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  • Alex Mills

Mental Health and Elite Sport

Sporting Chance's Alex Mills took part in Kait Borsay's Times Radio panel discussion on Friday night, talking mental health in sport with former GB rower and Olympic silver medallist Cath Bishop, former Scotland cricketer Olivia Rae, former British swimmer and Olympic silver medallist Michael Jamieson and researcher on mental health in sport Shakiba Moghadam (it’s still available on Times Radio for a couple more days yet if you want to listen, you can hear it here at around an hour and seven minutes in).

Here's what he had to say about it:

"It’s a hefty subject, and more nuanced than the coverage it’s often given - but it deserves the attention it is currently getting and in this case, was well served by the eloquence and dignity evident in the personal testimonies of my fellow panellists. As someone who manages an education programme for professional athletes, most days are learning days, and I’m really grateful to all of those contributors on the show for their insights into this unique world and the challenges involved in developing a mental health culture that genuinely protects and serves athletes.

A few thoughts following the recent headlines relating to mental health in sport…..

First and foremost, here at Sporting Chance HQ we’re glad more conversations like this are taking place in the media and hope they can serve as a platform for the continued development of mental health provision within professional sport. I think it’s also important to note, at a time when headlines and social media have placed a welcome focus on this particular subject, that professional sport hasn’t suddenly woken up to mental health as an issue in the last few weeks, that there are lots of brilliant, resourceful, clever, compassionate people involved in the industry across all levels - within individual clubs, governing bodies, player associations, leagues and tours - who have been working tirelessly for many years to improve the mental health of those within their care.

I sometimes hear ‘not enough is being done’ when it comes to mental health provision in sport, a viewpoint which should be given respect and attention and act as a foundation for productive discourse, although it’s all too often stated by those who don’t have a comprehensive understanding of or make any reference to the provision that’s actually in place (and who sometimes have a vested financial interest in neglecting to doing so). Whilst I understand there is a road to travel, we can take that journey together, with the right intentions and principles, without disrespecting the efforts of those based in clubs or performance programmes or player unions who live and breathe athlete welfare and have devoted their entire careers to the cause with little fanfare or media coverage. There is also, as I’m unsurprisingly going to add, the existence of Sporting Chance, funded by sport for the last 20 years as a clinical treatment provider for any emotional or mental health issue. If sport didn’t take mental health seriously as some people are suggesting, Sporting Chance may not support the number of athletes it does today or may not have come into being at all.

Although we run a confidential helpline and treatment services that in a sense are set slightly aside from professional sport, Sporting Chance isn’t detached from the environment that athletes compete in and the culture of mental health created by that environment. We work closely with the sporting organisations that fund us in order to best support the athletes that they trust us to look after and we’ve established relationships with our stakeholders that extend beyond providing access to clinical personnel or our treatment facilities. We assist with the modelling of organisation-wide mental health strategies, we design practical toolkits to improve treatment pathways, we deliver mentoring programmes and contribute to reviews of policies, procedures and frameworks relating to the wellbeing of athletes and staff in what is ultimately, though it is not always perceived as such, a place of work.

However, professional sport it isn’t your average place of work (if there is such a thing), a point made very clear by my fellow panellists on the programme last week – the sometimes blurred lines between mental health and mindset, the narrow success markers on which coaches and support staff are hired and fired, the increasing demands of the public and media on sportspeople who are expected to play a role both in and outside of the arena in a world which feels more accepting in many ways, and in others, as far from that as it’s ever been.

Our day to day at Sporting Chance – our triage team answering and calls (over 1200 in 2020 alone), our network of talking therapists working with athletes across a wide range of issues either online or at their private practices, our residential team beginning the process of rebuilding individuals broken from the experience of active addiction - our day to day shows us the reality of the pressures of professional sport, this unique world tempting the select group of human beings with the requisite talent to play or perform and be paid for it.

And it’s because of our day to day experiences that everyone at Sporting Chance feels the existence of an independent, confidential, safe space for athletes is so important, alongside the provision that individual sports and global multi-sport competitions continue to develop themselves.

Sportspeople should be allowed to access basic support without requiring sign off from their employers and support should not be offered only in the context of it improving performance.

We will always champion athletes’ mental health needs within their individual sporting contexts and we will always champion the need for a safe, independent, confidential space for athletes that they can access in times of need. The Sporting Chance mission is that when any professional sportsperson has the courage to reach out for support with an emotional or mental health concern, there must be a safe place for them to go. Sporting Chance can be that place."

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