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What the experiences of professional athletes can teach us about mental health

Opinion by Andrew Cowley

The cases of Ben Stokes and other athletes provide stark lessons in the pressures of being in the limelight, and the psychological challenges that come with it.

Ben Stokes is no ordinary athlete; his exceptional performances in the summer of 2019 ensuring a place in the cricketing annals. Combining genuine skill, immense strength and no small measure of luck, his efforts helped take England to a first-ever World Cup triumph in the 50-over version of the game, while his extraordinary innings in the Headingley Ashes Test memorably ensured a victory was snatched from the jaws of almost certain defeat.

These heroics are captured in a newly released documentary on Stokes, available on Amazon TV. In Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes, Stokes looks the part: toned and tattooed with a neatly trimmed beard. Yet for parts of this film, Stokes looks lost, vulnerable and distracted, looking not to the camera or interviewer, but into the middle distance. This is a portrait not only of a sporting role model, but of a man facing challenges with his mental health.

Stokes talks about an episode when he realised he was having a panic attack. ‘Panic attack’ is not a term we should throw around lightly or use casually, but one needing a level of empathetic understanding. In this particular case, Stokes was unable to breathe and was in tears. The fact that this occurred in the bathroom of the England team hotel, when he was effectively on duty, raised concerns among his colleagues. His teammate Stuart Broad shared that there was concern that Stokes would not play in the match, or even ever again.

Ben Stokes shows tremendous courage, not only in his sporting exploits, but in his willingness to discuss his mental health, his use of anxiety medications, his taking of time away from the game and, most importantly, that it is “okay to say when you’re not okay.”

His stance is echoed by other professional athletes in a similar position, but also sets a marker for the vast majority of people who are not in the public eye to raise an issue that may not have had a place in the national conversation; something that, in the past, may have been felt as shameful or not discussed openly.

The pressures of the limelight

Successful sports people are quite naturally going to be in the public eye, and the pressure on them to perform, and to win medals and championships can have an immense impact upon their mental wellbeing. In recent years however, other athletes have become more open in discussing their mental health and how it has affected their performance and self-confidence. Simone Biles stepped back from team and individual events at the Tokyo Olympics, when she was a near certainty to become the most successful Olympic gymnast in history, so she could focus on her own mental health. On hearing this news, Michael Phelps, a twenty-three time Olympic Gold Medallist, was reported to have said the news about Biles broke his heart and he spoke openly about his struggles with depression, drink and drugs in relation to how his mental health was impacted. Phelps also quoted Japan’s Naomi Osaka, the tennis star who said that the press had little or no regard for her mental health as she withdrew from the French Open, a tournament she had every chance of winning.


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Unfavourable coverage

Ben Stokes too has found the press less than sympathetic in recent years. Beginning with the 2016 T20 World Cup Final, bowling the final over and needing to prevent the West Indies scoring a daunting 19 runs off six balls, Stokes found himself bowling to Carlos Brathwaite, who proceeded to send the next four deliveries into the stands for six runs a time, winning the game with two balls to spare. Despite the efforts of England captain Eoin Morgan to say that defeat wasn’t Stokes’ fault, the image of the all-rounder on his haunches and distraught was on every news bulletin and on every back page for the next day or so, alongside commentary laying responsibility in his hands.

A year later, Stokes was arrested in Bristol and charged with affray for a late-night incident in which he had stepped in to prevent homophobic abuse. Though another teammate was present, it was the involvement of Stokes that drew the press attention. In fact, even after he was found not guilty, one national newspaper continued to report on the case to cast aspersions towards Stokes and his temperament.

Most shocking, after the death of Gerard Stokes, Ben’s father, in New Zealand, a national newspaper reported a tragic story involving Ben’s mother and his older half-siblings, who he never met. The details of that tragedy won’t be shared here, but the reporting of it in the UK press, many years after the event, was at best unnecessary and at worst intrusive. Even though damages were awarded, the way that the Stokes family, as well as Ben himself, had been treated at a time in which they were grieving just shows how mental health can be affected by the words and intentions of others.

The importance of trust

There are a number of core issues here.

Firstly, Stokes and the other athletes have made clear the importance of talking about feeling, emotion, stress, and anxiety. Though they have their unique circumstances as professionals, the parallels for the rest of us can be drawn from their experience. Replace the inaccurate reporting of the press with workplace or schoolyard gossip. Consider how Simone Biles or Naomi Osaka talking about the need to take a break, and transpose their experience to an eighteen-year-old facing examination stress or a young person on the early stages of their career ladder realising their sense of burnout, wanting to take a step back, not to quit but to re-evaluate their progress. This demonstrates the importance of being able to talk openly, to not be judged, and to work in a culture of trust.

Trust, and confidentiality when it is needed, around mental health enables people to talk. Not everyone will feel the confidence to talk openly like our athletes have, but the model they have set shows that it is acceptable to talk about when things don’t feel right. Workplaces and schools with Mental Health First Aiders show the institution has staff who can be trusted and who can point the way if another level of support is necessary.

Defining success

Finally, how do we perceive ‘success’? Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka both walked away from a situation where both were predicted to win. Ben Stokes found defeat in a final a hard pill to swallow, but surely reaching a final is a success in itself. Michael Phelps, who had an individual gold medal haul more than most countries ever achieve, found the attention of success difficult to manage.

In sport we can only have one winner, but defeat doesn’t constitute failure. Some sports are moving actively to challenge such notions, particularly on child and youth level football where the language and tone of parents is encouraged to be positive and the development of skill and attitude comes ahead of winning. In schools, is success defined by being A* students, or by reaching and exceeding predicted grade levels? Success in life, in school, in sport is very much defined at a personal level and should be free of the external pressures which could have longer term and possibly harmful impacts. Osaka, Biles, Stokes, and many others in a range of team and individual sports have shown the importance of talking and of trust; a lesson perhaps for us all.


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