I’m writing this blog today not as a professional in mental health, not somebody who offers emotional support nor as a therapist but for the rare occasion, as myself in the role of athlete. This is a topic close to my heart because I have seen the effects of over training and food restriction take hold of those around me but I have also experienced areas of this myself across my teenage years and even to this day …
Elite sport is a very unique culture, performance is key and in order to achieve that level of excellence people’s standards of wanting perfection in everything from physical attributes, conditioning, aesthetics through to our personality types are extremely high! So, in a world where this is the norm how do we know what is healthy? How do we know when we are within a healthy zone of training, eating and performance culture without crossing that line in to routine, obsession and unhappiness? And beyond that in to eating disorders and further mental health issues?
I guess the real answer is that for most, we probably don’t! Not least until we are caught in that cycle and experiencing these things for real! You will find much research in sport discussing the importance of good nutrition, there is of course evidential backing for clean eating, fuelling your body efficiently and ensuring our ‘machine’ – our only vessel to execute greatness in sporting domain is appropriately fuelled! Likewise, with the training in order to achieve the very best standards in sport (regardless of the sport) you will find hours of practice, dedication, rehearsal and conditioning are essential to meet the mark – rest and recovery of course being just as important in that!
Now with the amount of sport science involved in sport these days athletes are very well looked after in these respects, we can trust in the team around us to provide us with the information, programmes and support to achieve these high standards. However, to follow such routine takes a certain type of person…
Somebody said to me once when I was a young athlete ‘in order to make it in sport, you have to have an element of craziness about you’, now at the time I didn’t understand what this meant. But years on, through many or the usual ups and downs of sport, more understanding of the sporting culture and greater self awareness in knowing my own habits I realise they were fairly accurate! That’s not to say I’m crazy or those around me are crazy, but I realise that there is certainly an element of obsession, addiction, routine and perfectionism that comes with the territory of making it in performance sport.
What can start as a routine and merely ‘following the programme’ quickly becomes your world, your whole world starts to revolve around the sport, the eating and the training you do … but that’s normal isn’t it? Because you have targets to meet? Goals to achieve? And this is only way to get there?!?!
In some respects those goals keep you going, they motivate you and inspire you to keep going, keep pushing and striving for perfection. One of my favourite quotes was given to me by my father (an ex international rugby player himself) and that was ‘by aiming for perfection we can reach excellence’. This has almost become my own motto – but in my training for big competitions where I stuck to training religiously and clean eating, no drinking, no going out, routine and discipline in everything I did, it quickly started to turn to something else….
Although training brilliantly in the gym and feeling great physically, there came a point where I noticed starting to feel unhappy about following the plan for myself. I envied those around me indulging in what they wanted, I couldn’t allow myself to have that treat or cheat meal in fear of the guilt that would follow, I never wanted to break the routine because id set myself a target and if I didn’t follow it through till after competition that would meant I failed, I would have lost, I would have done myself an injustice.
Now my reasons for this structure was certainly not weight based!!! And in reality I was very rational in that I knew I was never going to suddenly put on lots of weight or my performance suddenly dip – it was purely the target and expectation I had set myself. But that wasn’t the driving force for me…
Wanting to go in to big competitions knowing I had done everything I possibly could to be the best I can be, that was my motivator – that has always been my number 1 motivation in everything I do. ‘TO BE THE BEST ME’ not to look back and think I could have done any more.
So how do we break the cycle? I guess for me, as somebody who experienced over training as a teenager I know my signs and indicators a lot better. I can recognise that there is a difference between what is needed and what I want, I know my body a lot better. I know when I can push it but also when I need to rest. I can recognise when that need for excellence is starting to become more of an obsession than a lifestyle.
For me, a healthy mind is a healthy body – I have always been a strong advocate of this message not only because of the research available but because I feel it myself! I follow a healthy lifestyle, I sleep well, I don’t drink very often, I eat well and make good food choices and I also work hard in the gym. As much as I love to feel great inside and out from this choice of lifestyle I can also now see that times where I am really craving rest, something different, spontaneity of eating whatever I fancy, having a drink with a meal etc it is probably because I need it. And that’s ok!
I have learnt that actually I feel much happier by following that lifestyle but allowing myself to enjoy things around me and the things I crave. I always think that being rational, having perspective and also just enjoying life, and allowing yourself to be happy helps with making these choices…
There is so much pressure on athletes to look and be a certain way, so much media attention around lifestyle, fitness and clean eating that images and advice surround us everywhere we turn. But there are two rules people all need to follow when taking on any of these lifestyle changes;
- Each person is different, you have to learn what works for you, what you want, what your body needs and also your mind needs, emotionally where do you sit with all of this?
- You have to be happy! If you aren’t happy then is it working for you?
Life is far too short not to be happy and I know for me my performance is crucial, clean eating is important as is my training but ultimately if I do all of those things and aren’t happy along the way then that’s the failure. The failure and injustice isn’t in skipping a session to rest, having that lie in, or eating something bad, the failure is depriving my body and mind of things I want, the things I need and I now realise that by actually by doing that from time to time it helps me keep a good equilibrium. I am able to sustain an all-round healthy lifestyle, one that is disciplined, positive and performance based – not robot like!! Most importantly one which fits me!!!!