in your own little bubble with not a lot of time for anything else in your life. So, what happens when this all stops or you’re not performing at your best. It can all become overwhelming and before you realise it you’re in the deep-end.
A great example of how the current system is failing to support its athletes and the effects of mental health is Michael Jamieson, who along with other athletes such as Michael Phelps are helping to change the face of mental health within sport by talking about their experiences.
In 2008 Michael Jamieson was about to turn 20, and in his mind he was nowhere near the standard he wanted to be. So, he moved to Paris with Fred Vergnoux where he started to make really good progress. “He’s an amazing coach and super passionate about supporting his athletes, and I loved how hard the program was,” said Jamieson.
Jamieson was aware he seemed to have really aggressive mood swings and states he went “from feeling like I had the best job in the world to feeling completely empty, without purpose.” However, he thought it was controllable and stuck it out till 2012 despite the ‘mood swings’ getting worse.
It wasn’t till after London 2012 Olympics which saw Jamieson take silver in the men’s 200 breaststroke when his mental state felt like it was out of control. Jamieson stated, “After 2012 I felt a lack of association, emotion, purpose. Relationships suffered, friendships were lost, and it was exhausting to be emotionally presentable in social situations. The fear and guilt of negatively impacting others was eating me; so, I retreated further.”
Jamieson overcame his negative mind-set in an extreme way by travelling to South America on a yoga and meditation retreat with a bag full of self-help books. “Yoga and meditation helped create space in my head and helped me develop and build on an identity outside of the pool. I’ve never been happier or more comfortable than now” said Jamieson.
WHY IS SPORT SO CUTTHROAT?
UK Sport give Performance Directors and thus head coaches their annual budget based on medal opportunities/potential and reward them with bonuses and increased funding if they meet and exceed these targets. If an athlete is no longer regarded as having medal potential, they will no longer be supported by the business.
IN AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL JAMIESON HE WAS ASKED:
WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE SPORT AND ARE WE DOING ENOUGH TO SUPPORT ATHLETES?
“No. Nowhere near enough. Athletes are commodities. How many athletes have been told that they’re not ‘on the performance curve’ at 24/25/26…lots. The nature of sport is progression & development & aspirational performance. There will always be another talented individual chasing your spot. It’s primal and it’s why we love sport.”
“But when that day comes, why do we not thank our athletes for all the positive attributes they’ve used to get there and that can benefit society? No one is saying athletes like to be mollycoddled. But, the cliff edge of retirement must be treated with far more compassion and it’s the responsibility of the National Governing Bodies (NGB’s), pro teams, and federations as well as the athlete, to acknowledge and prepare for this through effective communication with time to explore transition and career options afterwards. What’s the use of business platforms rolling out retired athletes to schools to talk about career transition when they don’t know themselves.”
WHAT CAN WE DO BETTER TO SUPPORT ATHLETES AND MENTAL HEALTH?
“Bring in more ex-athletes with these experiences to work with the knowledgeable hierarchy within the governing body/business. We must introduce a substantial platform much earlier to get the best out of our transitioning athletes/humans and use their skills acquired through athletic performance to better society and future generations. That’s legacy. Introducing mindfulness, breathing, relaxation techniques, yoga – anything that creates separation from work/self or swim/self.”
In a separate interview with the Telegraph Adam Peaty touched on the importance of creating separation from training, he wrote: “When I am out of the pool I try not to think about swimming or even talk about it much with my parents….you can’t just think about swimming 24/7 because the lifestyle is intense enough.”
WHAT SHOULD ATHLETES DO IF THEY FEEL LIKE THEY ARE SUFFERING FROM MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES AND HOW TO SPOT THE SIGNS?
“I think we are all well aware of symptoms associated with depression and mental ill-health. They say it takes 30 days of effective behaviour to change a habit. That’s how we should look at it. In training, we often swam 3 weeks hard, 1 week ‘recovery’. Athletes need to take responsibility for their wellbeing and train their mind. Negative patterned thought will grow deeper and darker if it’s not addressed and so this is how we alleviate the ‘pressure’ of admitting we have an issue. If you train breaststroke with no streamline on the pullouts every session for 4/5 weeks, that’ll begin to transfer into your performance. It’s the exact same in the mind. You are a product of your thoughts. The thoughts you think will reflect in your life experience. Sounds so simple, and in theory, it is! But when there’s already damage been done; some people need a little nudge and support towards the light.”
Sport has to be run as a business to make money. Unfortunately, swimming does not generate the large sums of money that other sports such as football do. However, the current business plan is failing. Athletes should be put at the heart of the business along with developing the sport on a whole. The main return on investment needs to come from other avenues, such as events.
British Swimming recently released an article on how the overall development of swimming within the UK has significantly declined. Illustrating that the current system of support and development of athletes and coaches is failing. There needs to be a focus on sharing knowledge and understanding from national centres to wider support and development at all levels, not just podium potential, and a better approach to preparing athletes for life after their swimming carrier. We dedicate so much to the sport because we love it, it’s only fair that it supports us back in the correct way and not exploits athletes as commodities to meet bonuses.
Mental wellbeing and how we prepare for both life during and after swimming should be something taken into consideration by all athletes, coaches, clubs and governing bodies at all levels and not ignored. Mental health should be used as a training aid and not looked upon negatively. It is even possible to train the mind to help with performance using techniques such as visualisation. Afterall ‘the body achieves what the mind believes.’