By Reece Chambers
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the last few weeks, it’s that real experiences of mental health in sport are not best illustrated through data.
Everyone’s experiences with mental health (and indeed sport) are different in every respect of the word, and that’s something data can’t quite represent – at least not yet.
I wanted to understand just how sport can influence our mental health, and spoke with three people from the sporting world who have had intimate experiences with mental health. An Ospreys rugby player, an ex-professional footballer and an NHS employee who has created a platform for people to share their experiences in sport, were kind enough to share their stories with me.
As I hope you will see from these real life stories, there is unfortunately no blueprint to overcoming mental health issues in sport. I seek to illustrate the power for good that sport can be, and look deeper at the issues that professional athletes face in such a competitive workplace, from injury struggles to retirement.
As we enter November, we welcome Movember – a time when men’s mental health is at the forefront of debate within society – which is great, to an extent, but it is only one month… What we must strongly reiterate is that this campaign deserves attention all year round and whilst data cannot fully paint the picture, the fact that 84 men take their lives per week is a national tragedy. We, the public, must do everything we can to bring that number down and, through the sharing of the stories of these brave sportsmen, I hope to show how sport can do that.
Sam Dale founded Sporting Heads after losing his father to cancer in 2017.
In all aspects of life, it is often said that community and togetherness can get people through the toughest of times. Through the power of story-telling, Sam Dale founded Sporting Heads eighteen months ago with the aim of showing that sport can be a positive benefit for those who need it most.
Sporting Heads is a website that provides people recovering from mental health issues the opportunity to share their experiences of empowerment through sport. Ranging from extreme running to indoor rowing, it is now home to roughly 50 personal stories exploring mental health recovery through sporting activity.
For Sam, though, the creation of Sporting Heads was borne out of difficulties he was facing in his own personal life. After the loss of his father to cancer two years ago, his ability to process such a difficult time of his life proved challenging.
“I struggled to process it with a busy life having three little kids, a full-time job and a host of other commitments.
“I knew I needed to find the time to stop and think about it all, but life was just too hectic. I just simply couldn’t find the right time or place.”
As a keen open water swimmer, Sam found it to be the best way he could escape from difficulties in life.
With a close friend, he completed a challenging 10-mile swim across Lake Windermere, which allowed him to devote time to training and channeling his emotions.
After such a positive experience with using sport for mental health benefits, Sam created Sporting Heads in 2017, to give people a platform to share their personal experiences.
“I knew several people who are using exercise to help cope with anxiety, alcohol addiction and depression. I thought there needs to be a platform out there for these people to share their experiences to help others.”
In essence, Sporting Heads is a place for people struggling with issues – no matter how big or small – to find inspiration from how sport can change people’s lives. It’s often said that life is much more than sport, and in most cases that’s right. But, for many of Sam’s contributors, sport has helped bring their lives back from the brink.
“Sometimes it’s just about having a place that you find comfort in whilst moving and growing with other like-minded people.”
Through speaking with people about their experiences with sport improving mental health, Sam has found that story-telling is a therapeutic method of coming to terms with your experiences.
“Through story-telling, you start to understand your journey a little better. It helps people to plot exactly what they have been through, why it happened, how exercise had a positive effect and therefore what motivation they need to maintain motivation.
“The feedback has been incredibly positive both from the story tellers and the readers. I have received so many messages on social media saying thank you for the opportunity of sharing and from those who have felt renewed hope by what they have read.”
With November being a pertinent time to talk about men’s mental health and suicide awareness through the Movember campaign, Sam believes that discourse on the subject is increasing, but there is still plenty more to do.
“It feels a more regularly discussed topic but I still think men find it incredibly difficult to talk about their feelings. I include myself in that and I run a whole website about mental health. It definitely has improved and everywhere you see the slogans: ‘it’s ok to talk” or “it’s ok not to be ok.’”
“The awareness has improved, but what are the next steps we need to take to improve mental health rather than just talking about it?”
Sam’s creation of Sporting Heads shows just how important a community can be for people dealing with mental health issues.
Lloyd Ashley discusses mental well-being, coming back from injury and lowering the stigma in a male-dominated environment.
Performing at the highest level of any given sport requires huge amounts of sacrifice, determination and mental strength. Within Welsh rugby, those qualities are perhaps more relevant than in any other sporting environment.
The strain upon which players put their bodies under on a daily basis to become the very best is quite remarkable. Players are becoming stronger and the game is getting more physical, but are steps in place to improve player welfare from a psychological perspective?
With over 100 appearances and 10 years experience at Ospreys, Lloyd Ashley’s experiences in professional rugby show the complex nature of mental health in a professional sporting environment.
The Welsh-born second row has spent the entirety of his rugby playing career at the Swansea-based club and represents mental illness charity Hafal as their Young People’s Ambassador.
For Ashley, his experiences within a professional sporting environment have shown that speaking about mental health is a more regular occurrence now than ever before.
“It’s been a huge thing to hear boys say they support people and are there to care for other people,” said Ashley.
