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Inspirational wellbeing lessons from professional athletes

Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles' recent decision to step away from Wimbledon/The Olympics is a stark reminder of how a high-profile career in professional sports can take its toll on wellbeing. However, the demanding nature of any sports career goes beyond a high-pressured environment.

First, there is a factor known as ‘athletic identity’ which is the degree to which the individual identifies as an athlete and values recognition in their field (Brewer et al., 1993). Whilst it brings a tremendous sense of self, it can be devastating in the face of loss.

Second, the intersection between sport and entertainment has become increasingly blurred. Sociologist Ellis Cashmore (2021) argues that high-profile sports stars are commodities in a sphere that’s driven by money with audiences who want all access. This results in a lack of privacy and personal freedom, which leaves them feeling suffocated.   

Therefore, the exceptional strength, speed and endurance of these athletes is undoubtedly noteworthy, but the real inspiration lies in the candour, bravery and vulnerability with which they discuss their mental health issues.

Justin Peck: Against all odds

The opening of Justin Peck’s biography is tough reading: ‘Peck has broken 84 bones, required 19 surgeries, had 200 screws surgically inserted into his body, and has died twice.’ However, it was this racing driver’s lifelong journey with bipolar, addiction and depression that led Peck to the top of a mountain, put a gun to his temple and pull the trigger. Remarkably, it refused to fire.

Since then, he’s become an Ambassador for Mental Health America, written a memoir Bulletproof and now sees his 3 conditions as a blessing.

Hypermasculinity is amplified in male sport which means struggling is not acceptable.  Peck’s willingness to challenge assumptions of toughness is precisely what makes him a warrior. For example, Peck states: ‘the power of a hug is something too many people ignore’ and they ‘always help a bad day’.

Moreover, he believes that an individual should accept help and find their tribe: ‘You need to be heard and bounce the game of life off someone or a group of people who get you.’ So, Peck is not only navigating his mental health issues, but he’s countering deeply entrenched and damaging male stereotypes surrounding affection, self-sufficiency and reaching out for support.

Naomi Osaka: Voicing pain in the moment

The case of Naomi Osaka, currently ranked No. 2 by the WTA, is an illustration of strength because of her stance on not just mental health, but race.

Osaka’s Japanese and Haitian heritage has positioned her as a vocal advocate for racial issues: ‘…before I am an athlete, I am a black woman.’ In honour of police brutality victims, she wore a mask imprinted with their names in the US Open last year and encouraged the Western & Southern Open to pause play by postponing her semi-final match.

Contesting racism sends a powerful message, particularly given that tennis is traditionally white-dominated. Unfortunately, this means mental health issues are not only more likely among non-white players (Castaldelli-Maia et al. 2018), but less acknowledged. This is best demonstrated by Osaka’s revelation that she had been suffering long bouts of depression since 2018, and the following flurry of media commentary invalidating her struggles.

However, Osaka’s open attitude to race, womanhood and mental health are not the only source of inspiration. For many of us, it is exceptionally difficult to admit our struggles at the time, and we often wait until the pain has subsided before sharing our story. Depression and other mental illnesses introduce unwanted companions, such as guilt and shame, forcing us to keep quiet until years later once healing has begun.

Therefore, Osaka’s expression of vulnerability as a young, high-profile sports celebrity while the world watches is an incredible display of courage. She teaches us that we don’t need to wait until the experience is in the past because it can be empowering to share our story as it unravels.

Victoria Pendleton: Living through retirement

The Olympic cyclist labelled her first win an anti-climax, but Victoria Pendleton’s departure from professional sport in 2012 was sadly far more impactful.

Referring back to the ‘athletic identity’ factor, retirement is a catalyst for immense difficulties among sports stars. Pendleton was one of many who spent her career daydreaming of a life without a rigorous routine and gruelling training, but the sudden transition felt feel like free falling.

Determined to silence the stillness, she embarked on a climb up Mount Everest in 2018, but this was abandoned due to hypoxia (oxygen deficiency). Pendleton fell into severe depression characterised by a numb and hopeless existence. She even asked for her mother’s forgiveness for her impending suicide. One day, Pendleton was minutes away from taking an overdose but in a moment of ‘sanity’, she rang her psychiatrist (and friend) who set her on a path to recovery.

Disclosing one’s suicidal thoughts is an exceptionally raw process because it captures an intensely existential darkness. This is precisely why her honesty is so powerful; it sheds light on the often-overlooked relationship between mental health and retirement. This cyclist (and wellbeing) champion advises us not only to be aware of the different life stages, but, more importantly, she emphasizes that we can survive the difficulties which often accompany such disruptions.