The 10th October marks World Mental Health Day. Recognition and awareness of mental health has increased significantly in the past few years and it’s a topic which is now in the spotlight more than ever, in part thanks to the amazingly brave high-profile sportspeople who have lifted the lid on their own issues.
Chris and I are all too aware how mental health can impact us as athletes on court, and as people off it. We’re very fortunate that we’ve never suffered from any significant mental health issues, but we’re not naïve enough to think that in a profession where you put yourself out there to be judged, where you have this constant pressure to win and a very real fear of failure, that we’re not susceptible to it. We absolutely are.
For us, really the mental challenges kick in on court. It’s an area that we’ve worked really hard at, and I really believe that our mental strength is one of the reasons we’ve enjoyed such success. Pressure is such a strange feeling, and it can affect athletes in such different ways. Just last month at the Worlds, we were 15-15 in the third set of the medal match and our belief in the mental side of our game helped us get through it. We are very in tune with our emotions on court, and how our bodies react and how to control our breathing. Being in that situation more and more, you learn a lot about yourself which gives us comfort and confidence in unpredictable situations.
But being mentally tough on game day is a totally different thing from the crippling mental health challenges some athletes face on a daily basis. Performing at a high level in sport is unforgiving. Your character is tested every single day. Our lives are filled with some extreme highs and lows, some epic jet-lag and major fatigue as we continually push ourselves to the limit. The feeling that the sport demands so much of you never really goes away, and for many athletes, there is barely any time to sit down and think, let alone talk about your feelings.
That’s where Chris and I are in a unique position. We train and travel with each other 100% of the time and as with any partner, you have someone by your side to hold your hand when you need it, to help put a smile on your face, and to help keep spirits and energy up during training. We never take this for granted. Chris definitely has more perspective on things whilst I probably have more of the drive so we balance each other out well. Having him next to me makes things ten times easier.
We’re also really grateful for the team around us who help to keep us mentally sharp. If we need to, we know how and where to seek support. We’re lucky that we work with a friend of ours, Simon Drane who is a sport psychologist. We use him to just open up, and those conversations give us perspective and reassurance which has been a massive benefit. He helps to guide us in the right direction, and to look at things positively to give us the headspace so as not to be consumed with things that we should move on from.
One of the biggest mental challenges for us is dealing with disappointment. There’s that famous quote – ‘it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up.’ It really resonates with me. Chris had a year out during juniors because of injury and that was really hard and he was worried if he’d never play again. For me, not being selected for London 2012 was a massive blow and a real mental hurdle to overcome. We overcame these challenges with the help of the team around us, and we are stronger for it.
The way we destress and build ourselves back up is by being at home – doing nothing! We crave those home comforts that everyone else takes for granted like cooking a meal or pottering around the garden. When we get home from a long trip and we’re totally drained, it’s really important for us to switch off and embrace the down time. Life on tour is frantic, but it’s almost a simpler existence, so when you get home and we’ve got so many people to see and things to do, we try and be a bit selfish with our time and really slow down. It’s the best form of recharging the batteries for us.
For those athletes who are struggling, it’s vital to seek help. I’d encourage anyone to not be afraid to open up to a friend, a colleague or a specialist. Speaking out helps, and yet there are still too many people who choose not to for any number of reasons. If they could find the courage to speak to someone and learn how to manage the situation well, then if anything, it may well make them tougher to beat on court.