Sports legends speak about how being on top of their game took its toll

From coping with injuries and illness to dealing with abuse and allegations, sporting stars have spoken about the mental toll that elite-level sport brings, during an online event hosted by the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), the global health initiative of Qatar Foundation.

The webinar – Mental Health & Sport: The Challenge of Balancing Risk With Reward – saw Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Dame Kelly Holmes, former Liverpool and England footballer Robbie Fowler, and Wasim Akram, the ex-captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, reveal the pressures that being on top of their sport created and the personal turmoil they suffered.

The event – which also featured Professor Claudia Reardon, who specialises in sports psychiatry and co-chairs the International Olympic Committee’s working group on mental health and elite athletes – was organised by WISH to highlight how mental health issues can affect anyone, and the importance of seeking help when they arise.

The discussion moderated by BBC Sport and BBC News presenter Dan Walker – was viewed by over 10,000 people from 62 countries.

Dame Kelly Holmes

Dame Kelly spoke about how she suffered a serious mental breakdown during her glittering athletics career after ‘one injury too many’, and turned to self-harming. She said she ‘self-harmed’ once for every day she had been injured, and she hid it because she had never known of anyone in her network dealing with the problem.

Half of me was dying, and half of me was living for my dream, because I had a World Championship to go to, and that kept me going. I won a silver medal, but nobody knew what was happening with me. I just had to stay focused on my dream and hope that would keep me going.

Eventually, she decided she needed to talk about it to show people that, even when you have a dark time, you can come through it. She said that as a sportsperson, you are not superhuman, and when you are struggling, ask for someone’s help. Opening up to people has helped her deal with her life.

Wasim Akram

Wasim Akram’s cricketing career saw him become one of the best bowlers of all time, but while captain of his country, his teammates – and friends – rebelled against him, and he and his team were accused of deliberately losing a World Cup final.

Now, there is a lot more awareness of mental health, but when I was in my mid-20s and became captain of a cricket-mad country, I was lost.

When his  team said they would not play under him, that was a dark time.

Imagine playing in a team and not speaking to anyone in it for a month and a half. The culture in Pakistan was that we are mentally very tough and we didn’t talk about mental health. It took me two years to come back from it.

At 29, Akram was also diagnosed with diabetes ‘while at the top of my game’, which he said led him into a three-month period of depression. But he added that it was his fight and he had to deal with it. What I learned was how mentally strong I am and how important it is to think positively about myself and the people around me.

Robbie Fowler

Fowler, who was 26 caps for England and is still regarded as a Liverpool legend, said that to be a top sportsperson, you have to have tunnel vision about what you do and put everything else aside.

Although I’ve now retired from playing, at times people will still say horrible things about me on social media or bring up something that happened 10-15 years ago. That matters from a mental perspective, and it’s why I’m quite a private person because I want to keep my family away from that. As sportspeople, we have to learn to adapt to the society around us.

Fowler spoke about his own experience of how the specter of serious injury haunts sportspeople and can affect their psychological health.

Mental Health and Sport Webinar

According to Professor Reardon, athletes speaking about their own mental health issues can ‘demystify and destigmatize’ the subject. She said that there has been less stigma in recent years, but sport is still one of the final frontiers when it comes to mental health.

It’s very hard to have a game-face on the field, then step off it and say something is wrong and reach out for help.

There is also still a perception that athletes are relatively immune to mental health struggles, when they are just as likely as anyone else to suffer from depression and anxiety. When problems happen in sport, and it is someone’s livelihood and identity, it can be traumatic and simply compartmentalising the problem is not a sustainable way of addressing it.

Mental illnesses, according to Professor Reardon, are real and are treatable.

I just hope and aspire for us to get to the point where seeking treatment for these kinds of symptoms and disorders is as normal as seeking treatment for any physical health condition.

WISH 2020 – the latest edition of WISH’s biennial international health summit, which will take place virtually on 15-19 November – will include a focus on sport and health, as well as on mental health. For more information, visit wish.org.qa