In the fitness world I believe that what we can physically see, gets more positive attention than what we cannot tangibly see occurring in the mind.
When we talk about the mind for example in the commentary for the Olympics, the athletes will be praised superficially about their grit, focus, sacrifice, ability to dig deep, but what else is there beyond these surface level attributes.
I interviewed a Martin Yelling a top performance coach who works with the Virgin London Marathon, he's also coached World Champions Olympians and Paralympian's, I asked him what common traits do they have which make them successful, that non professional athletes can implement, and he said.
I enjoy working with athletes of all abilities. Actually you don't need to be a world beater to have some incredible qualities that we can learn from. The world's best athletes do have a real sense of commitment, determination, strength, steely focus, and drive that can help achieve goals, this can also be a curse though as it's also these qualities for constant improvement that can lead to physical breakdown, emotional instability and mental health issues! The truth is, in my view, that a well rounded, healthy, reasoned, productive and balanced approached, often that is process rather than entirely goal focussed can bring about the best in athletes of all abilities.
Martin makes a great point about how an unbalanced approach can cause mental health issues. Beyond this interview, and in the wider context, I don't feel there is enough discussion around factors which cause unbalance and impact mental performance, particularly in the impact of stress from life events outside of sporting competition.
Before winning his second gold in the 2012 Olympics, Mo Farah knew his wife Tania was expecting, but she was advised by the team around Mo not to confirm the due date to him, as not to add further stress that could affect him.
A few days after winning his second gold, Tania gave birth to twin girls, Amani and Aisha. In 2012 Mo was quoted as saying.
Sometimes the family has a problem and you have to block it out. If your kid's sick, are you going to get a flight back from Kenya? You have to know your wife is taking care of them, but at the same time concentrate on the training.
This support system around professional athletes to deal with life's challenges and stresses isn't uncommon, as it allows them to perform at their optimum level.
In his book titled Leading, Sir Alex Ferguson said prior to Aberdeen's European Cup Winners Cup final in 1983 that.
One of the first things I did was make sure that the players' wives and girlfriends understood their role..so that we could prepare for what would be the most important game in their husbands' careers...I made sure the wives understood that their one task was to make sure that their husband was as well prepared as possible for the game and that under no circumstances, should they do anything that could distract him...No distractions.
As much as you can prepare to manage the stresses of life, regardless of whether you are a professional athlete or not, there are times when these support systems cannot help you, as what happened to me.
In 2016 I completed my challenge to run four marathons in one year starting in Manchester and ending in New York, to highlight that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. But before my third marathon I faced a bereavement. The mental strain was incredibly immense as I was training whilst in a state of mourning, and my running suffered.
Avoiding my loss by focusing on grit, sacrifice, the ability to dig deep or any of the other cliches, didn't help me. Also I wasn't in a cocoon and couldn't avoid it.
During the stages of mourning I experienced anger. I tried to stay 'busy' which was an epic fail. As a marathon runner, I feel that in tough times my default is to keep going forward but I've learned, that to pause and reflect is also forward motion.
When sadness did come, I had to let it out. All challenges in life, should be faced head on. Avoidance only hurts you in the long run.
As humans sometimes we feel that we need to be control, and mistakenly believe that we should avoid the root cause of our stress, as facing these fears could overwhelm us.
However you can avoid it, or fight it, or face it with courage, all options hurt you.
The first two options continue to hurt in the long term, whereas the later doesn't hurt in the long term. From my own experiences I've accepted that I can't control what happens to me, but I can control how I respond to it.
Thankfully because of my marathon goals, I had a positive way to express my sadness. I ran it in honour of my loss.
There are so many factors which affect our mental health which impacts your physical health. In my case it was bereavement, otherwise it could be a stressful situation at work, a toxic personal relationship or experiencing injury or illness. In terms of fitness it could be a negative internal dialogue i.e. The relationship with food, not being thin enough, not being muscular enough, it comes down to the feeling of simply that you are not good enough. Until you are comfortable with what you are and what your not, subconsciously chasing unattainable goals will increase stress and the likelihood of developing mental health problems.
The good side of mental fortitude gets lauded in the press, but we don't talk about the other side enough, without making it sound like a weakness. I believe that admitting to a challenge and facing it isn't a weakness, it only becomes a weakness if you don't face it, and hope that grit will get you through. This is the reason why I believe that a healthy body cannot coexist without a healthy mind.
So let's stop thinking, talking is a weakness, lets start talking, share our challenges, by sharing the burden, and possibly learn how someone else dealt with a similar challenge.