Athletes and Mental Health – The Complexity of Being Human

By Charlotte Broughton

As some of you will know, in recent years I’ve become vocal on my own issues mentally and within the sport across my social media platforms, namely Instagram.  I do not claim to be a professional, no way! But it costs NOTHING to be kind and to listen. I’m tired of people jumping on the bandwagon but not living up to the ideals of just being a decent human being. 

Let’s get into the thick of it. 1 in 4 people will suffer with a mental health condition every year within the UK. Suicide is the biggest killer in the UK of men under 45. Therefore, why do we still hold such a stigma towards mental health, especially with athletes? 

Charlotte racing at the 2020 Track National Championships

After I opened up about my own struggles I had an influx of messages fill up my inbox. So many of you bravely confided in me expressing your relief that you weren’t alone in how you felt. I think it’s important to note that these messages were not just from cyclists and from a mixed demographic.

With regards to cyclists, I noticed more young males had messaged me, often expressing the shame they felt being the main barrier stopping them from telling others how they felt.  It seems that a lot of young men just do not discuss their mental state nor confide in one another. It appeared a lot of these young men were more fixated on not failing than achieving.  

What are we doing wrong within the sport? We simply put too much emphasis on cyclists being cyclists around the clock (judging what they eat, their weight, their form, their own idiosyncrasies, how they express themselves). It’s vital that we remember that cyclists/athletes are normal people too who also want to enjoy other aspects of life.  Let’s put it this way, imagine being told within your own time you could only concern yourself with matters regarding your job for the rest of your professional career. You simply wouldn’t have it, so don’t expect athletes to, it’s unrealistic! 

In this way we also take away an athlete’s own personal identity, potentially leaving them with an identity crisis on the horizon and vulnerable to self-sabotage, as well as acting recklessly in order to rebel against the labels we (unfairly) attach to them. This behaviour often then leads to self-isolation and a downward spiral.

I do believe it is important to note that as with any job/career that is results-based that you do need to apply a certain amount of pressure to achieve goals, however, we need to rethink what is acceptable treatment of athletes.  

It’s important to appreciate that athletes aren’t superhuman mentally; if anything they are often exposed to a greater amount of stress, pressure and criticism than the average person. Too much pressure means too much stress and too much stress has an AWFUL physical and mental effect on the human body, leading to inconsistent training and bad form.  No one wins in that situation, not the team or the rider. For me, too much emotional stress meant an inability to eat. This was highly problematic as not eating meant no energy, and so then I’d get very stressed about how rubbish I was doing in races and training – and so the vicious circle continued.

The general feeling is we need to see more support for the psychological side from a younger age given by national governing bodies and then following that support on through to the UCI teams to ensure consistency with regards to mental health treatment.  If support isn’t commonplace then the stigma will remain. We have to encourage young athletes and even parents to be more vigilant and understanding.

Unfortunately a lot of the people who contacted me sited their parents valuing them more on their ability as an athlete than a human (constantly comparing their child against other athletes who were having a better season or on better form) being a major source of stress and anxiety. This has to stop; your child is an individual, not a chess piece. I appreciate parents make sacrifices for their children to compete in cycling but it’s not an excuse to project your issues and insecurities out on them, most of the time young athletes are critical enough of themselves without that added criticism from the main people who are meant to support and nurture them physically and emotionally.

In conclusion, all people have different needs and abilities mentally; therefore looking forward this needs to be considered carefully and should include the wishes of the athletes when deciding how best to approach the issues of mental health in cycling. But as fellow athletes, fans, parents, coaches, friends and social media users, we do need to all be more active in helping aid positive progression. Be kind, check up on people, notice strange behaviours and encourage those around you to talk by creating a safe and non-judgmental environment to do so.

If you have been affected by any of the issues within this article and need help and support then please reach out to the following services: 

Mind –  http://www.mind.org.uk   – 0300 123 3393 (Mon – Fri, 9am to 6pm)

Samaritanshttp://www.samaritans .org.uk  – 116 123 (free phone 24 hour helpline) 

Rethink Mental Illnesswww.rethink.org – 0300 5000 927 (Mon – Fri, 9:30am to 4pm)

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