This was certainly an interview and a topic that I may have initially approached with a degree of ignorance. Of course I was well acquainted with the regrettably now numerous examples of professional sport stars who’d been stricken by various mental health problems, but could that really also be the case at university sports level, where enjoyment and camaraderie are seen to be two of its biggest influences? All it took me was 10 minutes chatting to Calum Kennedy, the Health and Fitness representative on the Universities Wellbeing Committee, to convince me that the mental health of student athletes is also something that needs a great deal of attention too.
Kennedy is a third year here at the University studying economics, and for the past five years has also been involved in high performance cycling. When he drifted into the more serious end of the sport he couldn’t help but notice how he started to “develop unhealthy patterns in terms of diet, training, and lifestyle” and while training most days and eating well he’d still “look at himself and feel unhealthy.” It was this negative mental state that triggered him to try to merge both a healthy body and a healthy mind, two entities that he believes “go hand-in-hand” as well inspiring him to attempt to reach out to other students at this university perhaps in the same boat as him.
When pressed on whether he feels some aspects of university sports have gone too far in sacrificing the mental wellbeing of their players in their single-minded quest for success, he did concede that the elite end of student sports “is very focused on results” which is fine if you are enjoying success, but conversely if you are lagging behind it is very easy to get into a negative spiral, something Kennedy describes as “quite restrictive, quite compressing.” He then continued by talking about his desire to see a wellbeing figurehead at the top of the Athletic Union, to prevent sports stars at this university from potentially embarking down this dangerous road. Furthermore, when pushed further about what more he’d like to see change during his tenure on the Wellbeing Committee, he stressed the ambition of himself and the Head of Wellbeing, Nick Farrer, to have a greater reach in halls, as well as conversations relating to mental health becoming more commonplace in all sports clubs at this university.
We also covered the topic of mental health in sport in general and whether we have only touched upon the tip of the iceberg when investigating the link high-intensity sport can have on a person’s mental stability. Kennedy was very candid in his assessment that he believes sport and its relevant institutions are still “lagging behind” the rest of society in terms of mental openness, something he pins partially to the “aspect of machismo” that he still believes pervades much of sporting culture, in particular amongst males. His view was also that team sports are arguably worse with regards to mental openness as there is a high probability of individuals withholding information about their mental state, so as to not be seen to let down their teammates. This can result in certain mental health issues amongst various team players being “pushed under the rug.” If one thing’s for certain at this university, however, with numerous institutions such as nightline and indeed the Wellbeing Committee available for students in sport to reach out to, there is absolutely no need for anyone here to stay in the dark about their mental health. As Kennedy himself was perhaps most keen to stress, “Sport is an extension of your life; it shouldn’t become your life.”