by Cris Andrews
Last year, eighteen-year-old snowboarder Ellie Soutter tragically killed herself after suffering from depression and stress.
Family members said their daughter’s problems had been brought on by the pressures of trying to build an elite sporting career.
And even though Ellie had left school, many young talented athletes are still in full time education and these young people need assistance with their wellbeing, as well as their sport and education.
Schools, with everyday access to young people, are in an ideal place to provide that support and to coordinate any external agencies, involved. But only, experts say, if school staff know what to look for.
“For a young person, balancing education and sport is fundamentally stressful and without the correct support, these pressures can manifest themselves in psychological distress,” says Kelly Jones, athlete support officer and Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) lead at Solent University.
Jones, who works with university elite athletes and sixth formers from local schools, insists that support around psychological wellbeing is hugely important. “This is why referral pathways must always be in place for anyone who is struggling,” she says.
Tarun Kapur, chief executive and academy principal of the Dean Trust, agrees. One of the Dean Trust schools, Ashton on Mersey, educates Manchester United’s young academy players.
“It’s important that school staff understand the pressures that the young elite athletes are undergoing,” Kapur says. “So, for instance, a swimmer who practices at 5am every morning will likely be tired during school day. Subject teachers need to know that.”
In some schools, heads of sport, tutors, house masters and PE staff act as mentors. Others employ specialist mentoring staff.
At Ashton on Mersey, mentors help the young Manchester United players to balance their academic and sporting commitments, and their daily routines, something that Tarun Kapur says some youngsters might be too immature to manage for themselves.
“In our case, the young person has been signed by an elite premier league football club. They believe they will get into the first team but, in reality, a very small percentage do,” he says.
“For someone who doesn’t make it at Manchester United, their future might still be in football, but it might be at a smaller club, where your kit is not hung up for you, or even at a club where you have to wash your own kit.”
All young people have to deal with family, friendship and exam pressures at a time when they are undergoing physical and emotional changes and developing their own sense of identity.
Research shows that over half of those in the UK suffering from a diagnosed mental illness, first had trouble before the age of fourteen.
Young elite sports performers face additional pressures. They are studying for their exams and training for their chosen career at the same time. So, while other youngsters have time to hang out with friends and family or interact freely on social media, the young elite athlete trains competes and travels.
The budding pro has to watch what they eat and drink, what they say online, where they go, and with whom. And of course, there are the obvious pressures of sustaining performance, staying fit and keeping their place in the team or squad.
“The better you get at your sport the more pressure there is from the outside,” says Martin Speight, head of cricket and hockey at Sedbergh School in Cumbria.
“Whatever is going on in the young person’s life, the pressures to perform are still there, and they are still desperate to make their mark.”
One of Sedbergh’s youngsters is off on an England U19 cricket tour this winter, but the player is 18 and about to do his A-levels.
Speight, who played county cricket for Sussex and Durham between 1986 and 2001, adds: “Both the ECB and the school take a view that studies come first, to look after the best long term interest of the young person.
“It’s important that a school should intervene when a player is asked to play in a specific game for an elite squad when it’s not in their best interests to do so.
“The young person might feel that if they say no, it will be held against them so the school should take the decision (whether to play or not) away from the young person.”
According to psychologist, Steven Sylvester, who works with elite sports players and teams, it’s the outside distractions - team selection, media, popularity, training, fitness, travel and being away from home - that cause most of the stress. “A young person might feel that they’re constantly being watched and judged,” he says.
Penny Mallory, a rally driver turned performance coach trained in sports psychology has seen first-hand how sport can become all consuming.
“The young person can be in a different head space to those around them, wrapped up in their own little micro world,” she says. “If something goes wrong, say the player doesn’t make the team, gets injured or has funding issues, it’s a devastating blow.”
Sally Hilton, a psychotherapist who specialises in sport and mental health adds “If a young player’s sense of self-worth and identity is dependent solely on his or her sporting performance, then getting everything right becomes all important.
“In that case the young player doesn’t learn how to tolerate not getting it right and they can easily become very self-critical.”
Steven Sylvester believes that to stay well young elite athletes must maintain a balance between the various parts of their life. There is plenty that schools can do to help with this.
But as Paul Chapman, TASS dual career coordinator and assistant vice principal at the LeAF Studio School in Bournemouth, says. To do so effectively, school staff first, need to be able to tell when someone is struggling, to recognise the signs.
“That could be lack of sleep, poor eating, social withdrawal, mood swings, under performance, over training, lack of motivation,” Chapman says.
Dan Payne-Cook, head of PE at Haileybury School in Hertfordshire, says that a school’s pastoral system can play a key role in supporting the elite athlete’s well-being.
