Mental health in professional women's sport deserves a seat at the podium
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For elite female athletes like Jilaroos captain Sam Bremner, mental health is equally important as physical health.

Mental health in professional women's sport deserves a seat at the podium

by Caitlin Morahan See Profile
Melbourne VIC, Australia
28th Nov 2018
Mental health in professional women's sport deserves a seat at the podium

When we watch them on TV, there’s a certain gritty glamour to professional female athletes. They are an embodiment of the modern-day woman. They’re sleek, confident, strong, inspiring – everything we look for in a role model. Women working together to break the glass ceiling to elite levels of athleticism, paving the way for the next generation.

It’s no secret that these are busy ladies. It’s a gruelling schedule of training, matches, press conferences, sponsor commitments – as well as often having a second job or a family to consider. Then there’s the pressure, the expectations, their need to prove themselves. Not necessarily against the other women, but rather against their male counterparts.

Elite sport is results driven. Aspiring professional athletes are pushing themselves to new limits, reaching physical goals with the help of a specially crafted team of experts – coaches, physios, nutritionists… the list goes on. With a team of professionals conditioning athlete’s bodies to their prime, who is looking out for their mental wellbeing? Because when it comes to competitive women’s sports, there’s sometimes no such thing as a mental health day.

Aspiring Olympic cyclist Margaret ‘Maggie’ Ryans spends every waking minute working towards her goal to compete at Tokyo in 2020. With days packed with physical practice, there isn’t much time left over to concentrate on her headspace. “Even if your brain needs a break – a moment to collect itself and breathe – there is no moment for that when you’re training for trials.”

“As athletes we are expected to be mentally tough as well as physically; but there’s a difference between having thick skin and being mentally strong.”

The pressure on athletes of any gender to be strong, successful, competitive and resilient has always existed. These superhuman expectations may be unrealistic, but athletes still fight to adhere to them every time they play, run, or perform. On top of this, there are some sports wherefemale athletes still battle gender stereotypes. Fearing negative backlash, they must remain guarded about how they look and behave in the eyes of the public. It’s a day to day battle that isn’t easily won.

“It’s a different kind of pressure”, Maggie tells me, when she has a quick minute in between training and a physiotherapy appointment for a strained hamstring. “It’s not only an obligation to yourself, but an obligation to the entire female population. We aren’t just representing ourselves, we’re representing women from all around Australia, proving that we are just as talented as our male counterparts. And that’s a lot of pressure – especially in cycling.”

So what kind of help is readily available, if and when a woman needs to seek it out?

“At the moment, it’s all about ‘making it’ – when you do make it, that’s when you’ll have people around you who will prioritise your mental wellbeing, “ says Maggie. “Which sucks, because the actual ‘making it’ is the hardest part.”

It’s not just a case of thinking positively or listing things you’re grateful for. Sure, that can help, but mental wellbeing is much deeper and more complex than a series of day-to-day rituals. It is something to make a priority.

Sport is one of the most powerful forces on earth. It brings people from different walks of life together in an unparalleled, and has the power to make real change in Australian communities.

Jillaroo’s fullback and team captain Sam Bremner is no stranger to this. She has a hectic schedule -she runs her own gym, is a correspondent for Fox Sports, a Body Science athlete and is an NRL State of Mind Ambassador. She lives her life like she plays football: fast, passionate and packed with action.

The NRL State of Mind program was created to increase mental health literacy amongst clubs and communities – from grassroots to elite levels - aiming to reduce the stigma around mental illness and suicide and most importantly, to let the community know it’s okay to ask for help.

“I’ve been through many highs and lows in my career, but have always consideredmy mental health the most important part of me to invest in”, says Sam. “It sometimes means putting other areas of my life before football, and some days football first. But I always make sure my happiness and the happiness of those around me is my biggest goal.”

While she’s been fortunate enough not to have been affected by mental health issues herself, she realised this was all the more reason to educate herself so she could stand up and fight for those who needed it. A self-nominated State of Mind ambassador, Sam trained in mental health first aid while regularly speaking with communities about resilience, emotional wellbeing and mental health.

With such an active life, Sam is always outside, running classes or meeting with PT clients. She eats well, focuses on making time for the things that make her happy – perhaps most of all being surrounded by people who support her, like her devoted husband and teammates. But when it gets a bit too much, it’s reassuring to know there are other support systems to turn to.

“We have constant access to our wellbeing manager and are encouraged to speak with her whenever we need about whatever we want – it doesn’t always have to be football. We also have regular education sessions so we are upskilled on how to deal with pressure, performance, and balancing our lives.

If anybody is at the stage where it’s getting too much we have a completely confidential sports psychologist we have access to.”

Is there a barrier between mental health wellbeing between female NRL players and their male peers? Sam says when it comes to the divide between men and women’s mental health, there is no stigma or hesitation within her community.

“Women are naturally good talkers and find it easier to express our feelings and emotions to each other. I know within rugby league, we are all extremely good friends with one another and lean on each other when it comes to adversity, which helps us both on and off the field.

“It comes down to the individual, not the gender. Some people are more willing to speak about their feelings and others aren’t.”

Ultimately, mental health doesn’t discriminate. The same protocols exist whether it be men or women preparing for an upcoming match - mental preparation is never overlooked. “Sometimes in certain stages of our game preparation we focus more on the mental health component than the physical,” says Sam.

It’s reassuring to know that at least one area of Aussie sport is focusing on the brains of their players, rather than just the brawn. The NRL is working to help both its players and the wider community, one by one, barraging through stigmas as they go.

“I think we are doing the best we can to provide support and help,” says Sam. “As long as we continue to upskill ourselves in mental health and being supportive, we are on the right track.”

Unfortunately, there are still barrier the professional world of cycling – and other Olympic sports – still have to conquer, and Maggie intends to keep them in her sight. “We need to be able to talk about depression in sport – in a world where people think there isn’t room for failure, we need to take away the stigma that mental illness is considered a weakness.”

Check out NRL State of Mind.

NRL State of Mind
Caitlin Morahan

About Caitlin Morahan

An avid traveller and ardent journalist, Caitlin has travelled to more than 70 countries spanning 6 continents researching social development. She's a hard advocate for inclusion and women's rights around the world, especially in her own backyard. When she isn't writing or travelling, she's taking her chubby border collie for walks or drinking  wine and watching blooper reels on YouTube.

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Melbourne VIC, Australia
28th November 2018