Cobbled Coaching: Let's talk about mental health
It is a touchy subject and often people are afraid to talk about it. This could be because they are scared that they might be judged or maybe because announcing to the world that they are suffering from mental illness could potentially have an impact on the events that they are selected for.
I heard this quote on the TV this morning from a professional basketball player saying that they aren’t getting paid to play basketball but they are in fact getting paid to deal with the stress and pressure that comes with playing sport professionally. But is this true? Is this really a bigger issue than we want to believe?
Everybody gets anxious before a big event; you want to do well and you have put pressure on yourself to perform. But how much anxiety is too much anxiety and how much pressure is too much pressure? What happens when the unexpected happens and you crash or simply lose the race?
Exercising releases endorphins (the happy hormone) but what if you do not have the motivation to train or to even get out of bed in the morning? You have the expectations from others and yourself to perform but there is a constant battle in your head between wanting to stay inside all day doing nothing and the need to train.
What about the stigma that you need to be skinny to be a good athlete, having the least amount of body fat? You are out with your friends and you are the only person who can’t have that slice of cake because you are too afraid that you will put on weight? They tell you that you need to eat to function, but what do they know? They aren’t athletes.
Suddenly you are refusing to go into the fridge because you are scared that you won’t be able to resist the hunger anymore and you’ll eat. Then you spent the rest of the day worried and sad because you took a bite of something that is more calories than you planned to eat in the first place… Will this be the deciding factor between winning and losing the race?
As well as the under-eating you start to train more, you want to be the best, so you must train like the best. You see your idols training 4-5-6 hours, so you need to do it too, but without food because ‘eating is cheating’. You are losing weight so quickly and you can’t wait to get to the first race of the season because you have trained harder than all the pros and ate less than them too… So you must be in the best shape of your life, right?
Then your family has a crisis, somebody in your immediate circle has passed away and it has broken your heart, but you still want to make them proud so you train harder and eat less because this is what you think will make you better. In the meantime, inside you are so sad because you’ve lost one of your close family members.
You finish the training session and you get in the shower, you sit on the floor and let the water pour over your head as you cry because you are so heartbroken, but you’re exhausted too. It is difficult to do anything other than watching Netflix and sometimes you don’t even want to do that anymore. You’d rather just sit in your bed and sleep because recovery is the key to success, right? And being tired means that you are training as hard as you can. ‘This is normal’ you think to yourself.
You look on social media and you see people commenting on your pictures that you are too skinny to ride descents fast enough or put out enough watts to ride in the front group in the flat races. But you also have comments saying that you are going to thrive in the hillier races… ‘We will show them’, you think to yourself as you post a picture of your afternoon snack… that you don’t eat.
You don’t realise that there is a problem until you are too tired to get out of bed, you haven’t eaten in hours and you are scared to even go into the kitchen. You are so sad that you can’t train and just sit alone playing Xbox. You’re scared. Asking for help is a sign of weakness. What if I am excluded from the team or I am not allowed to compete in the races that I have been targeting?
Until suddenly, somebody helps you… you get better, you start to have a healthy relationship with food again, you aren’t crying for no reason, you stop putting pressure on yourself and realise that people are there to help you, not to judge you. You start training again and you are feeling super strong. You are targeting that one event in the year and all your training is dedicated to that. The event comes… you win!! It is over… then what do you look forward to? What am I training for now? What’s the point? All these questions that you ask yourself and don’t have answers for.
Have you been able to relate to any of this? Then it is possible you have previously suffered from mental illness. Whether it was depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or anything else… Not all wounds are visible and it is okay not to be okay.
Many athletes have been open about their mental health. Post-event depression for instance is a thing. Michael Phelps didn’t want to be alive after the 2012 Olympics, but in today’s news articles you see him saying how thankful he is that he didn’t take his own life.
Victoria Pendleton experienced first-hand on how hard it was to be a female in sport, and in 2019 she released that she almost took her life. Luckily, she was able to ask for help from Steve Peters before she did this. Does this make her weak or does this make her strong to continue with a life that terrified her?
In the following article you can read about other professional athletes (cyclists) who have opened up about mental illnesses… https://www.bicycling.com/culture/a26897000/pro-cyclists-open-up-about-depression/
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and should be treated the same as any physical illness. Being an athlete, you are 100% going to be dealing with setbacks. Whether it's crashing, injury, an eating problem, or even an external life problem. The successful athletes are the ones that get up more times than they get hit down but you don’t see the fight that they have to deal with to get back to their original level. It is a mental battle every single day. If you are suffering then you can speak to somebody, it isn’t weak. It shows strength and courage, it shows that you aren’t afraid to confront your fears.