Sun, May 13, 2018 - Page 11 News List

Olympic champ warns of pressures for elite athletes

AFP, LONDON

England’s Helen Richardson-Walsh, center, celebrates scoring against Spain during their Olympic quarter-final on Aug. 15, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.

Photo: AFP

Young athletes need help to manage the pressures that come with top-level sports, said British hockey star Helen Richardson-Walsh, who battled back from depression to win an Olympic gold medal in Rio.

Richardson-Walsh, 36, said that young, ambitious elite athletes might be unaware of the incessant and challenging demands they are to face.

“Transition into sport is equally if not more important than making the transition out,” she told a panel in London discussing athletes and their mental health.

“For young people coming now into professional sports is difficult,” she said. “You go from being someone enjoying sport and doing it because you love it, to suddenly being in this environment with the pressure and expectations.”

Richardson-Walsh, who became the youngest woman to represent the UK in hockey at an Olympics at the age of 18, said it is almost impossible to switch off.

“When I woke up in the morning, I had to put a heart monitor on my finger before I had breakfast,” she said. “It told me how many hours I had slept. For breakfast the question was: ‘What am I going to eat?’ not ‘What do I want to eat?’”

“The young may want so much to think about being an athlete, but it is 24-7,” she said. “You don’t go to get home at five — job done. You have to think about everything you have to do. Transitioning into that is a big thing.”

Richardson-Walsh, who has competed at four Olympics, has struggled with bouts of depression and in 2014 wrote a blog documenting her struggles.

The hockey player, who was helped by her wife and teammate, Kate, said she has even questioned part of the legacy of her Olympic success.

“After Rio and London, I visited schools and lots of young girls who suddenly wanted to be a hockey player,” she said.

“Initially, I thought for them: ‘That is great,’ as it is a pathway to a potential career opportunity, but then on the other side I thought: ‘Ah, actually, is that a good thing? How early do you decide you want to do that?’” she said.

Shameema Yousuf, who works as a psychologist for young players at Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion, said it is important to reach aspiring elite athletes as early as possible.

“I think that is key if we give youth the tools and build their awareness up at that age,” Yousuf said, referring to the club’s 10-to-16 age group.

“Then they are better able to identify and manage themselves at an older age in an environment where stresses will be different at competition level,” Yousuf said. “However, they will have that self-awareness of ‘I am actually going through something and need to go and speak to someone.’”

Richard Bryan, rugby director for the Rugby Players’ Association, with responsibility for welfare services and programs, said he has observed an interesting change in players coming forward to say that they are battling with mental health issues.

“There is a possible start of a trend among the players who are accessing our confidential hotline,” he said. “The largest age group last year was 18 to 25, whereas a couple of years previously it was the over-30s.”

“It will be interesting to see if that continues, for it suggests those that are coming into the professional system, perhaps work is being done through schools or it is a generational difference and people are more open to talking about issues they are facing,” he added.

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