Recent events bring hope not despair

It’s been a very significant week for mental health in sport. A week where several high-profile athletes from a range of sporting backgrounds have admitted to their own personal battles.

American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from several events at the Tokyo Olympics, prioritising her own mental wellbeing. England cricketer Ben Stokes recently announced he was taking “an indefinite break” from the game for the same reason. And today it emerged that England defender Tyrone Mings spoke to a psychologist during the recent European Championships, saying his “mental health plummeted” during the build up to the finals.

None of this is a surprise to former Scottish cyclist and Commonwealth gold medallist Callum Skinner. In a recent BBC news article, Skinner spoke about his own depression and mental health battles and said that the recent surge in athletes speaking out “isn’t the start of a tidal wave of athletes suddenly pulling out of events because of mental ill health. It’s just athletes being honest.”

There are few more honest than Joe Marler, the Harlequins and England rugby player whose recent Sky TV documentary “Big Boys Don’t Cry” is one of the most honest, interesting and thought-provoking insights into mental health in sport I’ve seen to date. Marler begins the documentary by saying, “My position is loose-head, and I guess I’m a loose head in more ways than one.”

The title of the documentary is also important to consider. It reminds us of an attitude still prevalent in sport and in society. In Marler’s own words, “I’d worry about mental health being seen as a weakness. Be a man. Show no weakness. Show no emotion.” These sentiments have been echoed by several other athletes and surely add to the mental torture suffered by those struggling to admit that the public persona is merely masking their true emotions.

In the ultra-macho world of rugby, Marler admitted to the persona of a ‘pantomime villain’ on the pitch. To outsiders looking in, he seemingly had everything; international honours, a lovely house, a wife, children…a happy and comfortable life. This seemed to make it harder for Marler to come to terms with his true feelings. “Darkness inside me took over. I didn’t want to be here anymore, and I couldn’t work out why. My mental health problems took over every aspect of my life. I’m a man – I shouldn’t be crying on my way to work.”

Marler then described an event in 2019 he considers a pivotal moment in his life. After an argument with his wife, Marler admits to “losing the plot” before damaging his house and storming out. This made him realise things were unravelling quickly and he needed help. The rest of the documentary explained how Marler found help in some unconventional places.

He began by visiting Eastbourne Rugby Club, the place where Marler first enjoyed the sport that would become his career. As a 12-year-old, Marler described himself as “fat, loud, outgoing and gobby,” with a “be a bully or get bullied,” attitude. This ‘back to roots’ experience seemed an important way for Marler to consider how his personality developed on the pitch and how it may have subsequently affected him off the pitch.

Marler then spent time in the wilds with Hamish Mackay–Lewis, a Life Coach and ex-British forces soldier. In a fascinating discussion with Marler, Mackay-Lewis explained that practicing what we want is the key to finding what we want in life. “We practice the wrong stuff. We practice what we don’t want. We practice disconnection. We practice distraction and avoidance, so we just get more of that. We need to find awareness of what we are doing and practice what we do want.”

The next stops on Marler’s journey saw him spend time with ‘The Big House’ theatre group in Islington and The Tottenham Community Choir. Both groups took Marler out of his comfort zone but clearly sold him on how drama and singing can be used to improve state of mind, to find freedom, expression and an escape from the pressure and stress of ‘real life.’

Finally, Marler travelled to Llyn Dinas, a lake near Snowdonia in North Wales to meet Vivienne Rickman, a champion of the mental health benefits of open-water swimming. “We spend our lives now with mobile phones and to-do lists,” she said, “but when I’m in the water it’s just me. I don’t have all that baggage around.” Rickman went on to explain that after losing her mom, swimming became even more significant. “My mom was a swimmer…when she died, I started to swim a lot more and it just became apparent that swimming was the one thing that connected me to mom.”

After literally taking the plunge, Marler described the feeling of open-water swimming as “amazing” and in a conversation with Rickman, admitted that “I’m worried this might become a drug, I’m just going to be dipping in and out of lakes.”

What can we learn from Marler’s journey? Well, we aren’t there yet but Marler certainly feels that society is in a “crossover period” where we are starting to accept that dealing with our emotions is a positive thing. It is okay to show your emotions. It is okay to cry. You don’t have to hide it. Simply by experiencing different things, by opening up and letting himself go, Marler found activities that did not have as much pressure or competition as rugby, and this helped him to relax.

Marler’s closing words perfectly summed up his own experiences and give a positive message to all of those who have suffered or continue to suffer with mental health issues. “With depression, there’s not one thing that says ‘right, you’re done. You’re fixed. I went looking for answers, but what I found were people, ordinary people. Ordinary people, but extraordinary, because they’ve all got a little something. A little way of letting the light in.”

Biles, Stokes, Mings, Marler…. they’re certainly not the only ones. The more that ‘speak up’, the more accepted mental health issues will become, and the more athletes will have the confidence to seek help and support and find their own way of ‘letting the light in.’

Phil McShane (Sporting Minds UK)

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