Head In The Game sees athletes across a variety of disciplines speak candidly about their mental wellbeing – from occasional periods of poor mental health to ongoing, sometimes debilitating, struggles with mental illness. They also share coping mechanisms and the support they’ve turned to during their lowest points.
“I feel like I’ve achieved one of the biggest things that I ever wanted to do in my career,” gymnast Becky Downie says, not long after winning a silver medal on uneven bars at the 2019 World Gymnastics Championships in October.
Downie’s achievement speaks not just to her athleticism, but also to her mental fortitude and positive outlook. She’s had to battle back from a series of career-threatening injuries that left her unable to compete for two years.
In April 2017, during a bar routine in the finals of the European Championships, she fell badly and snapped the already-fraying ligaments in her left elbow. She needed to have surgery – an elbow reconstruction.
It was a moment when she thought retirement might be on the cards. She recounts receiving a call from her doctor, who explained the extent of the damage. “When my mum got in from work she asked if I was ok and I just burst into tears,” Downie recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m not ok, I don’t think I’ll be able to do this anymore, what if my arm doesn’t get better?’”
Within five days of the surgery, however, she was back in the gym, and by the end of the year she was training for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“It wasn’t the easiest day to process, but for me it’s always been like, if we’re going to get it fixed, you just go with this all-in mentality and make sure you do everything you can to get better,” Downie says.
“As long as I could look back and say I’d given it everything, if it didn’t get better then that’s just how things were supposed to be.”
Her hopes of returning to form were shattered again, however, when she fell off the bars and rolled her ankle. She had to back out of the competition.
Focusing on the next major event, Downie began to prepare for the Europeans (more formally known as the European Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Championships) that summer. But disaster struck again when she sprained her ankle in training just two days before the competition. “I never even made it to compete,” she says. “It was extremely frustrating.”
Ahead of the 2018 World Championships in Doha that October, her ankle still wasn’t healing properly, so Downie asked to have more scans taken. “As it wasn’t improving, I wanted to know what was going on,” she says. “Then I found out that my cartilage had come away from the bone at the bottom of my ankle and I needed surgery.”
Once again, just as she had following her elbow reconstruction, she hit the gym and trained harder than ever, hoping her body would carry her through the competition.
She managed to compete in Doha – placing seventh in the uneven bars – before returning home for more surgery.
When asked about the psychological impact of these repeated blows, Downie says she’s started focusing on the mental aspect of gymnastics only recently. “I didn’t really understand that that was such a huge side of our sport,” she says.
“In the last few years I’ve realised how mental it is. Obviously gymnastics is very physical, there are a lot of training hours involved and compared to other sports we don’t really ever get time off – I think that’s probably one of the hardest parts about our sport, that it’s just so intense all the time.”
Downie’s work ethic is clearly a key factor in her success. But as soon as she walks through the front door after a day at training, she’s on downtime – watching TV with her family is a key way of de-stressing after a hard day. Sometimes it’s as simple as just not talking about gymnastics – which can be hard, especially as her younger sister is Ellie Downie, 10-time European medalist and two-time world medalist.
At 28, Downie says the years of twisting and tumbling and falling have taken a toll on her body. “I’ve had so many injuries over the years, I’ve injured nearly every single body part,” she says. At this point in her career, the real challenge isn’t developing her gymnastic skills, it’s simply keeping herself physically and mentally ready to compete.
“I feel like I’m a bit of a rare breed in the fact that I love it so much I can just have that ability to keep going,” Downie says. “For me, it comes quite naturally, the mentality to keep pushing forward.”
Downie’s next big focus is the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and then, possibly, retirement. “I’m not 100% retiring next year, but I will be looking to in the next few years,” she says.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so it’s a case of what else do I want to do? I’m really excited to explore different things.” She nods that she could do more with her and Ellie’s leotard business Double Downies and muses over the prospect of coaching full-time.
As for her latest silver medal win at the World Championships, she is incredibly proud of how far her body – and mind – have come. “It shows all the hard work’s paid off,” Downie says. “I’ve always loved the sport so much, which is why it’s kept me going as long as it has. And no matter how hard it’s been, I’ve always had that dream.
“To know that I’ve actually finally achieved that dream is amazing.”
Visit HuffPost UK’s dedicated Head in the Game site to read our full series of daily interviews with sports people about their mental health and wellbeing.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.