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Rachel Yeldham on Mental Health in Sport

Who are your sporting role models and why?

There are so many great athletes out there it’s hard to choose! Simone Biles is a huge inspiration, as she is not only insanely talented but refuses to be silenced about the abuse which so many American gymnasts suffered – I think that demonstrates great strength. She did not have to talk publicly about issues such as sexual assault but she did, despite it coming at a great personal cost; she used her place as a role model to help others and that’s incredible.

In terms of rugby, I definitely have a soft spot for Danny Cipriani, not only as a Glos player but as the best 10 in English rugby, in my opinion. He’s a genius on the rugby field and watching him is a pleasure. Similarly, his overcoming personal issues and now being healthier and happier is exactly the type of narrative I think we should be focussing on – progress over perfection.

Are there any specific aspects of mental health that you feel are highlighted when you participate in sport?

Although sport has not personally impacted my body image, I know it is a big issue within sport, especially for younger people.

Personally, I find that sport brings out traits such as perfectionism and competitiveness which are not always good things. I have never met an athlete who is happy with their performance – whilst being competitive and pushing yourself is often seen in a positive light, it is not always a helpful emotion. I find a lot of athletes are very harsh on themselves and focus on minor mistakes or not meeting goals (such as running certain times or lifting a Personal Best) which can lead to low self-esteem and thinking in a very absolutist and negative way. High level sporting environments even encourage this mindset, which may lead to performing better in the short-term, can lead to great personal costs in the long-term and make performance worse.

What steps do you take to maintain your mental health as an athlete?

The first step is being aware of how it’s affecting you, I think. I am aware that sport often brings out a nasty perfectionism in me, so I try to contextualise and compartmentalise that part of my life and remind myself that whatever happens, it is only a part of me and the result does not define me.

Furthermore, I try to make sure that I have other things in my life to focus on and am not dedicating too much of my time and mental space to sport – otherwise I think I would drive myself crazy! Recently, this has meant not timing my runs so that I’m not beating myself up over the time and reducing the amount of time I spend working out.

What advice would you give to somebody who sometimes panics under sporting pressure?

Going back to basics is important and reminding yourself why you are doing sport. Most probably, it is because you love doing it. Finding that joy in it again is really important, so playing in a less pressured environment where you remember how capable you are and the way it makes you feel is probably a good place to start. It really is about doing what makes you happy and being honest with coaches and teammates about how the environment that you are building together is affecting you. Then, together you can work on building your confidence of working on the root cause of it; it may be as simple as you not-understanding something, which is leading you to feel inexperienced and panicked.

What are some of your favourite positive quotes?

That’s a hard question because you know I love my positive messages! I would say:

- ‘Sometimes I forget how far I’ve come, focussing on how much further I want to be.’

- ‘You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work-in-progress at the same time.’

- ‘Doubting yourself can become its own form of instant gratification. Doubt can feel so familiar, so comfortable, so relieving – and yet it’s doubt that robs you of the best feelings of all.’

Thanks, Rachel!

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