There has recently been an admission in the media from Michael Phelps, that despite his phenomenal success, he has suffered mental health issues at times in his career. This media attention follows on from the plethora of other athletes who have admitted having problems with their mental health whilst playing high level sport, Jonny Wilkinson, Dame Kelly Homes and Tom Daley to name a few.
I think it’s wonderful that these prominent, high level athletes are willing to share these stories. Their success in sport means that they are in a position to influence young people. Their words and actions matter and can have a huge impact in helping young sportspeople to achieve their dreams.
There is, however, one aspect of these stories that I find troubling. And I’m sure it is more about the media coverage and reaction than the athlete’s story itself. When athletes come forward and tell their stories of mental health struggles – it is described as an “admission”. The inference of this is that it somehow shouldn’t happen to someone this talented and successful, they are admitting to it as if it’s something to feel guilty over.
Mental health problems can happen to anyone at any time. There are obviously certain challenges in our life journeys that can trigger mental health problems, such as grief and loss. And there are certainly some people who are more susceptible to mental health challenges than others, due to their genes, their lifestyle and many other factors. But none of us are immune. Of course we can work hard to keep ourselves mentally and physically healthy, to try and avoid becoming unwell, but a bit like catching a cold, you can never be 100% sure of avoiding it.
So why is it an admission?
One headline read, ‘Swimmer Michael Phelps has admitted that he struggles with mental health issues’
How about, ‘Swimmer Michael Phelps has admitted that he struggles with sore throats’ or ‘Swimmer Michael Phelps has admitted that he struggles with stiff shoulder muscles’.
You see my point. I am absolutely all for talking about mental health challenges and getting them into the public domain. I think it’s wonderful that high level, high influence athletes are willing to be open about their challenges, but why shouldn’t they be? In order for young athletes to see these problems as a normal part of every day life, and something that anyone might be susceptible to, we need to stop the inference that it’s surprising, abnormal or is something that a successful person has to ‘admit’ to. Normalising ANY health challenges in athletes will be a huge step in making it easy for young, development athletes to talk about, not just their physical challenges, but also their mental challenges without it having to be “an admission” of weakness.