Summer of sport reveals true champions putting mental health front and centre - Martyn McLaughlin

The sporting world has been increasingly liberated from the kind of ignorance which blithely presumes that fame, fortune, and prowess somehow grants elite competitors immunity from the struggles which afflict the population at large.

Huge strides have been taken over the past decade in challenging the stigma surrounding mental health in elite sport, and while there remains a great deal of work to do, this summer has felt like a transformative moment. There is a gradual and hard won realisation that the pursuit of success and the preservation of welfare are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are inextricably linked.

Anyone who watched the characterful display of England defender Tyrone Mings against Croatia in the Euros cannot have doubted his place in the side. From winning nearly every aerial battle to making crucial clearances, he was a commanding and assured presence. The man of the match award went to his teammate, Kalvin Phillips, but Mings ran him close.

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It turns out, however, that there were doubts. This week, the Aston Villa centre-back spoke out about how his mental wellbeing had “plummeted” in the run up to that game.

“I have no shame in admitting that because there were so many unknowns about me,” he said. "I was probably the only name on the team sheet that people thought, 'not sure about him'. And that was something I had to overcome.”

In opening up about the coping mechanisms he was given by his psychologist, from breathing and meditation through to stopping his subconscious from “taking over,” a player who already emerged from the tournament as an inspirational figure has shown his leadership qualities extend far beyond the pitch.

The 28-year-old is not the first player to speak out about his mental health, and he will hopefully not be the last. What makes his candour all the more powerful is that fact that he is in the prime of his career.

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Simone Biles won bronze in the balance beam final after returning to competitive action. Picture: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/GettySimone Biles won bronze in the balance beam final after returning to competitive action. Picture: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty
Simone Biles won bronze in the balance beam final after returning to competitive action. Picture: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty

He is one of a small but growing band of elite athletes who are exposing the extraordinary strains of their chosen sport while actively competing. That does not necessarily make their observations more perceptive, but it helps conversations around mental health become more routine, and reminds us that glory can come at the expense of wellbeing.

The strength shown in recent weeks by Simone Biles is another outstanding case in point. For years, onlookers have wondered what it would be like to be Biles in full flow - flipping, twisting and flying through the air in defiance of gravity. Now, however, we know the true meaning of awe - the bravery to give all that up, and take a step back.

Biles is the most prodigiously talented gymnast the world has ever seen. She is also a high-profile young black woman, and an articulate advocate for social justice. Even for someone who moves with such grace, that is an inordinately heavy weight to bear.

Biles need not prove her fortitude and resilience to anyone. In withdrawing from the women’s all-around gymnastics final and other individual competitions, she showed that sport was not the most important thing in her life - at least, not at that moment in time. That kind of bravery is the stuff of true champions, and her bronze medal in Tuesday’s beam final will mean the world to her.

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As she and Mings know only too well, the requirement to thrive in a high pressure environment is one of the building blocks of sporting excellence. Overcoming adversity, whether that be injury, hostile crowds, or bad fortune, is part of the game.

But when that pressure hardens into a debilitating stress, it endangers more than their prospects of victory. The threats are ever-present, whether it be self-doubt, loneliness, a level of relentless scrutiny which has become uniquely intense thanks to social media, or the barely conceivable prospect of failure and its myriad consequences.

In some instances, these athletes have also had to contend with personal trauma. Biles was one of countless young girls and women who suffered under the reign of abuse inflicted by Larry Nassar, the disgraced former US Olympics team doctor. She stands alone as the only survivor still competing at an international level.

Despite the fact these conversations are becoming more frequent, we need not look too far into the past to see the dangers of an environment in which people become so overwhelmed by anguish that they consider the darkest options. The start of the Tokyo Olympics coincided with a strikingly emotional interview with Michael Jamieson by BBC Scotland’s Tom English.

In it, the silver medallist and one-time poster boy for Scottish sport recalled his ferocious appetite for success, and how he became “consumed” with his identity as an athlete. The man, meanwhile, fell apart, a hostage to depression, painkillers, and sleeping pills. Thankfully, he is on the road to recovery.

Could that crisis have been averted? It is impossible to say, and perhaps reductive to even ask. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to the complex and individualised nature of mental health. Jamieson met with four psychiatrists before finding someone who gave him the help he required.

These little details help. They help us to understand that even though these are individuals capable of superhuman feats, it is in no way incongruous to normalise them. Whatever their chosen discipline, openness and emotional intelligence are increasingly important attributes for modern athletes.

We cannot talk about these issues too much. That means unpicking the cocooned camaraderie of a life in sport - particularly team sport - which can mask serious problems. It means reflecting on the transition to retirement, a process likened to post-traumatic stress, given the sense of abandonment it can leave. It also means ensuring that institutions and governing bodies have a proactive and holistic approach to mental health.

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More than anything, however, it means redefining how we measure success, and remembering that some things are infinitely more valuable than gold.

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