We all have a sporting chance

We all have a sporting chance

28 December 2021

We tend to regard successful sportsmen and women as not only the most physically fit members of our society, but also the most mentally fit. After all, it takes so much self-confidence, determination and mental strength to perform at the pinnacle of your chosen sport. But, as events in the last year have shown, many are nevertheless vulnerable to the same mental health challenges as the rest of us. The case of Azeem Rafiq, the former Yorkshire cricket spin bowler, illustrates just one case.

Azeem told a committee of MPs that racial bullying at the club led him to suffer with severe anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. “At one point I actually felt so down I didn’t want to live anymore, what with everything that was going on in my career and after losing our son. It was really hard and there wasn’t enough support. I really don’t want anyone else to feel the same way I did.”

The stigma historically associated with mental health problems has reduced massively over recent years. So, far from being vilified for opening up about his problems, sports and social commentators alike applauded Azeem’s strength and bravery for doing so.

Courage to open up

Similar plaudits were paid to England cricket all-round Ben Stokes when he announced in July that he was taking an indefinite break from international cricket to “prioritise his mental wellbeing”. Through that incredible Ashes century at Headingly in 2019 and his World Cup heroics, Stokes has been portrayed as the ultimate alpha male sportsman. Let’s face it, if you were asked to make a list of sportsmen and women who you thought might struggle with mental demands, then Stokes would not be on it. But by opening up to his need to take a break with his young family and protect his mental wellbeing, Stokes has underlined a simple fact – that no one is immune from this type of battle.

Ashley Giles, managing director of England’s men’s cricket, commented at the time: “Ben has shown tremendous courage to open up about his feelings and wellbeing. Ben will be given as long as he needs and we look forward to seeing him playing cricket for England again in the future.”

Test Match Special commentator and Daily Telegraph cricket writer Isabelle Westbury said: “It’s quite groundbreaking really. To think of somebody of the profile and the achievement of Ben Stokes say something quite so candid, when we associate him, I guess, with feats of great sporting prowess but also being a tough guy. For somebody like that to be able to say ‘listen, I’m struggling’ is momentous, but I think it’s really positive as well. It will hopefully pave the way for others to say the same.”

Stokes himself explained he had been struggling with life under ‘bio-bubbles’ and events off the field before taking the break. He admitted that he wasn’t in a good place, and said: “I was in a real dark place and having some difficult thoughts. I was always one of those people who wouldn’t talk about how they are feeling and just keep it internal and crack on. I now realise talking is such a powerful thing and it has completely changed me.”

Kevin Pietersen and Gary Lineker are just a couple of the other high profile sporting figures who have shown support for Ben Stokes for his honesty and bravery. Writing on Twitter, Gary Lineker said: “Wishing @benstokes38 a speedy recovery. When our sporting heroes are brave and open up about their mental health problems it will help others realise they are not alone with theirs.”

Only by opening up in this way has Ben been able to talk about his problems and therefore get the support he needs to recover and get on top of his mental wellbeing. So, it was great to see he had declared himself fit for selection and was back with his England teammates to face Australia in the Ashes series in Australia.

Self preservation

Of course, there have been plenty of similar experiences in the women’s world of sport. Simone Biles, the American gymnast with a combined total of 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team final at the Tokyo Olympics in July saying: “I have to focus on my mental health.” The four-time Olympic gold medallist is considered one of the greatest, most dominant and most decorated gymnasts of all time. After her withdrawal she said: “I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sport right now. We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do. We’re not just athletes, we’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”

Last May, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to protect her mental health, a move publicly supported by several sportspeople, including fellow tennis stars like Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova, as well as heptathlete Katrina Johnson-Thompson, NFL basket player Russell Wilson, and fellow basketball star Stephen Curry. And Naomi’s major sponsors, including the likes of Nike, released statements applauding her decision and her courage to protect her well-being.

It’s clear that our sporting heroes can help raise the profile of mental health and increase our own confidence when it comes to opening up about our issues. So, let’s celebrate their success. Don’t keep it all bottled when it can do even more damage, leading to feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression.

Creative distraction

And, what’s more, our sporting heroes can inspire us to think of ever more creative ways to manage our difficulties. Just take a look at Tom Daley, the UK diving champion. “While the other boys in our apartment at the Tokyo Olympics were playing video games, I would just sit and knit,” Tom recalls. “I’d wake up and if I had time to sit and knit, I would just continually knit.”

He describes how athletes end up “over-thinking so many things” while staying in the Olympic village and knitting was his “form of escapism to get away” and “not have to think about diving” for a bit.

Tom has said on Instagram that knitting has become his way of “finding calm, mindfulness and [it] relieves stress.” He even has a separate knitting account called ‘Made with love’ where he posts his creations – including doggy jumpers – that he sells to raise money for charity. “One thing that has kept me sane throughout this whole process is my love for knitting and crochet, and all things stitching,” Tom said in a video he posted during the Olympics, showing off a knitted pouch he had made to hold his new gold medal.

By Dominic Cerillo

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