Battling mental health with a Sporting Career

Last week’s article was received so well, Shona has very kindly agreed to write another guest post for us. This week she’s speaking openly & honestly about her journey battling mental health with her own sporting career.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to his or her community’ – World Health Org (2014)

We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. As our bodies become unwell, so can our minds. Mental health is a continuum ranging from good mental health to poor mental health.

Mental health in shortened sporting careers

For many people with sporting careers, these careers tend to be short lived. Some of the people that I’ve coached have been at the top of their game for a few years, but had it cut short because of an injury that maybe ends their career. For a limited few, they go on to become Coaches, Managers or TV Presenters, but what happens to the many that don’t go on to do those things?

Many become depressed, because they have been used to a tough training regime that places physical and emotional demands on them. And once they are unable to perform to this level anymore, possibly due to an injury, they become vulnerable to eating disorders. From my experience, this is more prevelant in males than females.


My own experience

In the early 90s I qualified for the Commonwealth Games in swimming. For years I trained for 4 hours per day, 6 days per week, sometimes having to travel for an hour to find a pool. But only a few weeks before the Games, I sustained an injury to my knee which required surgery. That was the end of my swimming career.

Swimming was all I had done all my life. I was the ‘weird’ kid at school; bullied because I was good at something and not interested in the ‘normal’ things teenagers do. I flunked my GCSEs first time around because I was always training, so I was a disappointment to my parents. So, all of a sudden when I was no longer able to swim, I felt like I had nothing. I was 16, all of my friends were starting to go clubbing and I felt left out and quite low. I felt unattractive, because I had huge shoulders, no boobs and big muscular legs. My parents never supported my swimming, so the decision was forced upon me to go to a 6th form college, re-sit my GCSEs and then take my A levels. If I’d had my own choices I would have gone on to study Sports Psychology or something similar. Instead, my life was mapped out for me as a Lawyer.

Thankfully I managed to find a love for other sports after swimming and joined various sports clubs at University. Not everyone finds this though. I was also relatively lucky that I was very young.

Stigma around mental health

There is still a lot of stigma around mental health. So many people make assumptions about how a mental health problem affects someone’s behaviour. This makes it more likely that the person will be labelled as different, dangerous, or strange. Feelings associated with stigma include:

– Isolation
– Shame
– Feeling misunderstood
– Criticised as a person
– Demeaned

The David Cotterill Foundation

Since April 2019 I have been working with David Cotterill, former Professional Footballer, and we now run a mental health foundation called The David Cotterill Foundation. David was at the height of his game, but retired from football in 2018 due to mental health and his addiction with alcohol, which almost killed him. David has been through rehab and no longer drinks. He talks regularly about his experiences. However, he still faces the stigma.

Recently David was on a train and overheard several lads discussing how professional footballers could possibly get depressed when they earn so much money. This goes back to the assumptions people make. Just because you’re a professional athlete/sportsperson, it does not mean that you’re not a human with feelings.

What David is starting to find, along with other sporting professionals, is that by talking more openly about their mental health, they can start to break down the stigma.


As a Coach, how can we spot the signs of someone who may be struggling with mental health?

– They may avoid training sessions
– They may have changes in their mood
– They are more likely to neglect self-care
– There may be changes in their work output/motivation
– They may be appear tired, anxious or withdrawn
– They may have a loss of interest in activities
– There may be changes in habits e.g. appetite, drinking.

For the person with the mental health problem they may have thoughts such as:

– Confusion
– Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
– “I can’t do this”
– “Everyone is looking at me”
– “I’m letting people down”
– “I’m not good enough”
– “Something bad will happen”



The feelings of that person:

– Anxiety/panic
– Low mood
– Low energy
– Lack of control
– Isolation
– Shame
– Guilt
– Worthlessness
– Physical feelings, such as headaches, backache, nausea, needing the loo.

As a Coach it’s your role to work with individuals to help them achieve their goals. Be a good listener, take time and be patient.

My health journey & why sport is important to me

Sport has always been a huge part of my life ever since I was a child. Even after I quit swimming I found a love for something else. For a number of years it wasn’t competitive, but it did involve daily sessions to the gym and then scuba diving.

I fell in love with scuba diving quickly and went on a trip to The Maldives to do my PADI diving course. Whilst I was there, I discovered that I had a hole in my heart which needed closing. Once this was done, I was never able to scuba dive again. This was another love, this time short-lived, that I had to over-come.

I’ve always had a high demanding job, so doing some form of exercise was great for my well-being. It was my way of ‘letting-go’. If I’d had a bad day at work, there was nothing I loved more than doing a 2 mile run back to my car, with some great tunes; or going for a heavy gym session. Not only did it improve my mood and make me put my working day behind me, it made me sleep better too.


Then in 2017 I found out what it was like to not be able to any exercise at all… for months & without any warning. On the 21 February 2019 I was cycling to work, which I did everyday, when my front wheel hit a wet patch. The next thing I remember was waking up in an ambulance with serious injuries. My injuries were so serious I was given a 20% chance of survival and I had to wait 2 weeks before the surgeons could operate due to the swelling on my brain and around my orbital area.

Following my accident and surgery I was unable to even go for a short walk for weeks. I really struggled mentally with this. I probably struggled more mentally than I did physically with the injuries.This was because whenever I had periods of feeling low in the past, I had always turned to exercise. And now I couldn’t even go for a walk.

My physical recovery was expected to take at least 6 months, but thankfully, because I keep myself reasonably fit, I was back to teaching Spin classes after 4 months. But during that time, my mood really changed. I was conscious about my body image, not only because I had facial reconstructive surgery, but because in the early stages after my accident, I was so unwell. I lost over a stone and a half in weight in a couple of weeks. But then I started to gain weight because I was unable to do any exercise at all and I had a really bad relationship with my body image.

When did things start to get better?

When I started to get back into my routine of regular exercise and practicing mindfulness daily, things started to get back to normal. However, I am aware for a lot of people who have injuries, they don’t go back to sport at all. And that’s when depression sets in. This can even lead to drug and alcohol dependency.

Talking is a great therapy and helps to break down the stigma. The more we talk, the more it gets the message out there that people are struggling. It also makes people see others as more ‘human’.


My plan, with David Cotterill, is to go to all of his former football clubs and talk about anxiety amongst the sporting industry. We’re hoping to raise awareness of mental health in this industry.

Hopefully this will help many other people in the sporting world who are battling with mental health issues.

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