Sil­ver lin­ings

Bry­ony Page on her bat­tle against the yips

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

It was the au­tumn of 2014, just an­other day on the tram­po­line for pro­fes­sional bouncer Bry­ony Page. Only a cou­ple of months ear­lier, Page had posted a fine score of 52.250 pts to help Great Bri­tain claim Eu­ro­pean team gold. But some­thing was wrong. Or rather, some­thing was miss­ing. Ever since her teenage years, Page had been vul­ner­a­ble to a con­di­tion known as “lost skills syn­drome” – a form of the yips that af­flicts artis­tic sports­men and women such as gym­nasts and divers. It man­i­fests un­pre­dictably, as a men­tal block that pre­vents the ex­e­cu­tion of fa­mil­iar spins and twists.

Page had beaten it be­fore, painstak­ingly re­learn­ing the el­e­ments of each move that slipped from her reper­toire. But now, with al­most two years to go be­fore the Rio Olympics, the pieces were dis­ap­pear­ing again. In­stead of surg­ing seam­lessly through her rou­tine, she found her­self abort­ing leaps as her sub­con­scious fears took over. Her cog­ni­tive jig­saw puz­zle kept re­fus­ing to be solved.

“I reached a re­ally low point in the two years lead­ing up to Rio, when I wasn’t sure if it was worth it,” Page told The Sun­day Tele­graph. “I was like, ‘Why am I putting my­self through all this? I am work­ing so hard, but I don’t quite feel right’.

“The sad­ness and de­pres­sion that you go through – it’s al­most grief, be­cause you’ve lost some­thing and you can’t do some­thing that you love. De­pres­sion is a very strong word and there are dif­fer­ent lev­els. But when I think back to that time and how dif­fi­cult it was, it was al­most like you feel a bit de­tached. And the only thing you can fo­cus on is this men­tal prob­lem that you have.”

Clearly, Page did not give in to those insidious whis­pers of de­spair. As she ex­plains now: “I had to work through it, be­cause I knew I would al­ways re­gret not reach­ing my po­ten­tial in tram­polin­ing.”

Her con­vic­tion was well placed, for when Rio came around, she si­lenced her in­ner voices and de­liv­ered a per­sonal best in the Olympic fi­nal. Page’s score of 56.040 pts earned her a sil­ver, Bri­tain’s first medal of any colour in tram­polin­ing, a dis­ci­pline that has been a part of the Games since 2000. Two years on, how­ever, she looks back to the dark times and won­ders if she could have re­ceived more sup­port.

It is one of the rea­sons why the Sh­effield-based ath­lete met Kather­ine Grainger – the for­mer row­ing cham­pion who is now the chair­man of UK Sport – this week to mark World Men­tal Health Day. Soon af­ter­wards, Grainger an­nounced a multi-stranded ini­tia­tive that will screen Bri­tish ath­letes for psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems, un­der the aegis of a new di­rec­tor of men­tal health.

“It’s an amaz­ing ini­tia­tive to have,” Page said, “be­cause peo­ple think ath­letes are su­per­hu­mans and don’t go through those kind of things.

“They see that we have the psy­chol­o­gists and it looks like we are do­ing well in our sports, but men­tal health is­sues come in so many dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties. The one I went through is not some­thing you can eas­ily ex­plain. Be­cause ath­letes don’t want to show signs of weak­ness, we don’t nor­mally share these sorts of is­sues with peo­ple. But we re­ally need sup­port, be­cause so many of us bot­tle things up.

“I had peo­ple try­ing to give me a lift, but some­times it felt as if they wanted me to do well at sport rather than to help me be happy as a per­son. Hav­ing the men­tal health ini­tia­tive that Kather­ine’s putting in, it’s just that ex­tra bit of mak­ing you feel more hu­man rather than su­per­hu­man. I for one would have ben­e­fited from that.”

Page sounds al­most em­bar­rassed now about her tear­ful re­sponse to her Rio sil­ver. She calls it an ex­treme re­ac­tion, fu­elled by years of in­ner strug­gle. Oth­ers might con­sider it per­fectly nat­u­ral to well up, af­ter a life spent fo­cus­ing on six square me­tres of tautly stretched can­vas.

Ei­ther way, the strug­gle did not end there. Page may have con­quered her men­tal block, ban­ish­ing those in­vis­i­ble thieves that kept steal­ing pieces of her rou­tine, but af­ter the Olympics she faced phys­i­cal chal­lenges in­stead. Her an­kle needed an op­er­a­tion for a bone spur, which should have been straight­for­ward, ex­cept that it would not heal cor­rectly. It turned out that she had an ex­tra mus­cle in the joint – an anatom­i­cal odd­ity ex­pe­ri­enced by only three per cent of the pop­u­la­tion – that needed to be re­moved in a sec­ond op­er­a­tion.

When even­tu­ally she re­turned to com­pe­ti­tion af­ter 23 months, Page won a bronze medal at the World Cup event in Switzer­land in July. It was a huge relief, she ad­mit­ted, be­cause

– for a sec­ond time – she had won­dered if her ath­letic ca­reer might be over. For­tu­nately, she kept her­self busy with plenty of other in­ter­ests.

A bi­ol­ogy grad­u­ate who wrote her the­sis on the sounds made by di­nosaurs – mostly bird­like squawks, it turns out, rather than the mam­malian roars fea­tured in Juras­sic Park – she also went on a pub­lic-speak­ing tour, com­men­tated for the BBC, de­signed leo­tards for the sports­wear com­pany Qu­a­tro Gym­nas­tics, and ran Boo­gie Bounce classes on mini-tram­po­lines.

Above all, though, Page re­mains en­gag­ingly ex­cited about her daily rou­tine, which will carry her to Rus­sia next month for the World Cham­pi­onships. “I don’t know if I can say I en­joy ev­ery sin­gle ses­sion,” she said. “But even when you’re fa­tigued and it’s not go­ing to plan, you come off af­ter­wards and you think, ‘I was fly­ing 10 me­tres in the air do­ing som­er­saults!’ It’s such a cool sen­sa­tion.

“I was talk­ing to my coach,” added Page, who, at 27, seems to have achieved equi­lib­rium in both a phys­i­cal and men­tal sense. “He re­tired a while ago and I said, ‘Do you still want to get on the tram­po­line?’ He said, ‘It took me seven years not to have that feel­ing.’ He had so much de­sire, he had to re­strain him­self. With me, I think it will take even longer than that. I will still be go­ing on the tram­po­line when I am a lit­tle old lady.”

‘Ath­letes don’t want to show signs of weak­ness. But we need sup­port be­cause we bot­tle things up’

Fight­ing back: Bry­ony Page, the first Bri­tish tram­polin­ist to win an Olympic medal (be­low), is sup­port­ing a UK Sport ini­tia­tive that will screen ath­letes for psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems

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