Bryony Page on her battle against the yips
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