“Mental health and well-being are incredibly important to the long term success and health of an athlete” | Kirstie Urwin
“For me, being an athlete is so much more than striving to win day in, day out” Urwin reflects. “Whilst wanting to win inevitably drives me, the journey that I am taking, the skills I am acquiring and the experiences I have the privilege of encountering are shaping me into a much more diverse and well-rounded individual; all of which will continue to give me satisfaction and value far beyond my retirement from sport. However, this ‘win at all costs’ mentality is a trait that I do not wish to be associated with anymore.”
This epiphany has led Urwin to be a mentor for the True Athlete Project (TAP), a programme which strives to work with athletes who see the value and potential that their sport provides whilst teaching them to use that value in a way that drives compassion and positive social change. The aim of the programme is to support the person behind the young athlete, and prove that when the person flourishes, so does their sporting performance. TAP recognises the power of sport as an influential social movement, yet hopes to raise awareness surrounding the wellbeing of athletes with the promotion of constructive, inclusive cultures.
The universality of mental health and the difficulties to speak up about it is what steered Urwin to undertake a mental health first aid course. “When I completed the course there were people from all different areas of the British Sailing Team (athletes, coaches, support staff) also completing the course. Everyone had their own story of struggles they have faced regarding their own mental health or that of someone they were close with….It’s really easy to think you are alone in how you are feeling, when the reality is that we all struggle sometimes” explains Urwin. “Mental health struggles can feel really lonely and the knowledge that most people have or will experience some of what you might be experiencing in their lifetime was really reassuring to me.”
Tackling the stigma is something we can all make an effort towards, and elite athletes have great power in this movement. Looking back, Urwin believes that “[historically] athletes have been revered by the general public as figures of strength, and as result any athlete who revealed any mental health struggles were regarded as weak. There was a misconception that mental health struggles and performance were mutually exclusive, when the reality is that everyone sits on a mental health continuum and many athletes struggle everyday but still perform at the highest level”. Urwin’s opinion is echoed by West Ham United Women’s performance coach , Jenny Coady, who states that mental health “wasn’t on the agenda” when she was an athlete. Investing in mental health, Coady tells the BBC, is a marginal gain which we need to push for.
Speaking up and asking for help is vital, and something which needs to be adapted and normalised in sport. Urwin is positive that sport is going in the right direction – “The more athletes that speak up about this issue, high profile or not, the more traction the campaign will gain” – but she is also certain that sport can do more. Instead of winning-at-all costs, Urwin favours the mentality of ‘Excellence in performance’: “The word excellence encompasses the attitudes and values that elite sport should be striving towards more neatly” says Urwin, and this achieves success “without compromising athletic integrity”.
“There is something really powerful about an athlete revealing their mental health struggles and their ability to confront them whilst performing on the world stage” Urwin summarises. “The more we as athletes can build awareness that it is ‘okay to not be okay’ and that even the strongest of us sometimes struggle, the more positive the culture in sport surrounding mental health will become.