My relationship with mental health and sports

Reading about Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from major tennis tournaments and her battle with depression and anxiety lead me to reflect on my own relationship with mental health and sports. Namely the long term psychological effect and repercussions of playing sports at a young age.

I competed in fencing at a national level from 8 till I was about 15, split between competing in London and Brunei. At no stage did I talk to a counsellor, sports psychologist or a trained mental health professional during training or competition preparation. I had a strong will to win but losses hurt me deeply and caused me great distress, I didn’t know how to cope.

During a competition loss (of which there were many) I was asked to ‘learn from it’ ‘improve’ ‘understand what to do better’ I must’ve been 10 when I was given this advice by my fencing club. How does a 10 year old have the emotional capacity to ‘learn’ from a loss?  How can a 10 year old understand that a loss can ‘build character’?

I was always a nervous wreck in the lead up to any competition. Regularly getting stomach aches, experience a rising heart rate and had difficulty breathing. I don’t know if I had a full anxiety attack or I did but didn’t have the emotional language to articulate what I experienced. I was never able to sleep properly the night before, never able to eat breakfast and hardly relaxed on the drive to a competition. 

My dad shared with the coaches how I would get nervous and they just told me to take deep breaths, think positive thoughts. ‘Don’t be worried’ they would say. I tried taking deep breaths, they didn’t work for me as I thought too hard about each breath. Worrying they wouldn’t be correct or in sync. I remained anxious, thinking this was how it was going to be for the entirety of my competitive life.

There wasn’t social media as it is now. No scrutiny from online communities or local sports forums to vent but I also felt I didn’t have anyone to talk to. What intensified my sense of isolation was that the other athletes were a lot older, much older. I felt like they couldn’t empathize with me. They couldn’t understand my perspective.

I was 14 when I stayed in the Sports Villages, Stadium Berakas in the build up to the Sukma Games. The other athletes were thinking about work and their career, I was thinking about school. Even though I was training for a competition I still wanted to play football with my friends during lunch. I felt I was missing out on school but also felt the need to continue training.

This was over two decades ago. The early 2000s sports infrastructure in Brunei was underfunded. I doubt there was ever an emphasis on sports psychology and it’s relation to sport performance let alone athlete welfare. I didn’t get an allowance competing but competition fees, flights and accommodation were covered. Those aspects were taken care of but my mental well being wasn’t. It’s great seeing ministry supporting athletes with allowances which puts some ease in competing and hopefully there is a greater emphasis on mental well-being.

Reflecting on this period it’s clear my relationship with sports was unhealthy. It did not result in a positive relationship since negative feelings were tied with a sense of accomplishment. Suffering means that you are working towards a greater goal. I think some sports counselling or age appropriate coping exercises for stress would’ve helped immensely.

Sports at a young age should be fun, well sports should be fun at any age. This is a perspective I’m trying to bring forward into my 30’s, a healthier and more fulfilling relationship with sports.

Thanks to Akhmal Aiman for sharing his own struggles with mental health this encouraged me to share my own perspective, also to resources like Cope for Hope for centering mental health in public conversation.