Mental health has been much talked about of late, none more so than in the wake of the global pandemic. This is, of course, a welcome and positive step forward.
Within the context of sport, it is encouraging to see major sports personalities talk about their mental health struggles openly; for too long, mental well-being has not been given the same billing as those physical injuries, which everyone can see and are often more obvious.
Thanks to sports personalities such as Adam Peaty, Simone Biles and Ben Stokes there is a growing awareness of the fragile balance that must be maintained by those performing at the elite level of sport. One thinks of gruelling training regimes, little time off and carrying the weight of expectation imposed not only by the athletes themselves but perhaps by their family and friends, the nation they represent and the wider viewing public.
It is heartening to see progress being made in relation to physical head injuries (which often fall into the category of physical injuries that cannot be seen) and the long-term effects of these. Measures have been put in place about how many headers football players are able to make in a week and contact sports have been ramping up efforts to detect and mitigate head injuries for some years now.
Isn’t it now time to do the same for mental health? Support is growing for the need to recognise and manage mental health issues, but perhaps firmer and more uniform measures need to be introduced. Such measures would include putting support mechanisms in place and ensuring that the correct clinical advice is available to those that need it. However, whilst it is common at the elite level to use sports psychologists to assist performance (and this doubtless has a positive side effect in managing pressure etc.), a less performance-driven approach to athlete mental wellbeing is needed. Essentially, in the same way that a player with a lingering muscle injury might be given time to rest and recover so as not to exacerbate it, participants who are dealing with mental health challenges should be afforded the same opportunity.
Whilst recognising that the highest the level of competition, generally speaking, brings the highest level of pressure, hopefully these measures would also trickle down the pyramid to those competing at lower levels within sport. Stokes, Peaty and Biles are global icons in their sport - less highly regarded athletes might not feel they have the position in their sport (or the financial security) to take a break for mental health reasons.
For too many years our athletes and sports people have suffered in silence. It seems that the stigma relating to talking about mental health is lifting (thanks in no small part to the high-profile sports personalities mentioned above). However, now that we are all talking about it, let’s take positive action to address the issue.
The Olympics marked a watershed moment for mental health in sport - now we need to build on it