‘Heads Up’ about the importance of mental health

A few weeks ago, I represented Sporting Wellness at the ‘One Last Hurdle’ panel discussion, an event organised by the wonderful ‘Loughborough Heads Up’ team, a student run organisation promoting positive metal health and wellbeing across the Loughborough University campus.

The event was fronted by Josh Armstrong, male mental health officer for ‘Heads Up’ and a representative athlete for Northern Ireland in the 110m hurdles. He was joined on the panel by fellow sprint hurdler and training partner, Ethan Akanni, and academy cricketer Jack Nightingale, who is also an ambassador for ‘blOkes’, a platform dedicated to get men talking about mental health. Alongside Josh was Joe Fuggles, another sprint hurdler and founder of ‘The Athlete Place’, an organisation supporting track and field athletes and their parents. The panel was completed by Tim Ryan, a sports psychologist, and yours truly.

After introducing ourselves, the discussion focused mainly on the athletes present and their experiences of the pressures, sacrifices and dedication required to make it as an elite athlete. I was fascinated by their comments. Speaking as someone who has always loved and played sport, but never been good enough to consider that sport could be my career, it highlighted the difference between the mindset and the lifestyle of elite athletes and the ‘also rans.’

Josh, Jack, Joe and Ethan all spoke eloquently and passionately about matters including the importance of the athlete to coach relationship, balancing training commitments with academic studies and maintaining a social life, the extreme highs and lows of competitive sport at elite level, the realities of what committing to a sport and a training programme actually involves and the subsequent strain this can put on friendships, relationships and family life, and trying to control the nerves and emotions when preparing for a big competition.

It also highlighted that, often, it’s the little things that maybe we don’t consider enough that add to the mental strain of being an elite athlete. Jack talked about being away with his cricket team and what happens after a long day’s play. Team-mates start asking where you want to go for food and drinks when maybe all you want to do is go home and be on your own. But there is pressure to go out and ‘fit in’ with the group, to not be seen as an outsider. Josh and Joe also discussed the ‘do you fancy a few beers tonight?’ question that is often asked and the pressure that peers often place on you when the answer is no. It’s not a question of being anti-social or constantly having to live like a monk. But there is a time and a place for everything.

The important lesson to take from the discussion was priorities. There is no getting away from the fact that, for an elite athlete, there must be a high level of dedication, sacrifice and commitment. I felt tired just listening to Josh describe to me his current training regime! This is part of the journey to the top and the feeling that the panelists described that no matter how hard you train, there will be someone else out there training just as hard, if not harder than you. But the minute something completely takes over your life and consumes every part of your existence, problems begin.

Recently, a number of high-profile athletes have prioritised their mental health and taken a break from the rigors of elite competition. One such case was American gymnast, Simone Biles, who withdrew from some events at this years Olympics saying, “We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.” Sadly, Biles actions drew the inevitable responses from the likes of Piers Morgan, tweeting that “we should celebrate winning in sport – not quitting.” But for the most part, Biles was rightly praised for having the courage to speak out about prioritising mental health and protecting herself. If an athlete has a physical injury, we wouldn’t expect them to compete, so why should they be expected to compete when their mental health is ‘injured?’ Thank goodness we live in an age where this attitude is shared by an increasing number of people.

And thank goodness for people like Josh, Joe, Ethan, Jack and Tim, their respective organisations, and groups such as ‘Heads Up’ who, despite the obvious pressures and sacrifices of work, training, academic studies, and anything else life may throw at them, still find time to discuss and promote the importance of mental health. It was a pleasure being part of such an important and meaningful discussion and hopefully the start of a long and fruitful relationship between Sporting Wellness and Loughborough ‘Heads Up.’ With its notoriety as the home of many elite young athletes, connecting with Loughborough University is an important part of our charity’s development.

Sporting Wellness has already supported athletes who attend Loughborough and our free, confidential mental health support is open to elite athletes, aged 16 or above, suffering from any mental health problems. Full details of our charity and access to our support systems can be found at www.sportingmindsuk.org. Like all charities, we rely on fundraising events and kind donations to exist and we’ll be extremely grateful to anyone willing to support our charity in the future.

For now, I’d like to say a final thank you to all those involved on the night, include those in attendance, for being part of such an incredible event. It was a pleasure to be surrounded by so many likeminded people involved in various groups committed to speaking out about the importance and mental health and dedicating themselves to providing much needed support.

Phil McShane – Sporting Wellness

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