“How did you improve so much?”
I heard this question many times over the course of my 2019 season. People are naturally curious: who on earth runs well at 12 years old, disappears for a decade, and returns in her 20s to set the women’s 800m on fire? When asked, I typically answered with nervous laughter and a generic comment about the consistency of my training. But upon reflection, I have a different reason to share: I’m great at asking for help.
These days it comes easily, but it hasn’t always. As a child and teenager, I was private and reserved about what I felt, even when I was in emotional crisis. This isolation had scary consequences when, at 18 years old, I started making preparations to take my own life. Fortunately, that experience was a turning point. I knew I couldn’t hide my struggle any longer, and began seeing a psychologist — kicking off a long-term education in self-awareness and embracing vulnerability. I’d say I’ve earned a Bachelor of Talking About My Feelings, and I’m halfway through a Master of Being Scared is OK!
This year, thrust into the world of elite athletics, my habitual connection seeking has proved surprisingly beneficial. A significant factor in my progress has been working closely and openly with a large support group. I check in regularly with everyone on my team, from my coach to my dietitian, so that we can form strong and genuine connections. I’ve become better at articulating my situation; painting a broad picture of my training and lifestyle. In the hands of the right professionals, it’s amazing what new insights this transparency can produce and how much more effective their care can be.
Being truly open is a subversive act in today’s sporting culture. Athletes often receive the message, men in particular, that it’s weak to ask for help or admit that you’re not okay. This stigma is compounded by the belief, and often reality, that this information may be poorly interpreted or held against you by competitors, the media, and even those close to you. If you speak about how a performance or decision was affected by mental distress, you risk being silently labeled as unstable and unpredictable — or because symptoms are largely invisible, their reveal might come across as a convenient excuse.
In the face of this, vulnerability is actually a formidable display of strength — it’s the shame of the stigma that can be draining and disempowering. As athletes, by accepting and moving through this shame, we soften its sting, and can more easily connect with others going through their own trials. This will foster a safer environment for everyone, including oneself, to perform unfettered. At the core of this practice is self-forgiveness and self-love: the belief that no matter what, you’re worthy of being accepted by others and yourself.
While vulnerability is important, it shouldn’t be unconditional. Boundaries are essential. You need not tell everyone every little detail; in fact, you should be highly selective. That said, there’s a difference between wishing to keep something to yourself and feeling pressured to remain silent. If there’s someone on your support team, even a friend or family member, where openness drains rather than nourishes you, consider restructuring or relinquishing that relationship. Another challenge I’ve encountered is that, in being vocal about mental health or personal subject matter, people can perceive that you’re always ready to have those conversations. Navigating this space is my next big hurdle; perhaps I’ll embark on a PhD in Saying No to Those You Love.
It’ll be an ongoing process. I still sometimes close myself to the strength that others could give me; the same strength I’ve seen in many athletes who share their ‘secrets’ or limitations, like injury, depression or suicidal behaviour, who now find purpose and meaning in these experiences. But the rewards are worth the challenges. Take baby steps: start with a simple conversation and keep an open and curious mind. To shift the culture, we need to be empathetic; to listen to our peers and sportspeople without judgement. Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is painful at times, but vulnerability lets others in and allows them to support and love you — and it takes a team to produce a champion.
Published in the December 2019 issue of Australian Athlete.
Photo: Riley Wolff