None more so than in the last year, we’ve seen how, at its best, sport can be a platform that unites people. It has the ability to facilitate important conversations and the power to change culture; and the role that athletes play within that is perhaps more prominent than ever before.
Off the back of Mental Health Awareness Week, our Sports team has been looking at just one of the cultural and societal themes that sport interacts with: mental health. It’s a varied and complex subject so, to help break it down, we looked at some of the brilliant athlete interviews and quotes from last week to explore the ways that sport can be a platform for conversation and action when it comes to our mental health.
Society has come a long way in recent years with regard to how we view and process these issues, and it is important we continue to share different experiences and perspectives on health, wellbeing and, well, just life in general. In doing so we can understand and acknowledge that we are all human and that we all experience highs and lows in different ways. Sport can allow us to share these stories through an accessible and relatable lens; one that resonates with athletes, fans, and communities around the world.
Footballer Millie Bright summed it up when she told Sky Sports News: “We are all humans and that even though we are professional footballers and have a huge amount of pressure to be successful, we still have a right to feel all the emotions everybody else feels. By people speaking out and telling their story, it’s made people realise how important mental health is.”
Staying with West London football clubs, Fulham’s Joe Bryan also touched on the importance of sharing experiences and how doing so can help others. In an interview with ESPN he said “mental health is prevalent in society, and the more accepting we are of it, and the more we normalise it, the better.” He added his own advice by saying “even if you’re not sure, just mention how you’re feeling to someone, and the likelihood is that they’ve probably experienced the same or know someone who has.”
Of course it isn’t just footballers that have been vocal about the subject, and many athletes also shared their experiences during Mental Health Awareness Week. Whether it was F1’s Lando Norris telling ESPN that he wants to use his platform to help others, or Venus Williams telling Forbes how she’s approached wellness during the pandemic, one thing is clear: sport can be a platform for expression and connection like few others.
That’s because, as a catalyst, sport isn’t just about that conversational, stigma-busting element. Physical wellbeing is often part of the same cycle as emotional wellbeing and so sport, and by association physical activity, is perhaps unique in the ways it can impact our overall mental health. This is something Paralympic star Ellie Simmonds touched on when she told the Express & Star that “it’s great for physical health, sport makes you fit, but also mentally. Sometimes you can’t be bothered but after [exercise] you feel amazing, it clears your mind.”
Former professional footballer and boxer Leon McKenzine echoed this when he took to Instagram to promote the benefits of “what running can do for your mind, body and soul”. As well as creating that important platform for conversation, we can see how sport can have physical impacts on our general health and wellbeing too.
Through reading the words of these athletes and seeing the impacts it can have in terms of empowering members of communities around the world to join the conversation, we’ve learned that creating open and supportive environments is crucial when it comes to our mental health. Some use sport as a means of doing exactly that; for example Newcastle United Foundation’s #BeAGameChanger campaign seeks to connect fans by creating safe, supportive environments around a collective passion: their beloved football team. The message it sends is positive, inclusive and accessible, and the results have been incredible.
Within our own agency we’ve done similar by hosting open, safe spaces for discussion with guest speakers such as psychological life coach and CBT therapist Rebecca Kimberly, journalist and author Poorna Bell and founder of Mental Wellbeing in Schools, Ed Anthony. Our teams have enjoyed six additional half days of leave across what’s been a difficult winter and spring for all. We’ve introduced weekly exercise courses, and we’ve run workshops with leading mental health charity Mind. Mental health in the workplace is a priority at H+K, and this is just the start.
In the interview with Sky Sports News, Mille Bright said “everyone should feel as though they have got someone to go to, no one should feel alone in this world. You don’t have to keep quiet and you don’t need to say you are alright if you are not”. By looking back on Mental Health Awareness Week and what we’ve learned through the attitudes and experiences it has highlighted, it’s evident that conversation and action have to happen in tandem.
And, whether it’s having a chat with a mate after a run, sharing an athlete interview we’ve read in the sports pages, or joining in a campaign from our local football club – it’s clear to see that sport has the power to break down that first, often most difficult barrier that leads to support. What happens next could just make all the difference to somebody’s life.