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.
At 26-years-old, tennis player Liam Broady is already contemplating retirement. “I’m already feeling a ticking time clock, which isn’t a nice feeling,” he says. “I suppose, really, I only have seven to 10 years left to achieve what I want. I’ve probably only got a couple of years left to start making moves.
“Every tournament I go to, I’m wanting to do something, because I believe I can get to the top of my sport.”
It hasn’t been an easy road for Broady. He’s one of Britain’s top tennis talents—in 2015, at the age of 21, he became the youngest British man to win a match at Wimbledon since 2008. But he’s struggled to solidify a place within the upper echelons of the sport, competing for titles at major tournaments. And last month, he lost his first round Australian Open qualifying match.
Following that loss, Broady criticised tournament organisers for forcing players to compete despite poor air quality stemming from the Australian bushfires, and argued in favour of a players union. “The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago it boils my blood,” Broady wrote on social media at the time.
Yet his harshest criticism is generally reserved for himself. “The difficult thing for me is that when I lose, it directly affects my self-worth – which is completely fucked up,” he tells HuffPost UK. “Just because I’m losing a tennis match, it doesn’t make me a bad person. But that’s how it felt to me.”
That was particularly the case during a fraught period in 2018 when he was ranked 154th in the world – his highest ranking – before losing nine matches in a row and falling to 335th. The experience of losing repeatedly ground him down. He felt alone, with nobody to talk to about his struggles, and entered a cycle of desperation.
“You’re thinking: Why is this happening? Do I deserve it?” he says. “And you’re doing all the things right, but it’s still not going right.” Broady’s response at the time was to work even harder, but the extra effort simply caused him to burn out.
“That was probably the most toxic thing, just trying to continue working through it,” he says. “The best thing would’ve been to have rested and come back refreshed.”
He doesn’t mean just physically. “The mind in itself is a bit like a muscle, in that it needs to be able to rest and switch off,” he says, “or it’s going to end up getting hurt.”
He estimates he’s away from his home for 40 weeks of the year. Spending so much time on the road, particularly in places like India and China where there’s more of a language barrier, can be mentally taxing.
Without anyone to talk to, it’s easy for him to get into his own head. “When you’re winning, it’s a lot easier, the weeks go a lot quicker,” he says. Losing, however, can leave him feeling isolated.
“You have a lot of time to yourself, a lot of time in your hotel room on your own, and obviously when you are in a place with a completely different time zone you can’t really speak to anyone on the phone either,” he says.
“You’re eating at the hotel, you’re sleeping at the hotel. The only time you ever leave the building is to go and practise, which sometimes is only an hour, maybe two or three hours a day.”
Broady says he’s friendly with most of the other players on tour, but he’s cautious about talking with them too much about his state of mind. “You never really want to show people that you’re struggling with your game or that there’s stuff going on, because often there’s locker room chat,” he says. “It can be used against you.”
At the end of 2018, Broady spent some time in Hong Kong after his coach told him to take a few days off. It was then that he reached his lowest point – he hadn’t been feeling right for a while, but all of a sudden it hit him like a truck.
“Whilst I was in Hong Kong I thought, ‘Shit, I don’t feel good,’ and I did a mental look around at who I could talk to about the way I felt, and I didn’t really feel like there was anyone I felt comfortable enough to tell all of these thoughts and feelings I had in my head,” he says.
“That was quite scary for me – I didn’t feel I was close enough with anyone, and that was probably the time where I felt my loneliest, because I was looking around and there was no one there.”
He had a meeting with physical coach Ric Moylan and tennis coach Dave Samill where they discussed what had gone wrong with Broady’s year and why he hadn’t achieved the success he wanted.
“I came to the conclusion I had a fantastic tennis coach, I had a fantastic physical coach, I had all the support I needed, but I didn’t have a mental coach – and to me that was glaringly obvious,” says Broady. His life coach, Phil Quirk, came on board not long after.
With Quirk’s help, Broady has put some strategies in place to help alleviate the pressure he puts on himself ahead of matches and prevent his thoughts from spiralling out of control. He deletes his social media accounts during tournaments, practices breathing exercises (specifically the Wim Hof method), and tries to be mindful of the things that are going well for him. .
“If you’re only ever focusing on the bad things in life, then it always gets worse, because you then only start to notice the bad things and you don’t notice the lucky breaks and the good things that are working in your favour,” Broady says.
Now he writes down three things that he’s grateful for every day. No matter how big or small. He’s also become the king of not preparing.
“I’m a massive over-thinker, so if I try and prepare too well, then I tend to get into this really weird space, and get really nervous and neurotic,” he says. “Everything goes to complete rubbish.” His tactic, instead, is not to look at who he’s playing until the evening before or sometimes the morning before a match. Then he’ll sit down with his coach to discuss strategy.
“At least that way I don’t look at draws and think, ‘Ok if I beat this person, then I’ll play this person,’ and I start worrying about who I’m playing in two rounds before I’ve even won that first match,” he says.
After his disastrous year in 2018, he’s been slowly climbing back up the tennis rankings. He’s currently ranked 237th in the world.
The biggest challenge for him, however, has been taking a day or two away from the sport without becoming anxious about it. He knows that switching off completely, being present, and spending time with his family and friends is important, that it will allow his mind to rest and recharge. It’s work in progress.
“I’m a young adult,” he adds. “Everyone likes to have a good time with their friends every now and then, and I think that’s important. But obviously not too much.”
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.