“Athletes are too often just treated as commodities” | Ian Braid
We, as a society, praise talented sportspeople for their ability to handle pressure, consistently perform to the best of their ability and overcome setbacks – such as injury and loss of form – whilst they are constantly being assessed and monitored. But very rarely do we sit and reflect on just how strenuous the day to day life of a performance athlete is -mentally as well as physically.
Ian Braid, founder of DOCIAsport (Duty of Care In Action) and former CEO of the British Athletics Commission (BAC), was aware of the pressures the “normal” workplace could place on your mental health way before he moved into the world of performance sport.
Working as a senior manager in financial services, Ian was tasked with shutting down a call centre, making the large workforce redundant over a 6-month period.
“I had to keep the morale, focus and everybody’s self-esteem up, so that when they finally ‘logged off’, they walked through the door with their heads held high.”
“Looking back, I subconsciously knew then that everybody has a finite amount of emotional resilience and that redundancy was the tipping point for many.”
It also hit Ian himself hard, being diagnosed as clinically depressed as a result of overseeing the redundancy programme.
Ian took voluntary redundancy soon after but remained in financial services until the fact that he arranged the insurance programme for the BAC led to him being offered the chance to turn the company round after a period of difficulty for the business.
At the time the BAC had over 1,500 members in over 40 different Olympic and Paralympic sports.
Not long after taking the job, it became very apparent that the mental health of athletes in many sports was affected by the systems they were involved in.
This was either because of a poor culture generally but also because of their vulnerability through loneliness and isolation – particularly when faced with a challenge such as deselection, losing funding or having a grievance. In short, the (lack of) duty of care given to athletes was a very significant problem.
“I began to understand how serious the potential issue of mental ill health in sport was because, in the space of a 6-month period, I had to deal with three athletes in three sports who had all attempted suicide.”
It was Ian’s duty and responsibility as the head of the athletes’ association to try and influence change and this included pressing for the athletes’ mental health (as well as their physical health) to be covered in the insurance programme for the top funded athletes.
“In the space of a 6-month period, I had
to deal with three athletes in three
sports who had all attempted suicide”
As a result of Ian’s network and the profile he was creating for the BAC he was asked to assist Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson in her work to review the Duty of Care In Sport for the Government in 2016. This was the year of the Rio Games and the BAC was inundated with calls wanting support firstly dealing with athletes who wanted advice in appealing against deselection and then, after the Games, many athletes came forward with grievances that suggested systemic problems in their sports.
2016 was, on one level, arguably a year of great success based on medal winning performances alone, but it also brought to the surface the history of poor mental health across too many sports and the cost to too many athletes’ well-being. Depression was very prevalent, often along with anxiety, but there were also reported incidents of self-harm, eating disorders and attempted suicide.
Performance sport is tough – there has to be winners and losers – and the emphasis is always on high (quality) performance and excellence. Mental illness is of course invisible and has a stigma attached to it in society generally. In the bubble of sport it is not only exaggerated but often misunderstood and perceived as a sign of weakness.
It was evident that many of the processes and policies needed to be challenged and changed. As an example, one athlete who sought BAC help was contacted unexpectedly whilst driving, told to pull over and informed s/he’d been dropped from the programme.
Another was given every indication that selection for Rio was a given, only to be told 24 hours later that he/she wasn’t going and then only given 24 hours to appeal the decision – over a weekend!
“These are all people with lives and responsibilities
outside their sport involving mortgages,
bills to pay families and children”
There had been little or no effective check and challenge to the established policies and processes and this led to athletes lacking confidence in them. The BAC gave the athletes a voice and someone they could trust and turn to for advice, support and guidance.
There were seven key recommendations in the final Duty of Care report published in 2017. One was that there should be an independent ombudsman so that sport is more openly accountable and doesn’t continue to “mark its own homework”.
