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Super human athletes are still human

We’ve seen so much in the news recently about athletes talking more openly about their mental wellbeing which has really supported the positive culture of looking after and talking about our mental health.

The likes of Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Maddie Hinch are just a few of the sports stars that have had honest and frank discussions about the impact of elite sport on their mental health.

Biles made the brave decision to not compete in a series of gymnastics finals in Tokyo 2020 for her own safety and to protect her mental wellbeing. Osaka withdrew from the French Open after organisers fined her and threatened to expel her for not honouring her media commitments because of the impact the media have on her mental health. Hinch recently spoke of her struggles with depression after being thrust into the spotlight following her incredible performance in the Rio 2016 hockey final to win gold.

These athletes have all demonstrated courage and strength by talking about their struggles and showing they’re just as human as the rest of us, but the struggles they have been facing can be tricky to relay back in classroom conversations.

So practically, how can we use the power of these athletes’ voices and stories to encourage positive mental wellbeing?

There are 3 immediate easy messages we can focus on on the relationship between physical activity, sport and mental health:

Be active: Physical activity is the best tool in the mental wellbeing toolbox. Physiologically it’s been proven to change the chemical balance in the brain to positively affect mood. But not just that, what our sports stars teach us is that sport has the power to teach and improve mental resilience, self-confidence, concentration and sleep.

Learn new skills: The age old saying goes “it takes 10,000 hours to master your craft”. Athletes will spend hours upon hours learning skills and improving them to be at the top of their game. On a smaller, manageable scale though, learning skills can further improve concentration, can help with goal setting to focus the mind and build a sense of purpose.

Practicing mindfulness: To compete at their fullest potential, athletes are supported in practicing mindfulness to clear the mind and focus on the job in hand. But the awesome thing about mindfulness is that it is completely accessible and anyone practicing it can experience the same benefits.

But bringing this back to “talking about mental health” which is what more and more athletes are now positively doing here are some other lessons we’ve learned so far:

It’s ok to ask for help: From our earlier examples, every athlete was wholly supported by their national governing bodies. But often it’s hard to start a conversation and it’s not until feelings or conditions are developed till we start talking about them. But by knowing institutions are actively offering support and the opportunity to ask for help, that conversation can be a whole lot easier to start.

There is no stigma in talking about mental health: Athletes are putting their stories out to the world to continue to improve education, attitudes and behaviours towards mental health. Mental health isn’t something to shy away from. It doesn’t mean people with mental ill-health are dangerous. And by athletes talking openly about their mental health hopefully helps others to talk about it too.

Mental health doesn’t mean weakness: Athletes are put on a pedestal as models of strength and power. It was previously perceived that athletes couldn’t break this image or it would negatively impact their careers. But by talking about their experiences, athletes are now showing that issues around mental health do not define them.

Be kind: Unfortunately, not everyone is kind when it comes to mental health. However for every negative comment these athletes received, there were an outpouring of kindness and support for them. Such a simple message, but an easy value to follow and encourage daily.

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