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It’s not just you – Our sporting heroes struggle with mental health too!

mental health, Self-care

WRITTEN BY ALICIA KOCH, FOUNDER OF THE LEGAL BELLETRIST

It’s “Ok not to be Ok”. Honestly.

Choice.

Choice is a funny thing. It’s something we all have. 

We can choose who we love, we can choose how we worship. We can choose our sexual orientation. We can choose what political parties we follow and those we don’t. We can say no to the things we disagree with. And we can stand up for the things we do. We can get married, or not. Have children. Don’t have children. We can abort an unwanted pregnancy, or not – your body, your choice. We can choose to study or not. We can choose to live the way we want to. 

And we can choose how we feel and what to do about it.

These are all choices we get to make every single day. 

But what if you were not happy with your choices?

Take myself as an example. 

I am a qualified and admitted attorney. I completed an undergraduate B.Com Law degree and thereafter a post graduate LL.B degree. Definitely achievements to be proud of. To Be sure. And I was. 

I was proud to be called an Attorney or General Counsel or In-house counsel. Whatever the title. I was proud that I was given the opportunity to study when some people weren’t. I was proud that I could draft international contracts and win cases. I was proud of what I had achieved. La-di-da.

But I was also deeply unhappy. I suffered from anxiety, stress to the extreme, I felt inadequate and constantly felt like a failure. An imposter. My mental health really took a knock. And it was so hard to admit that. 

I wasn’t doing what I believed I should be doing. I felt like when it came down to it, I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live. I was just going through the motions. Even though I had been trained to be what I was and was operating at high levels.

And I didn’t (yet) have the guts to say – Stop. Enough. I don’t want this. I am unhappy. 

And I felt so alone in that.

The truth is – you are not alone – poor mental health affects us all 

Growing up we are all led to believe (whether it is through our families influence, TV, Magazines and now social media) that famous people are above it all. Immune to “feeling all the feels”. 

Like money, fame and success can make them immune to feeling inadequate, like feeling like a failure, like being anxious, unsure. Feeling not quite themselves. Feeling down or even being depressed.

But it simply isn’t true. 

After all, even famous people are human.

It’s funny, when I started writing this article, I wanted to discuss how athletes perform to these extremely high standards and how they are able to motivate themselves through the hard times. But it has turned into something more than that. 

And it started with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which really did shine a spotlight on mental health issues. 

And the humanity of it all. 

The “real” of it all – behind all the camera flashes, TV interviews and million dollar endorsements.

How, despite “having the world at their feet” even professional athletes trained to withstand immense pressure both in their professional and private lives can fall. Can fail. And can feel it.

It is surprising which of the people we look up to, mold ourselves after or wish we could be, have suffered through their own bouts of mental health issues. Have wanted things to stop. Or have wanted to change their circumstances. But they have come through it – not entirely unscathed – but they have made it through. Because of the choices they made.

And it is these people that outperform, that compete at high levels and to high standards (for a living), that put smiles on for the crowds and wave to their fans. It’s the people that win the gold medals, the people that set the records – or break them. It is the people that admit they are suffering despite their fame and success, that I want to talk about.    

Because maybe we can learn a thing or two from their experiences. Especially around the choices they decided to make. Despite it all.

Mental health – Even our heroes cry

In an article titled How Have Leading Athletes Addressed Their Struggles With Mental Health?, the following was set out – 

“The nonprofit Athletes for Hope has estimated that 35% of professional athletes experience problems with their mental health, facing everything from eating disorders and burnout to depression and anxiety—but they’re not often discussed on the world’s largest stages, especially not by players at the top of their careers”.

And that is where we begin.

 Ginástica Artística – Final individual feminino – Simone Biles/EUA – Medalha de Ouro by Danilo Borges /ME /Brasil2016.

It is no surprise that during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, with 32 Olympic and world medals, made headlines when she pulled out of the U.S. team gymnastics finals – withdrawing from the team all-around, the individual all-around, the vault, floor exercise and uneven bar events. She stated that the emotional toll of the Tokyo Games, (and not her physical health) had taken its toll on her which prompted her withdrawal. 

Simone is widely considered to be the world’s best gymnast – at the young age of only 24 – tied for the most Olympic record medals won by an American gymnast. 

She is arguably at the top of her game, how could she be suffering from mental health issues? 

But she is. And she walked away from one of the biggest athletic competitions in the world in order to focus on her own mental health. On her own terms. And with her head held high. She is not ashamed. Nor should she be. 

Experts have said that if the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was a measure for her future success and ability to compete – she may have missed her curtain call. But, at the very same time, she is leaving behind a legacy that transcends sports. And she has become a household name.

Simone who is a survivor of the USA Gymnastics team’s former doctor, Larry Nassar’s abuse (he was accused of sexually assaulting more than 120 girls. He pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 10 minors in a Michigan court in 2018 and is serving up to 175 years in prison), is now able to speak out against sexual abuse, mental health issues and will represent the shift towards advocating for better safety and better treatment of athletes and coaches alike.

