Mental health strains that affect our top-flight athletes, as well as you and me

4th Aug 2021
Challenging mental health inequalities

Dr David Crepaz‑Keay and Heather Lewis talk about the mental health stresses and strains that affect our top-flight athletes, as well as you and me. 

Dr David Crepaz‑Keay is Head of Applied Learning at the Mental Health Foundation.

Heather Lewis is Project Manager at the Foundation and Independent Elite Athlete Lifestyle Coach.

Photo of Dr David Crepaz‑Keay and Heather Lewis

Over the last couple of months, most of us will have heard several high-profile, elite athletes speaking about their mental health and their need to take some time out to prioritise it. This is a timely reminder to us that top-flight tennis players, footballers and Olympians are, above all, human and that mental health is something we all need to be aware of.

"Faster, higher, stronger" is the English translation of the Olympian motto. Athletes are trained to relentlessly strive to be faster, higher, stronger. Sport is powerful, it’s intense, it’s all consuming. From my experience as an elite athlete lifestyle advisor, walking with athletes through the ultimate highs and lows, I would argue that the emotional, relational and mental challenges can be faster, higher and stronger too. 

Take the example of the elite athlete, who in a split second is crowned the world’s greatest. Every unseen moment of sacrifice is worth it just for that moment. They are catapulted into the limelight, a success! The best! They’ve gained hero status, with sponsors plastering their face across social platforms - sometimes even buildings - with financial stability and a healthy and thriving body and mind.

Then, take the athlete perhaps sharing the very same track, pool, court or field, who, within that same split second, has a career-ending injury. The same moment, yet a very different outcome. Not the highs of success, accolade and celebration, but the lows of perceived failure, rehab, loss of contracts, routine, the team they saw every single day, they are removed from the team WhatsApp group. Faster, higher, stronger emotions to deal with, all because of a split second moment in time.

Empathy is a powerful tool. As I have read much of what’s been circulating across our global media platforms these past few weeks, what has encouraged me the most has been the athletes who live in those shoes too, who share the pitch, track, court or pool. Fellow athletes like Max Whitlock who praised Simone Biles for prioritising her mental health. Or Joe Root who says, “I just want my friend to be OK”.

For all the faster, higher, stronger and superhuman talk (and goodness me it’s true, we are all in awe of these athletes), the highs are why they do what they do. What we should all remember is that our mental health is not superhuman. And that humanity is the one thing we all have in common. To stop, think and show empathy is truly the most powerful thing.

For the athlete in the next lane, to put their arm around their fellow teammate, to acknowledge their heartache and the ultimate low. We can’t fix it, not even their fellow athletes can fix it, sometimes there’s nothing that can be said. But empathy can go a long way to supporting an athlete whilst they battle whatever emotional, mental or physical challenge, which undoubtedly is coming at them faster, higher and stronger. But it’s not undefeatable, there’s always hope.

For the rest of us mere mortals, physical activity is an important part of looking after our mental health. It’s certainly a bonus that we don’t have to attend a press conference after our gym session, swim, jog or country walk, to answer some sometimes very stupid or provocative questions!

If you or someone else is struggling with their mental health, or if you simply want to look after your own or someone else's mental health, there are many things that will help.

Connections with other people - in or outside work - help us all to cope with life and care for our mental health. So, try to make time for your colleagues, friends, family, partner, neighbours and others in your community. And remember that kindness is good for our mental health, whether we're giving or receiving it. Try to be kind and thoughtful on social media - your words are powerful and will affect other human beings in ways that you may not realise.

Looking after your physical health is vitally important for mental health too and, as well as exercise, eating well, drinking sensibly and getting enough good-quality sleep can really help.

Remember that no-one is superhuman. We all get tired and can feel overwhelmed when things don't go to plan. Try to be especially kind to yourself at these times, rather than being harsh.

If you feel you're struggling, it's good to ask for help. Consider speaking with your GP about how you're feeling and what might help. Simply telling another person how you are feeling can be a tremendous relief.

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