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Empower the athlete’s voice by protecting their mental health

Sport is playing an important role in the mental health discussion globally. Radha Balani, director of design and facilitation at sport for social impact consultancy, thinkBeyond, explains why the athlete’s mental welfare is vital to expanding the conversation.

As we reflect on the positive messages gleaned from Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s take a moment to consider what sport's role should be in expanding the conversation and how we can empower our athletes to spread the word to more people globally.

The answer is two-fold in my opinion. Firstly, I believe it is vitally important to see that sport continues to give its talent a platform to advocate mental health awareness in our communities and to help remove the persistent and unnecessary stigma that still exists within discussion.

However, to do this, it is also critical that we do more to protect the mental wellbeing of athletes themselves, at all levels, and particularly around the inexplicable hate, discrimination, and bullying that so many are exposed to on social media.

We can’t ask athletes to talk openly about their own experiences if we’re not supporting them through those experiences, or, indeed, if the sector is contributing to creating environments that drive mental ill health.

Sports social media blackouts in response to the abuse athletes experience online represents a huge step in the right direction. Despite the backing of sports teams and bodies across the UK, as well as several media rights holders, including a powerful video published by BT Sport condemning online abuse, the mental health of our athletes is still a

grave concern for everyone invested in sport.

If we consider that at least 50 per cent of elite athletes say that they have experienced a mental health issue during their lifetime, there is reason for greater support for sportspeople across the board; to ensure their mental wellbeing is treated in the same vein as their physical health and that their status presents an opportunity, and is not a burden on their


It is clear this is a subject that not only touches many lives, whatever one’s background, but is also one that requires more publicity and attention. Athletes can help to shed light on the issues by drawing from their own experiences. So, as the sports industry continues to embrace the importance of mental health, it’s our job to ensure that athletes are also given the help that they need, and not just used as a megaphone for the issue.

During my career, and especially in more recent years, I have had the chance to facilitate these discussions and take great pleasure in hearing more and more sportspeople talk openly about their struggles with mental health. Whether that’s moderating panels with the likes of NFL pro-bowler, Brian Dawkins, Olympic gold medal winning hockey player, Helen Richardson-Walsh, and former professional footballer, Clarke Carlisle, or listening to England prop, Joe Marler, speaking on the Today Programme about his struggles and how the rugby environment contributed.

Last year, I was delighted to host a table talk with EuroLeague basketball, which spoke directly to the issues of mental health among its athletes. While this presents one example where athletes are able to use their own brands to grow the discussion around mental health, the documentary, published via the EuroLeague’s social media channels, also demonstrates the appetite among sport’s governance to elicit change.

How do we then support our athletes in this endeavour? Studies show that at least one in six of us will experience mental ill-health sometime this year. That’s not only athletes, but people from all walks of life. Therefore, it is important that we find ways to engage everyone in the conversation – and not only those who have been brave enough to open up about their own mental health.

This is an area where athletes could have the most impact – by using their platform to connect with communities through their own stories of overcoming adversity and the mental struggles associated with their fame and success. The modern athlete is no longer only an asset on the field of play; their profile online makes them uniquely positioned to promote positive conversations to millions of followers around the world.

With greater influence than their predecessors, comes other challenges. The pressure now placed on the shoulders of today’s athletes, who are thrust into the limelight from a very young age, means that we must seek to engage them about their own mental wellbeing during their development, and is why it’s of paramount importance that their mentors understand their challenges too.

That’s why mental health charities such as Mind are so important, and continue to provide courses and workshops for the sports industry at large, including coaches, administrators, and front-office staff. Their purpose is to help people understand common misconceptions surrounding mental health and to identify some of the barriers that prevent them from seeking support in the first place.

At thinkBeyond, we are working closely with industry leaders to help promote the conversation. During our support on the delivery of the Not A Red Card campaign, we worked with Legal & General between 2017 and 2020 to leverage sport in raising awareness around mental health within businesses, designed to encourage industry managers to drive the conversation and take action. Likewise, the Stay in the Game Network, launched by our sister company Beyond Sport in 2019, unites leaders across sport, healthcare, and social care organisations to evolve and amplify the promotion of mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Make no mistake: the conversation is growing. However, we should be careful not to rest on our laurels, especially when it comes to our communities’ athletes, who have the power to drive greater awareness within this space, as long as their wellbeing is taken seriously, too.

Earlier this month, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) launched a 24/7 mental health support line dedicated to its athletes. Rolled out during America’s Mental Health Awareness Month, the online registry will support athletes seeking confidential support from licensed professionals and includes access to mental health services via the WellTrack smartphone app.

Above all else, it marks a significant step in the mental health journey for the modern athlete and a shot in the arm for our wider society. By giving sportspeople of differing backgrounds and experiences a voice, the committee’s decision helps bring mental health to the forefront of the everyday conversation and is yet another example of the athlete’s resolve around the mental health conversation.

Radha Balani is Director of Design & Facilitation at thinkBeyond, a global strategic consultancy with a focus on utilising sport for social good.

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