The stakes are high for young people embarking on a potential career in professional sport. What mental health challenges are common and how can individuals be better supported?
Ellie Soutter, a prospect to become TeamGB's first gold medalist on snow at a Winter Olympics, left us on July 25th, her 18th birthday. The teenage snowboarder had been suffering from mental health issues, her father Tony has since said. An ex-boyfriend said that she suffered from bouts of sadness. Uncle Jeremy said that Ellie wanted to be good at everything and expected a lot of herself.
"Young people need someone who can help them with their mental approach, keep them grounded and aware of why they’re doing what they’re doing and what’s in it for them."
Tony thinks that a missed flight to a TeamGB camp may have been the trigger for what happened, and that by missing the camp, Ellie felt she was letting everyone down – her team mates, her dad, herself. Earlier in the year she’d had funding problems, had stopped snowboarding for a while, and set up a GoFundMe page to raise the necessary money, around £30,000 a year, Tony has said, to continue her career.
This sad situation highlights the pressures that young people face when trying to make their way in elite sport.
All the same life pressures as other teenagers – exams and developing their sense of identity away from being dependent on their parents and towards their peers and themselves. But with one all-consuming additional pressure – the demands of their sport, which can exacerbate any issues that they are trying to deal with.
"Being part of a team creates a sense of belonging, but it can also isolate a young person from people they have grown up with," says Dr Marc Bush, Policy Director at YoungMinds.
Whilst other kids are hanging out with friends and family, or interacting freely on social media; the young elite sports payer is training, competing. They have to consider their image and that of their sport, before liking, tweeting or posting.
Penny Mallory, a rally driver turned performance coach trained in sports psychology, explains that a young person’s relationship with their sport can be all consuming. "You can be in a different head space to those around you, your own little micro world," she says.
This is ok, she adds, unless something goes wrong. Say the person doesn’t make the team, gets injured or has funding issues. "Then, it’s a devastating blow," she says.
Marc Bush suggests that behaviour around trying to improve performance can potentially become harm-inducing. "Particularly if it involves playing with an injury or restrictive eating practices."
According to psychologist Steven Sylvester, who works with elite sports players and teams, it’s the outside distractions – team selection, media, popularity, training, fitness, travel and being away from home – that causes most of the stress, tension and anxiety.
Even more so, when a young person associates their self-worth and identity with their sporting performance. "If things go badly it can lead to crisis for the whole self," says Sally Hilton, a psychotherapist who specialises in sport and mental health.
Prone to perfectionism
Last year, student doctors, Manroy Sahni and Dr Johnson Pok-Him Tan, shared their thoughts on this issue with the British Journal of Sports Medicine. They concluded that young elite athletes can be, and are, prone to a perfectionist outlook, particularly if pressurised by parents and coaches. Sally Hilton adds that if a person’s sense of self-worth is attached to getting it right, they don’t learn how to tolerate not getting it right, and can become very self-critical and prone to people-pleasing.
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Social media makes this an even bigger problem, Steven Sylvester believes. "These days there is more judgment out there, more opportunities for rejection and therefore more potential triggers for people pleasing," he says. "A young person is, or might feel, that they’re being watched and judged, which might impact on how they feel and their stress levels."
This is a particular problem in a sporting environment, where so many parameters of success are outside of the performer’s control - influenced also by what others do and think. Will I make the team? Stay in the team? Beat my rivals? Impress my coach? The visiting scout? Get enough likes and retweets? Penny Mallory adds that some youngsters end up hating their sport because, although they don’t want to do it anymore, they feel they have to continue after others have invested so much in them.
On top of all this, there can be contradictory pressures, say for the young person to maintain friendships and relationships when away for long periods training and competing. "They might feel that they’re missing out on other areas of their life, which could create internal conflict," Sally Hilton says.
She adds that young athletes find other ways to express who they are, outside of their sport, which are not detrimental to their sport. Penny Mallory thinks though, that if there is any distraction, the player might not focus on their sport 100 percent. Rivals will and are more likely to succeed, which in itself would likely cause stress and anxiety.
Marc Bush agrees: "It’s important to balance the drive to succeed with an appreciation that sport isn’t the only thing that matters in life," he says.
Steven Sylvester understands the dilemma, elite young sports people face. "It’s important that the young person understands the processes they are going through, keeps a perspective and doesn’t take themselves too seriously," he says. "That they come to understand family, social media and themselves – and all the issues and pressures that are bubbling around in their life."
This is where a young person needs support. Penny Mallory says that this should ideally, be a person outside of their sport and their family. "Someone who can help them with their mental approach, keep them grounded and aware of why they’re doing what they’re doing and what’s in it for them," she says.
Marc Bush thinks that everyone around the young person, needs to understand the pressures and help them to self-soothe, de-stress and socialise with others. Steven Sylvester warns that without this support, a young performer might start partaking in all sorts of unhealthy thinking.
Since Ellie’s tragic death, Tony Soutter has said that the mental health awareness needs of young sports people should be made more public. He has also set up the Ellie Soutter Foundation for young winter athletes who need financial support. The English Institute of Sport, which provides sports science and medical support for elite athletes was unavailable for comment. So too, UK Sport, the government’s body for directing elite sport. And the Institution of Occupational Health, which is running a mental health in sport campaign.