And that’s a big deal! 

But if you think Simone is the only athlete to experience mental health issues, you would be sorely mistaken

According to the article 10 Famous Athletes Who Struggle With Depression, –

”AN NCAA survey of athletes found that 30 percent reported feeling depressed over the course of a year. Why? Research from the Northern Ireland Association of Mental Health suggests competitive failure and other factors can lead to psychological distress”.

Our heroes have been crying for a while now, we just didn’t notice. 

Joe Marler

 Joe Marler by Charlie.

The Harlequins and England prop was the subject of a Sky Sports documentary Big Boys Don’t Cry in which he talked openly about learning to cope with his mental health issues and how he battled with mental health in his private life and during his time playing rugby on the international stage.

He described how he opened up to his wife and close friends and sought to get help from them in order to better understand what was going on. He saw a psychiatrist, got an evaluation, had several sessions and was put on anti-depressants.

He has said that – 

“We are required to dominate and intimidate opposing players when we cross the white line on the pitch, we must show no weakness or vulnerability in order to win. But it doesn’t have to be like that off the pitch.”

Joe Marler

Which is completely right. 

Through Big Boys Don’t Cry, Joe has travelled around the UK to open up the conversation around mental health challenges and meet people along the way who are learning to manage their mental wellbeing.

Big boys can (and do) cry!

Michael Phelps

 Michael Phelps by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil.

Winner of 28 Olympic medals, retired competitive swimmer Michael Phelps is considered to be one of the most successful and most decorated Olympians of all time. But at a conference held at the Kennedy Forum in 2018 he told a shocked audience that he had contemplated suicide. In a CNN article it was stated that during a discussion with political strategist David Axelrod, Michael spoke openly about his battle against anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. He admitted to turning to alcohol (in 2004 Phelps was charged with driving under the influence) and drugs (in 2008 just weeks after he had won a record number of eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics was photographed smoking marijuana). He admitted that – 

“Drugs were a way of running from “whatever it was I wanted to run from. It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was that I was trying to run from.”

But he got help. 

And has now admitted that by talking about his feelings, “life became easy.”

He also admitted to something that a lot of us may be guilty of – 

“I was very good at compartmentalizing things and stuffing things away that I didn’t want to talk about, I didn’t want to deal with, I didn’t want to bring up — I just never ever wanted to see those things,”

Michael Phelps

Sound familiar?

Lastly, he said one of the most important things that I think we can take away from his experience – 

“It’s OK to not be OK” and that mental illness “has a stigma around it and that’s something we still deal with every day. I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change.”

Michael Phelps

Today, he is making a difference by helping others through the Michael Phelps Foundation and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.  

Naomi Osaka

 Naomi Osaka by Rob Prange.

Beating Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S Open Final, 23 year old Naomi has been unveiled by Forbes as the world’s highest-paid sportswoman, making $60 million (with $55 million coming from endorsements) in the past 12 months alone.  

It is the largest number earned by a woman in history, shattering the single-year earning mark of $45.5 million set by Maria Sharapova in 2015. Naomi has many lucrative deals under her belt with the likes of Nike and Nissan, amongst a host of others. 

Everyone knows her name. She is well and truly on top of her game. And coining it. 

But is she really?

Naomi came under fire when she announced that she would not take part in press interviews whilst at the 2021 French Open resulting in a fine of $15,000 from the tournament’s authorities – which she had hoped would “go towards a mental health charity.”

In a statement posted on Twitter and Instagram, Naomi said that – 

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”

She later went on to withdraw from the tournament altogether citing anxiety and wanting to exercise self-care. She needed time to focus on her mental health. 

Whilst she suffered a harsh fine due to not abiding by her media obligations, the Roland Garros authorities warned that if Osaka continued to “ignore her media obligations,” she could incur more violations and risk more extreme fines and even suspensions from further Grand Slam tournaments. They were later lambasted for how she was treated.

Prominent athletes and celebrities rallied around Naomi with messages of care and support. With Venus Williams even commenting – “So proud of you. Take care of yourself and see you back winning soon.”

And a truly meaningful message coming from tennis icon Martina Navratilova who tweeted – 

“I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be OK. As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift”.

And that’s really the point. 

People (famous or not) constantly focus on their physical health and wellbeing. As if that’s all that makes up a human being. But there should be more attention on the mental health of society as well. 

Mental health issues are not just a trend. And they should not just be paid lip service. Real action needs to be taken. 

By all of us.

In an essay titled Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.’ in Time magazine, Naomi said this – 

“Life is a journey.

In the past few weeks, my journey took an unexpected path but one that has taught me so much and helped me grow. I learned a couple of key lessons.

