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Mind games – flexing our mental health muscles

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Author: Will Mbanga, Posted: Monday, 23rd August 2021, 11:00

What a great summer of sport! Of course, the easing of restrictions and opening up of society has been welcome, as has some sunshine every now and then!

Many of you have had a few months back at the gym or taken out a new membership to help you get fit again. More on that later – but first, some thoughts on an essential part of our wellbeing journey, recently highlighted in elite sport.

Over the past few months, the prominence of Mental Health in elite athletes has been highlighted, initially by Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open, along with other high-profile athletes like Olympian Simone Biles, and former England cricketers Jonathan Trott and Marcus Trescothick, who are starting to be brave enough to put their hand up and say “I tried, but I’m not OK and I need a break”.

Just because they are elite athletes, many of us ‘mere mortals’ have taken up the position “man up and don’t let people down – you get paid to do that”. But what we’re forgetting is the hours of training, pain and sacrifice they endure to bring us joy.

To put some context to this, if you’re mentally unfit as a gymnast and doing double-twisted vault dismounts at high speed and get it wrong, you will not “walk that off”. The fact that she and other elite athletes did their time preparing, have had an additional year’s wait for the Olympics with all the challenges of lockdown, lost funding, had limited or no access to proper training, etc. makes their efforts all the more impressive.

Mental Health in sport is a big issue and isn’t like getting the ‘willies’ where, with a good mental toughness program, you can switch competitive anxiety off and focus for an hour or two.

It’s time athletes’ mental health was made a priority at all levels Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all time, struggled hugely with the weight of his nation on his shoulders, as do many others, only they get to live it in HD due to 24-7-365 social media scrutiny. It’s time athletes’ and coaches’ mental health was made a priority at all levels of sport and physical activity, as should your mental health and wellbeing too!

As you return to group or in-public training, it’s important to focus on yourself instead of others. Ultimately, only you have control of your own fitness, strength and overall wellbeing, so try not to let other people’s opinions get in your way.

You may not be able to run as far as you did pre-lockdown, or lift the heavier weights in the gym, but be kind to yourself. We’ve all had a turbulent 18 months and some of us haven’t done as much exercise as others. If you focus on improving yourself instead of comparing your results to others, you’ll probably improve more quickly and be happier while you exercise.

Celebrate the small wins like knocking two seconds off your 5km run time, or doing ten squat reps instead of eight. Unless you’re training for the Paris Olympics, you have time – your physical and mental health will thank you for not rushing.

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