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.
Rebecca Adlington was just 19 years old when she won two gold medals in Beijing, in the 400-metre and 800-metre freestyle swimming competitions, transforming her from average teen to Olympic legend overnight. The year was 2008 – making it the first Games since the launch of Facebook and Twitter.
Soon, strangers began to write sexist comments about her online, largely focused on her appearance. More than a decade later, they are yet to give up.
“I will never, ever understand why someone wants to send a negative tweet to anyone,” Adlington tells HuffPost UK. “I didn’t understand what my appearance had to do with my swimming then, and 10 years on, I still don’t understand it now.”
The sudden fame was not something that either she or her family had anticipated. Even before she returned from Beijing, the tabloid press set up camp outside her family’s home.
“I felt scared – my family didn’t ask for that, and I didn’t ask for that either, so it felt like an invasion of privacy,” she says. “I didn’t even have an agent or a manager. We didn’t know how to handle it.”
Adlington quickly realised an agent could help set some boundaries with the UK media. But the abusive, anonymous messages she received online were a new beast for Olympic athletes to deal with – and far harder to control.
Adlington describes the experience of being harassed online as “overwhelming”, adding: “It was definitely the trolling side of things that affected my mental health more than other stuff. I was a teenage girl, and I had insecurities about my body and the way that I looked, but it just heightened everything.”
The constant criticism cast a cloud over otherwise amazing days, she says, such as when she received her OBE in 2009.
“I was meeting the Queen, but the next day, seeing comments from people saying, ‘You’re too fat to wear that dress’, it tarnished such a brilliant day and something that I should have been so proud of,” she says.
“It started to become a thing where every day, I was going into my wardrobe, trying to pick an outfit and thinking, ‘Is this going to make me look fat?’ It made me question everything,” she adds.
Adlington recalls feeling “on edge” when making public appearances, including the Pride of Britain Awards, where she was “paranoid about what was going to be said the next day”. Over time, she learned not to read the comments, but says a decade of trolling has taken its toll – she still sometimes turns down invitations because of it.
“I don’t go to a lot of events now – I probably go to two awards shows a year – because I don’t want to have a load of comments where people say, ‘You look fat in that.’ It’s made me not want to go to things, because I just don’t feel comfortable.”
Away from the red carpet though, Adlington says her body confidence has improved, largely thanks to becoming a mum to her daughter, Summer, in 2015.
“I think the human body is amazing, it’s given me a baby. I see it in a completely different way,” she says. ”When you become a parent in general, you’re so focused on trying to raise your kid that you don’t even have time to read the comments – I just don’t entertain the pettiness.”
Her mental health has also improved thanks to therapy, which she started in January 2019. Adlington met regularly with a sports psychologist when she was competing. But after she retired from swimming in 2013, she lacked that support, and she felt her mental health deteriorate, to the point where she was experiencing “debilitating” panic attacks.
“Physically I would feel quite breathless, and I was in floods of tears but couldn’t calm down,” she says. “And there was no reason for it either. It wasn’t that something had upset me – like when you watch a film and you cry.
“I was dead shaky, I would have to sit down, I would feel like I was about to pass out. But the biggest thing for me was the feeling that I couldn’t control it – almost like you’re drunk, in a way. You can’t stop it once it’s gone too far.”
Therapy helped her explore the feelings behind her panic, but also learn techniques to control it, she says.
“If I’m driving and start to feel a bit panicky, it can be as simple as going through the alphabet naming animals. If I’m at home and I’m feeling it, I try to just acknowledge where I am by looking around the room and looking for five things in a certain colour,” she explains. “It’s simple stuff that I can even do with my daughter, but it brings you back to the room and gets you concentrating on something else.”
Armed with these techniques, Adlington felt able to stop therapy in the summer and hasn’t had an attack since.
She believes a major step in overcoming the attacks has been challenging her internalised stigma around mental illness, by acknowledging and accepting the way she feels.
“I wanted explanations of why I felt that way,” she says. “I would accept if I was having a tired day, or if I was having a day when I felt energetic, but I wouldn’t accept if I was having a day when I was feeling panicky. But they’re all the same, it’s no different.
“So it was learning to say ‘I’m having a panicky day’ – acknowledging it, owning it and accepting it, rather than getting more worked up about it.”
Now, Adlington looks after her mental health by ensuring she takes five minutes out for herself each day. “I really love stupid stuff like lighting candles in the evening,” she says. “For others it might be taking a bath, reading a book or having your hair done. Whatever it is, you’ve got to take care of you.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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.