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John Amaechi OBE

Action for athletes

16 April 2018 | by John Amaechi OBE

As we all know, if the premise of an intervention is wrong, what follows will be hard pressed to be right.

I saw the Government’s mental health action plan for elite sportspeople and while I welcome it in principle, I can’t help but think there’s even more to be done – and far more swift and profound changes in the mindset and commonplace behaviours permeating elite sport needed before we can hope for substantive positive change.

I agree with the BPS’ Chair of The Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Dr Stewart Cotterill, that the Mental Health Action Plan for Elite Sport is a “…step forward…”, however, I believe it’s a weaker strategy than required given the time and performance pressures levied on increasingly young and highly sequestered – not to mention legally contracted – groups of young people in the elite sport system.

It’s a system so convoluted and entrancing that I believe athletes in at least some elite systems should be legally considered vulnerable adults – but that’s for another discussion.

I appreciate there was a consultation on the Action Plan, but I wish that it had been led instead by the findings of the Independent House of Lords committee on Duty of Care in Sport, Chaired by Paralympic legend and cross-bench Peer, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson on which I sat over the last several years.

Listening to the sometimes devastating in-person submissions and written testimonials describing the mental and physical trauma experienced by elite (and non-elite) athletes within the British sporting infrastructure was sobering, and I think would have provided a much more grounded starting place for an intervention to better manage elite-athletes psychological welfare.

Over a few years, committee members heard how athletes were made explicitly aware that the mental health challenges that anyone might face in the real world, were seen as “career ending weaknesses” within the elite sporting world.

Indeed, it was stark to hear how it was coaches, performance directors, ‘support’ staff, and even parents themselves, who often contributed to the mental ill-health of athletes through their own interpersonal interactions.

And whether that occurred though thoughtlessness or malice was, as you might expect, not relevant to those athletes on the receiving end.

I encourage you to read of at least some of the findings and recommendations that made it through to publication in the Independent Report, but as much as that I want us to challenge the premise of the intervention – a claim so bold as to warrant automatic scrutiny by social scientists – as presented in the opening sentence of the Sports Ministers comments:

“We know that sport has a very positive impact on people’s mental health and can help in their recovery.”

I hear this commentary constantly and yet whenever I look for the evidence of the “power of sport” to create positive change – whether that be reducing violence and recidivism, enhancing school outcomes, improving community cohesiveness, or enhancing mental health – the evidence, in the words of one of my mentors, Prof. Fred Coalter, a man who has spent a lifetime examining the role of sport in human development and who has been charged by the Government with evaluating the various initiatives funded by Sport Relief for a decade, is "...equivocal at best.

When delivered with personal development, human dignity and a duty of care in mind, sport – and indeed chess, Zumba, maths club or nearly any other collective pastime – can be the conduit for people to develop personal insights and relationships that enhance mental wellbeing.

However, my biggest question and concern as I look at this burgeoning new Action Plan, is this:

Does British elite sport, an environment where athletes can be told by text that they’ve been dropped from a team after ten years’ service, where elite coaches have little to no mandated education in anything except sport technique; where athletes are, to this day, told that psychological ill-health is a “personal weakness” that jeopardises their standing in the team, really be considered to necessarily and automatically have “…a very positive impact on people’s mental health”?

I fear that too many people around sport, from fans to Government ministers, yearn for the shine of medals a little too much to fully realise the ambition of the mental health action plan for elite sportspeople and take the best psychological care of our athletes.


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