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Pro riders and teams open up about mental health issues

Michael Donlevy
3 Jul 2019

How pro cycling is addressing mental health and learning to support its athletes

There is no hiding place in elite sport. From the outside we see professional athletes as almost superhuman – not just fit but incredibly strong, mentally and physically, and resilient. Battle-hardened, totally dedicated and focused only on success. And while anyone can ride a bike, our own limitations give us a deeper appreciation for those who can do it at a level beyond anything we can dream of.

Suffering is part of cycling, almost a badge of honour, so it comes as a shock when we learn that those superhuman athletes are actually human after all.

Athletes are under more pressure than ever. Sport is big business, and the rise of social media means those at the top of the game are a target when things don’t go right.

‘The money is huge, more people are competing and if you don’t stay at the top someone will take your place,’ says Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. ‘Science has helped people train in a more sophisticated way, and talent only gets you so far.

‘On top of that, social media is 24 hours per day and it requires you to be very good at managing your image,’ he adds. ‘Direct access to the athlete can bring intense emotions in the athlete – unpleasant feelings, like being in a crowd. But whereas competing in front of a crowd is seen as part of the competition, social media can create an ongoing pressure.’

‘Riders are under more pressure these days,’ says Jan-Niklas Droste, head of medical at WorldTour team Bora-Hansgrohe. ‘I think we can see what’s changed is that riding a bike is not the only part of the job any more. Professional sport is also entertainment and marketing. For the athletes the spotlight is now on them 24/7, in addition to an increased demand for perfectionism we’ve faced over the last two decades.

‘There’s also an accumulation of some risky personality characteristics such as high self-esteem – even if it’s a pretence – the way athletes manage conflict and how they deal with fear or pain. The result is that we have seen professional athletes facing new problems.’

Droste should know. It was one of Bora-Hansgrohe’s riders – Olympic Champion Peter Kennaugh – who stepped away from the sport earlier this year to focus on himself and his family, saying he needed to ‘rediscover happiness, motivation and enthusiasm’.

He’s not the only one. Fourteen-time Tour de France stage winner Marcel Kittel quit Katusha-Alpecin in May to take a break from a cycling, and Team Sunweb’s Nicolas Roche recently opened his heart to Cyclist about his own struggles, brought on by a divorce and his brother’s battle with cancer.

‘I’ve had problems in my life but thought as long as I’m on my bike, I can get over anything. I was wrong,’ he told us. ‘I struggled more than I thought I would. I also struggled with the fact that I knew I was struggling. I remember being dropped on a flat Giro stage [12, in 2018]. I thought, “Nico, this is not physical – your mind has gone.”’

Sometimes riders need help and understanding, and Bora-Hansgrohe prides itself on being one of the more progressive pro teams in this regard. ‘Mental health is one of four pillars we are working on beside traumatology, internal/infectious diseases and overuse,’ says Droste. ‘It’s not possible to look at those areas separately because they obviously affect each other.

‘Regarding mental health we have specialists as consultants, especially in the off-season. The goal is not to wait until a problem arises, not to “treat” the athletes – the goal is to stop the stigmatisation of mental health and open up a conversation about that topic.

‘We support all athletes to work with a psychologist at home on a regular basis,’ he adds. ‘We try to help them find someone they trust and who speaks their native language. We try to work athlete-centred and one of the most important aspects is the empathic human interactions based on a highly sensitive listening.

‘Most of the athletes are with the team for a long time as the atmosphere is like a family – this is something that is really important for us and is a protective factor in itself. It’s easier to realise stressors early and seek a way to deal with it together.

‘We are constantly working and improving on this topic and it is for sure just the starting point. We need to develop new strategies to face mental health as a major part of success in health management, performance and social interaction.’

Home help

British Cycling has also taken steps to address the issue by establishing a new mental health strategy to support rider welfare.

‘We revised our approach to athlete mental health and wellbeing based on the acknowledgement that, as an elite sports team, we operate in a high-challenge, high-support environment,’ says Dr Nigel Jones, head of medical services for the Great Britain Cycling Team.

‘The aim is to move away from the more traditional approach of reactively providing external support to those diagnosed with a mental health “disorder” and to instead shift the focus to working in a more proactive way,’ he adds.

British Cycling has co-opted two full-time sports psychologists from the English Institute of Sport, while for specific cases UK Sport offers monthly access to a clinical psychologist.

‘Another key area is educating the wider coaching and support team around the general principles of human development,’ says Jones. ‘New athletes joining the programme will undergo a mental health screening and athletes will be screened on a six-monthly basis, allowing us to identify athletes who are struggling mentally but may not recognise this themselves.

‘Finally, we will provide clearly signposted mental health pathways that enable the athlete to feel comfortable when seeking help and know the range of options available to them.’

Everybody hurts

We tend to put them on a pedestal, but elite athletes can be complicated characters. You don’t reach the top of your sport by being an ‘ordinary person’.

‘Sportspeople are highly motivated, strong and resilient – but some can also be obsessive and highly self-critical,’ says Lane. ‘A driven motivation to perform at your best requires you to monitor performance and change, via self-talk when your performance dips below the standard you require.

‘If performance dips, the athlete continues to be self-critical and performance doesn’t improve, it creates a negative environment. Feedback in sport is immediate and black and white – defeat and poor performance is clear and, while we might try to draw positivity from defeat, if the athlete loses the financial effects aren’t so easy to cope with.’

Perhaps Droste sums it up best: ‘If the life of athletes is visible from so many different angles that let the world participate in every aspect of their private life through social media, we should also allow space for fear and negative emotions.

‘Athletes are role models for people around the world and being honest is a huge release for them and all the people stressed by the Instagram-filtered illusion of a perfect, sunny and happy life.’

This is an important point and one that cycling isn’t alone in realising. In football, England international Danny Rose opened up about his battle with depression, while England Women star Fran Kirby actually quit the game for a spell as she battled depression and anxiety after losing her mother.

Other sportspeople, including England’s Rugby World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson and 1996 Formula 1 World Champion Damon Hill, have revealed their own struggles after retiring. It takes bravery to speak out, especially for those who are still performing at the highest level, but opening up can help them – and help others to identify their own problems.

‘We look up to our heroes but to realise they are human and fighting the same demons might help us all to accept there are more valuable aspects of life beyond what we see on Instagram,’ Droste adds. ‘It’s quite OK to be perfectly imperfect. Society might not be ready for it, but the process has started.’