Pulling The Flag

The mental health of sport

Sport is often framed as a battle that can be won by adding more grit, effort and dedication. But – as with all things in life – there’s a mental aspect that you ignore at your peril. Sophie Parsons questions why we don’t treat our minds with the same respect as our bodies on and off the field.

It’s all in your leg, they said.

Joe Football sprained his ankle at the beginning of the week. He’s gutted – after all those winter practices, the season is finally starting again! All week, he hobbles around trying to force the tendons in his ankle to fix. After a couple of days, he has to admit defeat; his ankle is busted and he’s going to have to rest it, like it or lump it.

“But Joe, the team need you. You can’t not play. Come on, it’s just a sprained ankle. Once you get in the game, you won’t even notice the pain. Football will be a good distraction – yeah, the bruising will still be there, but look, is it really that bad?! Just push through it, it will go away. It’s all in your leg, just pretend it’s not happened and you’ll be fine.”

At some stage or another, we’ve all had an injury like this or known someone who has. We’re also probably guilty of playing through an injury when it would have been wiser to sit it out. It’s always a tough call, knowing when to quit and admit your body just can’t go where your brain is forcing it.

Imagine it’s not Joe’s ankle that is injured but his brain. His mental ill health is crushing him this week. How much harder would it be to admit that? And how much more responsible would Joe feel for letting his team down?

“It’s all in your leg” seems an odd response to someone complaining about a sprained ankle and yet to someone complaining of mental ill health, “it’s all in your head” may be an all-too-familiar quip. Mental health issues are all in our head – that’s kind of where we keep our brains. What relevance does that have to anything? An injury is an injury, no matter where you find it. Faulty thoughts may not come with swelling and bruising, but that doesn’t make them any more okay than a sprained ankle.

So Joe is injured. He’s crippled by a sprain or he’s crippled by a slowly rising panic threatening to suffocate him daily as his anxiety disorder takes hold (again). What is your response? What is his?

Taking control of your health is a positive thing. Recognising an injury and treating it is not a shameful thing. Sometimes you’ve got a sprain that can be managed with a bit of rest and self-care. Sometimes you’ve got a snap or a break that requires professional help. You might need surgery and/or physio and you won’t be ashamed of either of these things. You won’t hide away from telling people that you’re not playing because you’ve broken your leg (although, if they’ve not grasped that from the cast, you probably do need to question their observation skills).

No one will berate Joe for his sprained ankle taking longer to heal than Joanne’s did last year. No one will remind him that Joanne’s injury looked ten times worse than his, so perhaps he should think about what she went through before feeling too sorry for himself. Thankfully we live in a society where education about mental health is improving and it’s becoming less likely that Joe will face these comments about his anxiety. But you can guarantee that he’ll come across them at some point – even if they come from himself.

We have a responsibility to ourselves and everyone involved with our sport to build a culture where taking time out to deal with any health issue is perfectly acceptable. We need to go beyond just allowing this and actively encourage it.

Mental health issues need to become a permanent fixture in codes of conduct, club constitutions, the BAFCA convention and even just team conversations. Asking someone about their mental health is as hard as telling someone about your mental health – but usually it’s the first step that is the toughest, so take the leap! No matter which side of the fence you’re on, starting a discussion will open up communication channels that may prove invaluable at some stage.

How does your team deal with the mental well-being of squad members? Have you experienced good or bad examples of mental health awareness in sport? What could be done to improve mental health awareness in flag, and in sport in general?

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