“I think we’re in a place where, when it gets really bad, people will speak before that point and that probably wasn’t there before.”
However, despite noticeable progression in recent years, Ashley is still aware that there must be continued progress in breaking the stigma surrounding mental health.
“I think we’re still in a place where there are a lot of people not coming out and speaking.
“We’re still in a place of stigma but I think it’s slowly coming down.”
Given the nature of professional sport, in which there are extreme highs and lows, Ashley is keen to point out that full-time athletes can struggle off the pitch. Ranging from retirement to long-term injuries, Ashley often sees rugby players struggle mentally.
“I see a lot with retirement struggles. You see the change from doing something you love to doing something else.
“With injuries, we live in a world where you rely on your body. That’s obviously a hard thing when you’re throwing it around week in week out.
“Until the last two years I don’t think that we’ve properly thought about the mental side of those injuries.”
One key thing to state here is that Ashley believes things are improving within professional rugby. In years gone by, players had struggled to face mental issues, but now, he states that “everybody knows the reality” thanks to help from the Welsh Rugby Players Association raising awareness.
“If somebody gets injured it’s going to be tough and we know that it’s an ongoing process even when they’re back on the field you’ve still got that anxiety of future injuries.”
The very nature of any sport dictates that athletes are bound to undergo difficult periods. Part of coming to terms with such struggles require the sporting community to come together and lower the stigma of speaking out. Especially in male-dominated quarters, players have often felt reluctant to speak out about their feelings.
“I think the stigma is starting to come down about the fact that people know that it is ok to talk.
“You are allowed to be down in the dumps, everybody has those periods where they struggle with different things.”
For Ashley, the life of a professional athlete can often be misinterpreted by those from the outside.
“Everybody associates professional athletes with things they do on the field, but we’ve also got a life outside of it as well.
“I think sometimes it’s forgotten that those people who are role models and idols, they’ve still got to balance family lives, education, finances and loads of other things around playing and that has an effect.”
Despite professional sports challenges, Ashley maintains that he wouldn’t change it for the world.
“I don’t think you get that in any other job. Sometimes you sit back and think: ‘this is the reason I love my job.’”
“Enjoying being outside all of the time is just a huge benefit on your health and happiness.”
With awareness of mental health improving exponentially within rugby, Ashley states that he’s noticed an improvement of awareness at Ospreys.
“People want to know you’re okay, they want to know how your family is, what your weekend plans are. They genuinely care about you and want to know that everything is ok.”
“Movember is an important way to break the stigma in whatever way we can. But also, commit to raising awareness all through the year as well.”
Overall, professional sport looks to be heading in the right direction with regards to mental health. Whilst more can be done to continue improving awareness, it’s imperative that Ashley’s story of positivity is celebrated.
Fabian Spiess dealt with several mental health issues during his playing career at Notts County, Bristol Rovers and Torquay United.
Understanding the life of a professional athlete is near enough impossible for those outside such an intense environment. The highs of elite sport are well documented in the media with celebrations of individual and team success. The lows, too, can be given media attention – but such coverage often fails to consider that athletes are not invincible.
Of course, sports people are open to public criticism – that comes with the very nature of their job. However, in many cases, the mental well-being of athletes is often forgotten. For ex-professional footballer Fabian Spiess, who played for Notts County, Torquay United and Bristol Rovers, the duty of care from football clubs is naively limited.
“We always have physical checks but why is there no such thing as a mental well-being check when clubs are signing players?”
Through experiencing fluctuating form on the pitch, the nature of being a goalkeeper under severe pressure led to a decrease in Spiess’ well-being. However, it wasn’t until he met with his step-father in a McDonald’s on the A50 where he was advised to see a sports psychologist.
“I wasn’t performing well, I was making lots of mistakes and it just became a very difficult time. I didn’t really know what it was down to at the time.”
“I was never offered any support at all from the club. It was my step-dad who actively paid for a sports psychologist at the time.”
Now working at Athletes USA to help young athletes in the UK get onto sports scholarships in the States, Spiess, now 25, has put a halt to his footballing career. Through working at Athlete USA, he wants to make sure that young athletes coming through the system have good mental health.
“For me, it’s more about trying to help support athletes whilst they are in sport. That’s what gives me my purpose and my rewards now.”
Given that Spiess has taken some time away from professional sport, he has taken time to reflect on his experience in such an intense sporting environment. The 25-year-old believes that finding a passion away from the game is the most sustainable way of living.
“Sport is a 24/7 environment, you’re always thinking about your last game or your next game. It’s very hard to separate yourself from that in a way.”
“Find another identity that finds you some other passion in your life. It’s hard because you think you have to have a tunnel vision to be successful in sport. Whether it’s family, education or hobbies, you need something to separate yourself from a 24/7 environment.”
However tough his time in the professional game was, Spiess has no regrets from his footballing career.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and every athlete would have had that, that’s just inevitable in sport.”
“When I look back now, there are no regrets that I have. It’s allowed me to become the person I am today, learning through mistakes and experience.”
Spiess’ time in football shows just how important it is to consider the mental well-being of professional athletes.