It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. The campaign, launched by the Mental Health Foundation, reaches millions of people every year. The Foundation drives change towards a mentally healthy society for all, and supports communities, families and individuals to live mentally healthier lives, with a particular focus on those at greatest risk. This year’s campaign theme is kindness.
There are many demands associated with high-performance sport as athletes strive to reach the top and be the best that they can be. Over recent years there has been a wider acknowledgement of the impact this can have on mental health as more athletes willingly share their own experiences publicly and therefore shine a spotlight on the challenges they and many others have faced.
Paralympic gold medallist Danny Crates, who is a long-standing ambassador of SportsAid, has written a two-part blog on his own relationship with mental health. Here, in the second instalment, Danny reflects on the challenges he faced around Beijing 2008, his ‘all or nothing’ personality, making the decision to retire from para athletics and how he managed the transition out of full-time sport.
“Having become Paralympic champion in 2004, the build-up to 2008 was full of determination and confidence. But life has a way of upsetting your plans. Instead, the lead-up to Beijing was the toughest year of my life. I came back from training in South Africa and tore a disc in my spine, which isn't a lot of fun. After that, I managed to tear a calf muscle, which caused no end of Achilles problems - and whatever we tried to do, I just couldn't run.
“We threw everything at it. From March to July, all my training was in a pool, on the bike or in the gym, and it was heartbreaking. I was struggling. But then I got running again, made the team and was going to Beijing. Being on the plane did something to me. I got on OK but got off with a sore Achilles. I went for a jog during the holding camp, I was a couple of miles into it and got this sharp pain, immediately thought 'no' and had to stop. The physios were trying everything but I couldn’t run.
“Similarly to Athens, my race in Beijing was late in the programme so I had time to wait. I had the honour of being flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, which was such an amazing experience and something I won’t forget. But it was difficult to deal with the highs of that moment, knowing that defending my Paralympic title was in doubt.
“With little improvement, the doctors said they were just going to put me on the start line and hope for the best but in my mind, I couldn’t do that. I had to go out there knowing I could run. It was such a tough time, mentally, but I knew I had to try everything. In the Athletes’ Village, we went to one of the darkest corners to avoid being seen, and tried some gentle jogging. To begin with, it worked fine - but then it all went wrong.
“I tore my soleus muscle, which is in your lower calf - it just went 'bang'. I sat on the wall with my physio, with my head in my hands, because I knew then it was over. That was the toughest time of my life. I made the decision, for my own mental health, to not be there because I knew it wouldn't be good for me or any of the younger athletes who were around, for me to be there injured. So I decided to leave - but I was flying home at the same time my mum and dad were flying out.
“Beijing has a big airport, I was dropped off and that was it, I was on my own, and that was a very lonely time. It was a tough time going through that. My parents had put a lot into it, I told them I was heading home but we made the decision as a family that they should still go. Over the years of Paralympic sport, they'd made lots of good friends and knew lots of the athletes. They were going to see other events and races as well, so it was agreed that they would still do that.
“Even after all this, I still wasn't going to retire. I got through rehab, got back running and headed into 2009 before tearing my hamstring ahead of the Paralympic World Cup. That was the moment I started to think, maybe it's over. We had the Crystal Palace Grand Prix coming up, and the opportunity was there to have that as my final race. The injuries got to me, so I had my retirement race in front of a home crowd. Still to this day I don't know if that was the correct decision.
“Could I have gone on? Could I have pushed through to London 2012? I would have been 39 then, which would have made me an older athlete, but it's achievable in the 800m. Sportspeople, when not training, are bears with sore heads. For the first month or two after retirement, it was brilliant. I could eat and drink what I wanted without worrying. But then, you suddenly lose that structure in your life. And the tough thing was knowing that I would never be that fit in my life again.
“After that first initial period of going bonkers, you are a bit lost. You don't have that structure, that focus in your life, and it is quite hard to get going again. If I haven't got something to work towards, I have no motivation. I'm all or nothing. You lose your identity when you retire - though if any young athletes are reading this, it's not all doom and gloom, just something to think about.
“Throughout my career, it was important that while I was an athlete that I also had something else on the sidelines to focus on, which for me was speaking. I'm still a speaker now and I'm very passionate about it - not just turning up and telling stories. Training always came first, but if I could make it work around those sessions, then it was all fine. This stuff was great for me. I still had my speaking once the athletics was done, and while I didn't have the same structure, this was quite important.
“I’ve also done some big challenges since my retirement, such as the John O’Groats to Land’s End ride. A challenge like that reaches your limit every day, and you certainly need as much mental strength as you do physical. Either way, having something to aim for proved so important in my retirement, and still does now more than a decade later.”
The first instalment of Danny’s blog was released on Tuesday (19 May). He
talked about coming to terms with a life-changing car crash, starting para athletics and the emotions he experienced at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004.
SportsAid is proudly working alongside BelievePerform to help athletes build positive mental health habits while also offering support and guidance to their parents and guardians. BelievePerform provides access to a range of applied and practical resources including online courses and training plans. Videos, articles, podcasts and infographics are also available.