Athletes’ Mental Health Matters – Talking about Transition & Wellness on World Mental Health Day
Today marks the 20th Mental World Health Day, an important day for sportswomen and men to talk about their mental health and well-being – especially when transitioning out of elite sports. A cause which we passionately care about here at add-victor, committed to supporting athletes through this crucial period of change.
This article aims to not just raise awareness of the crossroads faced by every retiring athlete, but equally the exciting opportunity that exists for all athletes as they uncover, reposition and step forward into their long-term career post sport.
We had the pleasure of speaking with four former athletes we have supported/are supporting through their transition: David Denton (rugby union player), David Wetherill (table tennis Paralympian), Siobhan-Marie O’Connor (Olympian swimmer), and Lawrence Clarke (Double Olympian hurdler). Reflecting on this pivotal moment, they shared their individual perspectives including some of their ways to handle this change – which we will cover in an upcoming article.
Mental Health in Sports – Liberating Voices
For two decades, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised the 10th of October as the international day for global mental health education and awareness. Global media coverage has meant that mental health has become one of the top health concerns worldwide, however, within a sporting context it remains a stigma. With sport being related to performance, itself associated with the notion of power, mental health can often be viewed as a sign of weakness.
American Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian swimmer of all time, was one of the first athletes to speak openly about mental health back in 2018. In the HBO documentary The Weight of Gold, Phelps documents his struggle with depression and mental illness up to the point he just wanted to end it all. He vocally supported Simone Biles, the 7 times Olympian gymnast, when she pulled out of the Olympics in Tokyo last year, prioritizing her mental health; “there’s more to life than gymnastics” she said. Professional athletes carry an immense weight on their shoulders, dealing with defeats and pressure, constantly pushing themselves and overcoming hurdles.
It's no surprise that stepping away from the sport you love, which has been your everyday life for years, is a challenging process requiring adjustment and preparation.
Retiring from Professional Sports – A Loss of Identity
Every athlete knows that elite sport does not last a lifetime and that retirement is a guarantee. Yet making the decision to move on is always tricky and often results from a combination of cumulative and frequently unexpected factors – typically injuries. Whether it is by choice or the decision is forced upon them, athletes overnight lose the ‘tag’ that they were known for being the best at. The Scottish rugby legend, David Denton, was forced to retire following a head injury in 2018. He remembers that “it was a big shock, the lack of routine and suddenly becoming one of the least experienced and skilled in a room was hard to take on at first”.
This feeling of emptiness and low self-esteem from losing one’s identity can be brutal. David Wetherill, former GB Table Tennis Paralympian, shares a similar experience: “table tennis was my passion; it was my life. It was the reason why I get up in the morning. So suddenly when you take that away, you do struggle, and it was probably the toughest time of my life. Even though I have been through multiple operations and many hard times, and of course it’s not like life or death but it’s on a relative scale as it is your world… You’ve worked so hard and so long for something, which is overnight no longer”.
For Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, GB’s most decorated swimmer, the loss of identity was for her the hardest emotion to deal with; “I was always referred to as Siobhan the swimmer […] I am not swimming anymore, so who am I without this whole part of my life?”. This process of transitioning does offer a unique opportunity to answer this fundamental question, and through careful planning, a real opportunity exists to build an equally successful & rewarding second career.
Translating the Athletes’ Mindset – The importance of Transitioning
When reflecting on add-victor placements, the common trait of our alumni who have transitioned into the corporate world is their ability to fully embrace and translate their athlete mindset. Reflecting on their sporting achievements, they understand the unique skillset that set them apart from the rest of the crowd. For some, this concept comes easily and for others, it takes longer, but eventually, the ‘light bulb’ moment happens.
The awareness of their transferable skills is what helps athletes to transition. Our alumni have never tried to disassociate themselves from sports, rather they look at all their experiences and skills as part of their DNA. “You’ve got to keep up your passion. Even though we’re not professionals anymore it’s still part of our lives and it’s important to keep those values and routines and bring them into our next chapter. The transition is just like finding a new goal, a new target, a new reason to get up in the morning. It cannot replace it directly, but it gives you opportunities to get better at other things and find new passions”, relates David Wetherill.
Finding a career with the same sense of purpose that sports bring was key to Lawrence Clarke, British Double Olympian hurdler: “my second career is without a doubt far more fulfilling than my time in athletics. The world of finance has given me a deep interest that I will have for the rest of my life. […] The key is to enjoy what you are doing. You have to be genuinely interested. With athletics, I had a passion for the competition and being in a competitive environment. Now I have a passion for the global markets and for making something successful out of it.”
Talking from his own experience, add-victor’s CEO and founder Steve-White-Cooper, who experienced the hardship of transitioning after a rugby career representing Harlequins & England, says “despite retiring from rugby on my terms at 27 years old, I absolutely struggled with a loss of identity. However, once I committed to a role and set myself targets, I began to see at first hand not just the skills developed through sport and its transferability, but the real value it offered employers. Steve went on to say “this is not a new phenomenon, it has been well documented that 95% of Fortune CEO’s and 94% of C-suite women played sports in their youth”.
Here at add-victor, we support athletes in their career transition – not only do we match our talent pool with the opportunities that best fit their aspirations and skill set, but we passionately guide them through the transition process, to ensure they enter the workforce with confidence and navigate in their next chapter being stimulated and fulfilled.
Useful Resources & Links
- Our Knowledge Hub’s Blog Section, including individual success stories of athletes’ transition
- Mind – UK national mental health charity offering some practical Toolkit Guides around sport activities as well as an anonymous online support platform called Side by Side (formerly Elefriends)
- Samaritans – UK & Ireland registered charity providing emotional support, through their helpline 116 123, plus through a self-help app, veterans app, and military & armed forces resources. Their international network, Befrienders Worldwide, includes 349 emotional support centres across 32 countries.
- Student Minds – UK student mental health charity, offering various support services for students, allied peers & parents, plus an array of ‘challenges of university life’ resources:
- Movember – Leading charity changing the face of men’s health, with contact service lists and the Grow a Mo campaign raising awareness of their cause (I will be doing this in November)
- To go further: if you’re a sports club/organisation, you can become a signatory of The Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation and access the members’ Case Studies, Training, and Resources.