“Everyone wants them to play - school, club, academy, international age group team,” he says. “We had a young international player recently. One week he needed extra time to train and play. The next, he was tired and needed to rest physically, which was a good time to catch up with academic studies.”
Payne Cook believes that young players like this need those who run their sport to be flexible, to avoid the build-up of competing pressures which might otherwise lead to stress. This sort of support is vital for any young person in the high-pressure world of professional sport.
However, if they’re going to be successful in their chosen career, they will also need to develop their own self-awareness of what is good and bad for them, of what they need, when, and of what works for them.
To this end, Paul Chapman’s elite student athletes use an online training and wellbeing monitoring form to reflect on and evaluate, their weekly experience.
Chapman explains that the young athletes record their mood, fatigue and appetite, any issues with their training such as muscle soreness, and hours trained.
“The data collected is sent to coaching staff and pastoral leads who can then notice any downward trends over time as well as acute issues that arise,” he says.
“These professionals can then begin conversations with individuals or groups of students who are showing signs of needing additional advice or support.”
Sometimes, what the young athlete needs is to play a bit more sport. But not, necessarily, more of the serious stuff that they do in training.
Research shows that sport played in a relaxed way, for fun, can be good for young people’s mental health.
Paul Chapman thinks that elite athletes should have one scheduled sports session a week, where they focus on activities unrelated to their specialism, just to enjoy themselves and socialise with friends and peers.
He also believes that schools must set the right culture around mental toughness. This, he argues, should be based on a view that being mentally tough isn’t just about perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity but also about acknowledging pressures and learning how to deal with them.
“Our focus is on teaching and nurturing strategies to help young athletes manage common sources of stress,” he says. “This could be organisation and time management techniques, SMART goal setting and the use of performance psychology techniques such as re-framing and visualisation.
“But professional sport is still professional sport, and these young people are training for a career at the top level. If they succeed they’ll be competing against the best, with their livelihood on the line, as well as taking responsibility for their team or even their country’s, success. They’ll be out there on their own, making decisions, dealing with difficult situations, performing under pressure.”
To help the young players, now and prepare them for their chosen future, in schools, Daniel Payne-Cook believes that schools and sport organisations need to strike a balance between how much support each individual requires and their need to develop their own sense of responsibility.
“That will depend on that young person’s own nature,” he says. “What their strengths are and what their weaknesses are.”
Penny Mallory adds that a mentor can also help the young person with their mental approach “so they become aware of why they’re doing what they’re doing and what’s in it for them rather than simply responding to the demands and expectations of the adults around them,” she says.
And Martin Speight adds that much of this support can be provided informally. “Perhaps a quick chat over a takeaway,” he says. “But it’s still important that any concerns are logged into a central system, so everyone who works with the young person is aware of any issues.”
“It helps them relax, chill and switch off – particularly during exam periods. Sometimes our elite youngsters will kick a football around or play touch rugby, just for fun.”
Referrals and training
Sometimes, the pressures of managing elite sport alongside their academic and personal lives, can get too much, even for the toughest and well-supported young person.
Working with external health professionals is, historically, something schools and sports organisations have found difficult. This, however, appears to be changing.
The first cohort of the government’s education mental health workers (210 according to the Department of Health) will be delivering mental health support in state schools by the end of next year.
Part of their job will be to help school staff with the referral process for mental health support and to provide support for young people who don’t quite meet the referral criteria.
There could eventually be up to 8,000 practitioners long term, the Government says – although there’s no actual figure or specific date. From 2020, government requires all state schools to teach mental resilience as part of their curriculum.
Last October, UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport introduced a new mental health strategy that will be implemented across all Olympic and Paralympic sports. This involves screening, medical referral pathways and consultation with mental health experts.
By 2024, elite sports must have mental health procedures embedded in their performance plans and provide clear pathways for athletes to help them access professional mental health support. This includes better information, for athletes and coaches, about accessing sports and clinical psychologists.
Ellie Soutter’s parents have set up the Ellie Soutter Foundation to help young winter sport athletes who need financial support so they can afford the costs of training and performing.
On setting up the Foundation, Ellie’s father Tony confirmed, that for athletes without substantial wealth, this can be a major and ongoing, source of stress.
Mental health charity Mind offers mental health training for teachers and sports professionals as does Mental Health First Aid England and many sports governing bodies.
TASS runs a mental health first aid course which, Kelly Jones says, helps practitioners working with elite youngsters to identify those who may be struggling and also how to promote positive conversations around mental health, offer self-help strategies and refer on when needed.
Head games – sporting excellence and mental health in schools