ACHIEVING THE BEST RESULTS FOR YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Irish women’s rugby star Sene Naoupu writes about the mental health challenges sports people face – and how we all need to embrace activities that bring us joy.
As a professional sports person, who dedicates everything to my chosen sport, I think the issue of mental health is vitally important. It continues to remain a sensitive subject in society and I feel it is commonly ignored and often brushed under the carpet. I say the word ‘person’ because when you strip it down – rugby players, athletes, coaches – we are all human beings.
There are so many highs and lows that occur during a person’s career and life. It is never an entirely smooth ride. Personally, I would like to break the stigma, talk about this topic and express how it has affected my life through my own experiences.
We can become so consumed in ourselves and our professional or personal lives that our mental health is impacted greatly, often without us even realising it. It’s funny: when things are going well in our careers (ie. performances are good, your team is successful or you are receiving ‘good press’ be it in papers, TV shows or on social media), then we can easily justify our sacrifices, and we think we are immune to the lows of anxiety, low self-esteem or depression.
This relates to our personal lives too. When relationships are going well, when work is successful and positive, then it is easy to reassure ourselves and stay happy, as well as keeping everyone around us close.
Flip that: we continue to put in the same effort and make the same sacrifices, and yet some things that are simply out of our control may result in different outcomes for us as individuals. You may get an injury from a collision in a game or in training. Long term or short term, how do we mentally deal with not being able to perform? Have we got help or support? Or are we expected to deal with it on our own? Very often, we feel isolated and useless, so we may get into a habit of distancing ourselves from everyone around us. We become de-motivated and mentally drained, so we avoid doing the things that bring us joy.
Very often people expect us to deal with it in exactly the way that they would, but each person is different and what works for one may not work for someone else.
I feel in rugby and even in life this is the way it is: you are expected to “just deal with” everything that’s thrown at you. But what happens when the burdens become too much? When self-esteem drops very low?
Take the ruthlessness of rugby as an example. If an opinion of a player’s quality or role in the team has changed, whether it be the manager’s opinion, other staff or even supporters, and we become ‘out of favour’, how does a player cope with those setbacks and disappointments? Through injury or non-selection, we spend our time as a spectator and therefore have more time with our own thoughts.
Sportsmen and women strive for perfection; we are programmed like this. We are so hungry to do better, and push ourselves, that we often become negative mentally: “I should be this”; “He thinks I’m that”; “I’m getting worse”; “I hate this about myself”; “I’m not good enough”. Some of the things we tell ourselves, or say about ourselves in our own head, can be souldestroying. We wouldn’t dream of saying the same things to another human being, yet we often repeat them to ourselves.
Many sports people may think that seeking help, or speaking to someone about their mental health, is a weakness. On the contrary, it takes great courage to admit you have a problem. Speaking to a specialist isn’t going to instantly fix things: it’s not like waving a magic wand. However, you will develop the skills mentally to tackle these demons that thrive on negativity.
These skills involve different ways of speaking to yourself – recognising the things that give you a feeling of self-fulfilment, and doing them more often. Thankfully, there are more services available now in this country for people to avail of once they are ready and willing to take a big step towards seeking happiness.
For anyone who feels they may need help with their mental health, or is struggling to control their demons, the only thing I am sure of (and this is on a personal level), is this: I have yet to meet someone who has sought help and not found a benefit from it. Some have found it lifechanging, some have used the help to get out of a rut, and others simply learned how to see the positives more clearly in themselves and to identify the things that bring joy to their lives.
“WE CAN BECOME SO CONSUMED IN OUR PROFESSIONAL OR PERSONAL LIVES THAT OUR MENTAL HEALTH IS IMPACTED GREATLY.”
This sporting life: Sene Naoupu