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.
Olympic silver medallist Keri-anne Payne, who is a long-standing ambassador of SportsAid, has written a blog on her own relationship with mental health. Here, Keri-anne reflects on the importance of her family and support network, making the move from the pool to open water swimming, training your brain as well as your body, and changing her approach following the London 2012 Olympics.
“WHY ARE WE BOTHERING TO COVER 70,000 METRES A WEEK BUT NOT TRAINING OUR BRAIN?”
“As a young athlete who enjoyed swimming, my career wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my parents. Swimming is a young person's sport which fits around education, so one or both parents would take me to the pool after a 5am wake-up, and then drive me home again. My siblings were a big help and having that support network made everything easier.
“It took all the pressure off – and as a young athlete, that helped me mentally deal with getting started. Similarly with my coaches, I was never under any pressure to do anything I didn’t want to do. People understood I trained because I wanted to be the best athlete I could be, not to necessarily win gold medals or titles. Everyone knew I loved training and would give 100%, so I was lucky to have the right support to do what I loved.
“As a young teenager, you have fears and problems like most people your age. You worry about opinions and I clearly remember a phase wondering what my parents and coach would think after a bad race. Now, it's easy to look back and see how ridiculous it was – to think if I had a bad race that they would love me any less.
“I've always been someone people came to if they needed help or support. I've always been older than my age – even when I was a junior, I certainly wasn't classed as junior with the way that I acted. I was still at school when trying to qualify for the Athens 2004 Olympics but I just missed out. I made the qualifying time two weeks late, which was the first time I really thought, 'maybe I could make an Olympic Games’.
“Next year, I missed the World Championships by 0.4 seconds, which was annoying, but I got a massive PB in the process. A year later, I came fourth in the Commonwealth Games, and that was hard to swallow. That's when I had one of my biggest blips – I didn't enjoy training anymore, I didn't want to get quicker. And that's when we made the change from pool swimming to open water.
“It was everything I needed. I wasn't putting pressure on myself, it was about trying something new and seeing how I fared. It was a new, longer challenge, the breath of fresh air I needed to carry on swimming and training, and the spark to carry on my journey to be the best athlete I can be, all the way to Beijing in 2008. You never know what the future holds, so I thought it could be my only Olympics.
“I just wanted to make the most of every opportunity – I had nothing to lose, I wasn't the best in the world and it felt a free race. But I came home with a silver medal and my open water journey was cemented thereon. I was eighth in the world rankings beforehand, so to come away with silver on that stage was a great feeling. I craved that silver. The gold medallist was an outstanding athlete and completely deserved to win, and I raced well to earn that silver medal.
“For me, it was never about medals or going to these major competitions. It was about being the best that I could be. But it wasn’t until after Beijing that I started reaching out to people and focusing more on my mental health. Up until then, if you had to go and see the psychologist, it was seen that you had an issue. I was very glad about the way that attitudes started to change when it came to working with psychologists.
“It's like a muscle in our bodies – why are we bothering to cover 70,000 metres a week but not training our brain? It was about training your mind and talking through things that were challenging at the time. But also, it was about making ourselves better, learning about our individual personality and the personalities of others. It's become part of the norm for athletes now, which is fantastic.
“You go and see the physio, you go and see your coaches, and going to see the team psychologist is a good part of that. That became even more important heading into London 2012, and I worked hard with the sports psych in those four years to make sure I wasn’t putting too much pressure on myself. But the Games itself were amazing. I felt like a complete rock star – it's an experience that I don't think can be matched. I missed out on a medal by coming in fourth, which was brutal. Heartbreaking.
“I didn't have anyone else to blame in me not getting on the podium. When I look back at my career, I'm incredibly proud of the performance and coming back from 12th to fourth. But what I was most proud of was how far the sport had come in the past four years. Nobody really knew about open water swimming at Beijing, so to fast forward to 2012 and for there to be 30,000 people in Hyde Park was amazing.
“I still get people sending me messages now saying that race inspired them to take up the sport, and that's what it's all about. London 2012 was one of the best experiences of my whole life, and it was so nice being a part of it. I changed my strategy after London. I was no longer the fastest, so I had to change my approach from one of complete speed and endurance to one which was more rounded.
“I wanted to become the most rounded as opposed to the best. For the next four years, I did lots more racing and tried out a load of new tactics. That was a fresh way to look at things and I really loved the last four years of my career. I knew Rio was going to be my last Olympics, and I was very ready for it. I came seventh and was really happy with the result, I couldn't have done anymore and, in my opinion, I was the most well-rounded athlete I could be.
“I finished with a huge smile on my face because I couldn't have done anymore, it ended on the note I wanted it to. Knowing that was my last race, I didn't want to leave anything in the water, which was how it played out. I was really happy. A few months later, I retired feeling very content. I made sure I had something to step into.
“I started a new business and I stepped straight into that, so my identity changed from being the athlete training all the time to the coach going on to swim retreats. I was happy and excited by that which made the transition really easy for me – and I didn’t have to get up at 5am anymore, which was a complete bonus!”
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.