Derval O’Rourke says Handle with care: Finding equilibrium in mind and body

Mar 13, 14 Derval O’Rourke says Handle with care: Finding equilibrium in mind and body

“As we embark through 2014, there are so many topics I want to discuss but the one that keeps coming into my consciousness: the area of mental wellbeing for elite athletes” according to Derval O’Rourke

Everyone is unique and mental health is a complex and extremely personal premise for everyone, but I believe discussing it constructively may be the most important conversation sport should be having.

Before Christmas, I packaged up a gift I was sending to America and all over the box, I wrote in large letters “FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE”. It occurred to me, this is a warning that should come with all elite sports people. The statistics say one in four people will suffer mental health issues at some stage in their life and no group is immune from mental illness. Whether or not elite sports people suffer more or less than the general population is difficult to know, and in the years to come, further research may shed more light on this.

 

Irish Athlete Deval O`Rourke says "In athletics, it can be extremely difficult to develop emotional stability — it’s a rollercoaster of highs and lows" - Picture by ssl.utvinternet.com

Irish Athlete Deval O`Rourke says “In athletics, it can be extremely difficult to develop emotional stability — it’s a rollercoaster of highs and lows” – Picture by ssl.utvinternet.com

 

For now, what we do know is some elite sports people do suffer with mental health issues. Our culture loves sports heroes and many don the Irish kit in an almost gladiatorial fashion but are they offering themselves up for the slaughter, with only a few emerging victorious? Being a full-time athlete can mean eating, breathing and sleeping the sport. I believe high performance athletes are, by their nature, hard on themselves and self-critical, driven by a need to analyse, critique and hopefully improve. This can trigger problems as our entire sense of identity can be defined by split-second performances but what happens when the performances disappoint, injuries occur, funding gets cut or the sporting career ends? In athletics, it can be extremely difficult to develop emotional stability — it’s a rollercoaster of highs and lows. The highs come few and far between, while dealing with the lows is unfortunately a much more regular occurrence. I try to work hard to make sure I’m honest with the people around me and if I’m feeling a bit ‘dark’, I make sure I tell the people I’m close to. Having a healthy mind is really important in everything I’m doing.
I try to balance my life. It’s incredibly tempting to immerse myself in running but I know for my mind I need to do other things.

At times when I have been injured or under performing in my career it has been a blessing to have interests outside the track, whether that be developing another skill, like cooking or writing this column.

 

O`Rourke explains that "Kelly Holmes self- harmed, cutting herself when she was injured because she was missing training and at one point, she contemplated suicide" - Picture by www.socialregister.co.uk

O`Rourke explains that “Kelly Holmes self- harmed, cutting herself when she was injured because she was missing training and at one point, she contemplated suicide” – Picture by www.socialregister.co.uk

 

There are many athletes who have struggled with their mental health and some have spoken openly while others prefer not to. Jack Greene is an amazingly gifted 400m hurdler. He competed for Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics and was also part of their 4 x 400m relay team who narrowly missed the podium, all this at the tender age of 20. In December, Greene made the announcement that he was to step away from the sport for the foreseeable future. In a painfully honest interview with David Walsh, he described the depression he suffered and his suicidal thoughts. For a young guy with endless possibilities in the sport, this was a stark reminder for us all that athletes are fragile like everyone else.

In November, double Olympic champion Kelly Holmes was interviewed by Piers Morgan and catalogued the struggles she had before becoming an Olympic champion.

I found it difficult viewing. She self- harmed, cutting herself when she was injured because she was missing training and at one point, she contemplated suicide. This is a girl who has achieved everything possible on the track but the pressure and stress of trying to achieve her dream was at times overwhelming and unbearable.

 

Irish Athlete David Gillick, has been an advocate for a much better approach to athlete wellbeing in individual sport in Ireland - Picture by www.rte.ie

Irish Athlete David Gillick, has been an advocate for a much better approach to athlete wellbeing in individual sport in Ireland – Picture by www.rte.ie

 

Irish 400m runner and friend of mine, David Gillick, has been an advocate for a much better approach to athlete wellbeing in individual sport in Ireland, and he has openly discussed his personal struggles.
Gillick was part of a round table talk “Over The Bar”* in Dublin tonight as part of First Fortnight, a charity-based organisation that aims to combat mental health prejudice through the creative arts. It’s great to see him offering his experience and views on this area.

Seeing what the GPA has achieved in athlete welfare for GAA players is great. They have a service that provides confidential access to a phone line, one-on-one counselling and residential treatment for players in distress. In 2013, the growth in players engaging with the service rose by 203%. The GPA is committed to growing this support for their key stakeholders, the players.

In rugby, IRUPA is the group that represents and protects the players welfare. It was set up in 2001 and has over 95% of the players as members. Player wellbeing is a key part of what IRUPA does and they have initiatives such as 24-hour access to a confidential helpline service and workshops on a range of players’ issues including mental health.

 

Derval O'Rourke say "I think we need to spend time and money focusing on a healthy mind as well as a healthy body" - Picture by www.finnvalleyac.com

Derval O’Rourke say “I think we need to spend time and money focusing on a healthy mind as well as a healthy body” – Picture by www.finnvalleyac.com

 

Athletes take dramatic cuts in funding regularly. In my career I have had loads of ups and downs in my funding status. I’ve been funded to €40,000 and currently I’m funded to €12,000. Each time a funding cut has been made, there has been little or no follow-up from those who made the decisions. I think there should be a protocol in place that when these types of decisions are made, there is some form of aftercare.

To be a world-class athlete it’s important to develop a never-give-up attitude. When we race, we must back ourselves 100%. However this belief cannot be constant and there are times we struggle. The people employed to deal with high-performance athletes should be equipped to deal with both physical and mental difficulties. Historically there has been a focus on the body — tear a quad and within a few days you have an MRI scan. I think we need to spend time and money focusing on a healthy mind as well as a healthy body. Long-term, there cannot be one without the other.

For athletes involved in an individual sport, I think it is important that overall wellbeing is protected. There are so many ways to fall and there should be a safety net. I appreciate that not everyone is the same and there are no set rules but there needs to be greater care taken. If I can ask for a package to be handled with care, I think that’s a good starting point for the treatment of individual athletes.

 

For full links to this article by Derval O’Rourke in the www.irishexaminer.com please (CLICK HERE)

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