High performance sport heightens mental health and wellbeing pressure points, but the causes of distress start well before those elite environments, Ashley Stanley writes.

We live in a world that stigmatises mental health but mourns suicide. But it doesn’t have to be this way if we all play our part within and beyond our bubble. 

As New Zealand sits in its second Level 4 lockdown, only weeks after hauling the most medals at an Olympic Games for the team of five million, it could serve as a time of reflection on a tally chart our nation doesn’t want to be climbing – yet we are. 

With the sombre news of New Zealand cyclist Olivia Podmore’s death, former athletes have come out to share how hostile and toxic some of their sporting environments were. Another questioned whether she would encourage her daughter to enter the elite world of sport. And a second independent review was confirmed by Cycling New Zealand and High Performance Sport New Zealand around the sport’s high performance culture. 

But the sad reality is, it’s the lengthy lead-up to that level of competition that also needs to be picked apart and scrutinised. 

Because it’s well known New Zealand has one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD – and the highest in the world for 15 to 19-year-olds. 

The strategy for beating Covid-19 may be effective, but the complex make-up of another ‘invisible’ pandemic is just as lethal. And it starts very early on, festers and grows throughout the different stages of sport. 

If you get to the peak of high performance (and that’s a very big IF), there are many layers of sport you have to persevere through, starting at the grassroots level. And at the top, less than one percent of people will ever make it, globally. 

From a young age, children are taught about winning and losing. If you win, it’s good, the people around you are happy and you are celebrated. If you lose, it’s bad, people are sad and you generally don’t receive any rewards. 

Children start to associate certain emotions and beliefs from this false dichotomy. And those associations are fed and build throughout their play, forming attitudes and set behaviours well into their teenage years and adulthood. People around them obviously influence what these traits will be. 

If they haven’t been turned off from playing sport by intermediate school, and can afford to keep going, they then move up through the age groups, and codes start recruiting children into supposed ‘specialised’ talent development programmes. This continues, despite the masses of evidence showing it doesn’t translate into reaching the top level of sport and reinforces unhealthy notions around young people’s worth – both if you’re ‘selected’ or not.

Research shows that ‘balance is better’. Sport New Zealand has a website dedicated to this mantra with resources and stories from a range of people including former elite athletes emphasising the need to ‘have fun’ growing up.

But at the other end of the spectrum, you re-learn that winning comes in different shapes. Top sportspeople are taught to focus on the ‘process’, concentrating on the ‘one-percenters’ (basics continually done well) instead of the outcome. And mental health and wellbeing is an enormous factor in keeping fit and chasing those goals. 

So why don’t we do the same from the beginning and place importance on what’s being taught at an elite level to more of the population? 

The tools and techniques could be used in our young people’s lives, not just in sport. And like the dedicated sports people who focus on improving on the small things daily, the repetition of new behaviours will surely reap rewards across a number of ‘scoreboards’. 

Because if we stay on the same track, the learned practices our children pick up early on, including negative self-talk, will only be heightened in high performance environments – usually at a hidden cost to their mental health and wellbeing. 

On the wider scale, the competitive nature of sport at grassroots mirrors the top but the stakes are a lot higher. Power, politics and profit is the real game and one we don’t often see in detail – until it’s too late in some cases. Then there’s the range of other societal barriers hampering our mental illness, health and wellbeing efforts including poverty, violence and racism. 

For the few athletes who come out to speak about mental health and wellbeing, there’s multiple teammates behind them who can’t, for whatever reasons, and they will suffer in silence.

It requires a certain type of person to push through and endure the physical and mental barriers in sport to reach the top echelons. But the same traits that help them thrive and mix with the best in their fields, can also be detrimental at times in a society that praises the importance of winning at all costs.

Yet, we all know playing sport also has health benefits and offers the chance to learn transferable skills such as working as a team, communicating better and practising patience. We just need to reframe our approach and emphasis to encourage a change in culture. 

Some points to be mindful of to help with mental health and wellbeing in sport:

* Dishing out money for tries or goals may seem harmless at the under-six level, but it shows the child they need to accomplish a winning outcome if they want to be treated. This association can cause issues around identity in sport and life during and after playing careers.

* Telling children to ‘stop’ their emotions when they’re angry or sad about a result isn’t helpful in learning how to sit with their feelings, so they can work their way through them in a way that doesn’t have them exploding later on in life. Or silently suffering on their own.

* Encourage an environment where any emotion can be discussed. Sometimes just sitting and listening to those who have reached out (the hardest part to do) is all they want. Advice is not always needed. Chances are, they’ve already mulled over every possible scenario in their head anyway because most of the time, they are their harshest critic.

* Comments around weight, image and performances all leave a mark – whether you see it or not. They’re unhelpful at the time and potentially harmful in the long run. Especially if it’s constant.

The top end of sport is extreme because we’ve allowed those systems to play out over time, without even realising in most cases. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have independent reviews and be open to analyse how we can continually improve. 

It’s just that we need prevention and cure to battle this pandemic too.

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