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British race walker Tom Bosworth opens up about mental health problems

“If this was 10 years ago, who knows if I would still be competing?” British Race Walker Tom Bosworth opens up on mental health problems.

It was the biggest event of his career.

Tom Bosworth is Britain’s best male race walker. He holds the world record for the 1 mile race walk, which he completed in just 5 minutes and 31 seconds in 2017, and was looking to become a medal-winner for the first time in his career in the 2017 IAAF World Championships, held in London. However, when ahead in first place, Bosworth was disqualified for committing three technique infractions. He was left devastated.

“I don’t think I realised the impact it had on me but you build your life around these one championships,” Bosworth told the BBC.

The nature of the sports, which see years of training culminating in single moments, are a double-edged sword

“The Olympics had gone so well the year before, I didn’t even comprehend the Worlds going so badly and it took its toll”. Bosworth reacted badly to his disqualification, culminating in him “drinking a lot” to cope with the disappointment. Fortunately for the athlete, he was able to seek out help from British Athletics.

“I spoke to British Athletics to say I didn’t enjoy what I was doing and it was having a huge impact. I didn’t go training because I wanted to block it all out as I thought I would have been a world medallist by now. The awareness of mental health is massive now and I was fortunate to get the support I did, but it took me a long time to process it and then ask for help. If this was 10 years ago, who knows if I would still be competing?”

Cases like Bosworth’s are far too frequent in the athletics world. The nature of the sports, which see years of training culminating in single moments, are a double-edged sword. For the athlete who disappoints, or suffers injury at the worst possible time, there’s crushing devastation. For the athlete who succeeds, there’s the “post-Olympic slump”.

Their “revised strategy” will also see a different approach to coaching

It’s of little wonder that, after the struggles of Michael Phelps and Lindsey Vonn, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are taking action. The IOC hosted the annual International Athletes’ Forum in April this year, with mental health leading the topics of discussion. The IOC’s own research has concluded that “mental health disorders affect up to 35 per cent of elite athletes”, which has prompted sporting bodies, both on international and national levels, to combat the problem head-on.

Back in May, UK SPORT and the English Institute of Sport introduced a new mental health programme to support all 1,200 UK Sport elite athletes. The programme consists of workshops that have been delivered to over 300 coaches across sports such as Swimming, Rowing and Cycling. This has seen a direct increase in provision for mental healthcare, instigated by the individual sporting bodies themselves. British Cycling recently revealed they have taken on “two full-time psychologists”, doubling their prior amount of provisions for their athletes.

Their “revised strategy” will also see a different approach to coaching. Doctor Nigel Jones, head of medical services for the Great Britain Cycling Team, hopes that the changes will see positive results. 

Elite athletes discussing mental health and breaking the stigma for seeking help is all well and good, but there’s more to be done

“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 a proactive approach of educating our coaches and support staff to allow for better understanding, toleration, containment and ultimately decreasing the prevalence and impact of challenging behaviours and mental distress.”

A change in approach from reactivity to proactivity could become one of the most pivotal instances of change pioneered by Olympic organisations. But while British athletes might have access to an abundance of trained psychologists, this isn’t something that translates to the general public, with NHS waiting lists leaving 122,000 patients waiting more than eight weeks to see a doctor again after their first appointment. Elite athletes discussing mental health and breaking the stigma for seeking help is all well and good, but there’s more to be done. Centring the discussion around a proactive, preventative approach to handling mental health will not only translate well within athletics, but could bare fruit in a wider social context. Breaking the stigma down – as Bosworth has been brave enough to assist with – is a good first step, but there’s still work to do.

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