Lesson one: you can never please everyone. The world is as divided now as I can remember in my short 23 years. Issues that are so obvious to me at face value, like wearing a mask in a pandemic or kneeling to show support for anti-racism, are ferociously contested. I mean, wow. So, when I said I needed to miss French Open press conferences to take care of myself mentally, I should have been prepared for what unfolded.

Lesson two was perhaps more enriching. It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does. The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions.

Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions”.

And those are profound lessons for someone of her tender age. 

Naomi thanks Michael Phelps for his support stating – 

“Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it.”

Naomi later withdrew from Wimbledon as well. 

Whilst she competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she did not perform as expected (or as she had hoped) being knocked out of the women’s singles tennis by Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.

Naomi merely said that it sucked to lose. Which it undoubtedly did. 

We hear you and we get it!

But Naomi’s move to withdraw from interviews and international tournaments has sparked talks worldwide around mental health – people are being made more aware of the fact that mental health issues do actually exist, that it is not something to be ashamed of and that professional athletes suffer from mental health issues too. Which is an important thing!

Naomi’s advocacy for mental health for professional athletes will enable her to encourage others to take their mental health seriously and will help change the industry. For the better. 

And hopefully, influence wider society whilst she is at it.

See? Poor mental health affects us all – It’s not just you!

As you can see – even the mighty fall

Whilst it may feel like it sometimes, you are not alone. 

Many people, famous and everyday people alike, experience mental health issues. But it’s what we choose to do about them that counts.

In an article titled A game-changer for mental health: Sports icons open up, they said –  

“They had the world’s spotlight shining on them.

They had trained for years for this moment.

Millions of fans waited to watch them compete and see them hoist a trophy or a gold medal once again.

Instead, they used that spotlight to say something few world-famous athletes have ever dared to say out loud: I need to step away from this competition and focus on my mental health.

And by doing so, gymnast Simone Biles, tennis player Naomi Osaka, basketball player Kevin Love and a handful of others at the pinnacle of their athletic careers have helped accelerate a trend that mental health experts at the University of Michigan say is long overdue.

By being open about what they were experiencing, and not “toughing it out” or stifling their feelings like generations of athletes have had to do, these icons did more than spare themselves injury or defeat.

Their public choice to seek help for depression, anxiety, overwhelming stress and other concerns could help athletes at all levels have the courage to seek professional help, and a break from competition if they need it.”

And that is exactly the point – these athletes made a choice. One that benefitted their own safety, their own mental health and their own well-being. And for those that look up to them, it will hopefully educate and encourage society to speak more openly about their own mental health issues. 

Times are clearly changing. For professional athletes at the top of their games (earning millions), in the midst of worldwide competitions, to stop and also say – Enough. I don’t want this. I am unhappy. Despite fines, loss of earnings or endorsements – speaks volumes. 

It shows that no one is immune. And that regardless of your position, you have a choice to stand up for yourself, to change your circumstances, to say no, to act in your own best interests, to say enough is enough, to admit that you have a problem. And most importantly, to ask for help. 

Even when you are a famous sportsperson, even when you are a famous actor, like Kit Harington (as only one isolated example). 

Even when you are at the top of your game.

You have choice. Don’t tough it out. Don’t suffer in silence. 

And know that you can change your situation for the better. 

As Michael Phelps tweeted – “getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness”.

And isn’t it about time?

How you can get help if you’re struggling with poor mental health

Remember, poor mental health can transpire in many forms. From feeling stressed, anxious and overwhelmed, to feelings of low self-worth, burnout and suicide. Whatever you are experiencing, there is help out there for you. 

For help with navigating stress and overwhelm , contact Frieda Levycky of Braving Boundaries who will provide the support and guidance you need to bring clarity to the chaos.

If you’re thinking about suicide, hurting yourself or struggling with depression, you can get support by calling –

  • LifeLine SA on 0861 322 322 
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline on 0800 12 13 14
  • South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) on 0800 567 657

If you’re struggling with drug use or addiction, or know someone who is, you can call Houghton House’s 24/7 emergency helpline on 079 770 7532.

Or visit https://www.houghtonhouse.co.za/drug-alcohol-and-addiction-helplines-south-africa/ to get referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organisations.

This is not about rewinding time to go back in order to make different decisions. No. This is about dealing with the ones you’ve already made. It is about admitting that you are experiencing a problem, it is about saying no to the things you cannot do anymore. And most importantly – it is about asking for help. 

Remember – “IT’S OK NOT TO BE OK”.

But you also need to choose to do something about it. 

If I, Michael, Simone and Naomi can do it. So can you. 


About the writer, Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist.

Alicia, an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE, and now a legal writer and researcher, has established The Legal Belletrist to assist companies (in different sectors) to write well-researched articles that speak to each company’s core business, enabling growth and commercialism. 

Click here to visit The Legal Belletrist website.

Email: aliciak@thelegalbelletrist.com 

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