A second was that the BAC should be genuinely independent. Disappointingly the government did not officially respond to the report and its recommendations and, following a general election, 2 prime ministers and three sports ministers later – not to mention the “B word” – this is unlikely to happen now 2 ½ years on.
The pressure to stay on the programme and therefore funding was immense for the athletes represented by the BAC. Daily monitoring, annual KPIs to achieve; which (rightly) included performances at selected events like Euro or World Championships.
In order to stay on funding athletes would be targeted to get to a semi a final or a medal. Year on year within each 4-year funding programme. And then it would either be more of the same for another 4 years or face the pressures of transition out of sport.
This four-year time horizon has wellbeing implications for others involved in sport especially CEOs of National Governing Bodies who are often the “accountable officers.” This means signing funding agreements that commit everyone in their sport to medals in a performance context, increased participation at “grassroots”, improved governance etc. There is therefore constant pressure and scrutiny.
“It is almost as though everybody has a ticking digital clock in their head constantly subtracting the time left.”
“The job at the BAC should come with a health
warning. It was a privilege to do
what I did, but it has “shelf-life”
As well as the CEO and the athletes Ian highlights the fact that the pressure of the 4 year “funding cycle” also affects everyone else in sport – coaches, administrators, sports science support.
“These are all people with lives and responsibilities outside their sport involving mortgages, bills to pay families and children.
“It just leads to a lot of pressure on people’s emotional and mental resilience.”
In his role at the BAC the welfare of the athlete members became Ian’s main concern and, by his own admission, an obsession .But as he says;
“The job at the BAC should come with a health warning. It was a privilege to do what I did, but it has “shelf-life.”
“I couldn’t do it anymore because of the impact on my mental health.”
“The consequence of me being at the BAC for 5 years was that it cost me my good mental health. My psychotherapist who helped in my recovery said that in a way my depression, general anxiety and stress wasn’t a surprise it was a natural consequence, ‘Ian you’ve suffered 5 years of vicarious trauma. I was burnt out and trying to pour from an empty jug.”
But in hindsight, however, Ian knows that out of this trauma came positive consequences.
“Me, as a white, middle-aged, educated, monogamous, married male had to deal with supporting people who were not like me: women, people with a disability and people from the BAME and LGBT communities. All minority groups”
“You stand inside their shoes in any system – in my case performance sport – and the world doesn’t half look a different place.”
This appreciation of life from another’s point of view is one of the positives Ian took out from his experiences as it highlighted and reinforced his core values and removed subconscious bias.
“I got fed up with seeing the consequences
of a “tick box” mentality to duty of care in sport”
Ian’s own lived experience in sport made him ask the question “Who’s looking after the people looking after the people – i.e. the athletes?“ And to find not only the answer, but to help deliver the solution he founded DOCIA. . Through the business Ian supports current leaders in sport but also helps and advise the next generation of athletes, leaders and other decision makers within sport. Specifically, his driver is to make good mental health not only a consideration, but a central aspect of sport so the sector can make a sustainable, inclusive contribution to society.
“I got fed up with seeing the consequences of a “tick box” mentality to duty of care in sport.”
“I want to do two things predominantly: work to help the people looking after the people and secondly to support the next generation of leaders in sport.”
Not only does he work within sporting organisations as an independent consultant, but Ian also runs workshops, gives keynote speeches and works within higher education to inform others of the importance of duty of care to themselves and others as well as athletes and all those who deliver sport.
Whilst things have improved in sport, there is still a long way to go. As a rugby man, Ian likens it to a scrum.
“Wow, maybe we can deliver some sort
of change. I’m going to pack down again and give it another go”
“I’ve been packing down in the front row of a scrum and I’m pushing against the system for a number of years and it’s bloody hard work.”
“But, every now and then, the scrum breaks up and I stand up and have a look around and think ‘Bloody hell, I’ve got all these great people on my team and they’re all playing in the same direction as me.”
“Wow, maybe we can deliver some sort of change. I’m going to pack down again and give it another go.”