I love the Olympics. It is a moment when we embrace a really diverse range of sport, celebrate achievement and experience moments that capture our imagination and stay with us for a lifetime. My first memory of the games is a fleeting one of Daley Thompson doing back flips on the pole vault mat in 1988. Many years later ias a student, still inspired by that moment, I got to fulfil a childhood dream by spending a year ‘learning’ how to vault. I put the learning in inverted commas as really I just sprinted down a track with a big stick in my hands and hurled myself over a (not very high) bar looking as graceful as a frog in a blender. Many of my olympic memories are golden moments of triumph and unexpected success. However, the most poignant ones that have stuck with me are tales of adversity, courage and the olympic spirit.
The Olympic Spirit is quite simply that the most important thing is not to win but to take part, “just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” From wildcard entry Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani who only learnt to swim 8 months before the games at Sydney 2000 to Derek Redmond finishing the 400m injured with help from his dad in Barcelona 1992 (I still cannot watch the footage without welling up). These are the stories that make the Games special for me and why the spirit is so important.
However, it is unusual for courageous inspirational stories such as this to come from an Olympic superstar and Simone Biles is a sporting megastar, With no Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt at this Olympic Games she is the star attraction. Seeing her falter in qualifying was surprising, when she pulled out of the final that was stunning but what happened next may well be the most important moment not just in sport but in how we think about mental health. Biles was clearly not feeling ok, she did not believe she could perform at her best and took the brave decision to stand herself down in the final for the benefit of her team mates and her own mental health. She then became the team’s biggest cheerleader supporting her team mates avidly from the sidelines. In that moment Biles made a statement that “it’s ok to not be ok” and that any of us can face those challenges. The outpouring on social media afterwards, not just in terms of support for her, but also tales of how her actions would have positive repercussions for all athletes.
Let us not forget that Biles was probably set to double the number of gymnastic moves named after her to four at this Olympics. If you do not follow the sport,she was likely going to perform a double, double dismount off the beam. For the uninitiated this means jumping off a 4 inch wide beam and doing a double somersault with a double twist to dismount! Think that is impressive then consider the triple double she has trademarked on the floor as she somehow generates enough power and elevation off the mat to complete a double somersault in a perfect tuck with three twists.
It is a superhuman, breathtaking piece of athleticism. She may well be the greatest female athlete of all time and has inspired countless numbers of children to head to their local gym to learn gymnastics. She is a colossus but with her honesty, bravery and openness she has perhaps accomplished something even more important. No matter who you are, what you have achieved and what you are embarking on or involved in you may face mental health challenges and in those moments it is ok to stop and reach out for help. I was full of admiration for her before these games but that is nothing compared to how in awe I am of her now.
I’ll finish this week’s blog with the Derek Redmond clip. It is a tragically sad moment for an athlete who was denied the opportunity to race in an Olympic final but will live on in my memory for that resolute determination to finish the race. I challenge you not to shed a tear… #ImNotTired
Imagine this. You have a high performer in your organisation. They are super impressive at their day job consistently delivering amazing results. There is a lesser part of their role that they say gives them anxiety and negatively impacts on their mental health. They decide they don’t want to do that for a two week period saying that it will positively help their well being and help them perform in the main function of their role.
Do you: a) Public castigate them for their perspective b) Fine them a hefty chunk of cash for not doing it c) Threaten to throw them out if they do it again d) Have a conversation with them to understand how you could better support them
I hope that in her bravery Osaka has opened the door to a genuine review about media expectations for professional athletes. We pay to watch them play not to answer a barrage of questions. Our interest is in their skills on court or on the pitch not how articulate they are when faced with a probing inquiry.
The lesson for us is how often to we have conversations with the people in our teams to enquire about their mental health and well-being? How regularly do we check in to see if there are aspects of the job that are in reality peripheral and could be adapted, adjusted or reallocated to improve their performance and productivity? Do we have environments where our teams feel able to speak up and be confident that we will listen, empathise and respond? Too often our default position can be well this is the way we have always done it. If we aspire to have a more inclusive society and more productive teams this has to change.
So my ask of any of you reading this week is speak to your colleagues and teams. Use the Osaka story as a natural route in and have a genuine, open and honest conversation about whether there are aspects of the work you do that causes undue stress or anxiety that could be done differently. I hope that this case will make a big splash on the world of sport resulting in positive change but wouldn’t it be wonderful if the ripples went much, much further.
This week I want to shine a massive spotlight on Samaritans. Brew Monday is an absolute gem of an idea and given the current circumstances, really needed. Turning a fundraising activity to support people in need at exactly the same time as encouraging a behaviour that works in support of your cause is in my eyes pure genius! My donation is on its way. It also made me think about how much more I could do to check in on friends and family and not just because we are in a lockdown but as a standard daily habit.
But first, it’s important for me to look in the mirror. It is far too easy to immediately leap into how do I help others without considering my own needs. Last week I talked about cups running low or empty and the cumulative impact of multiple lockdowns added to heightened work stress is certainly impacting on me. Mental health inexplicably remains a taboo subject and when I reflect on my own thoughts on my mental health it stems from a perception that an admittance that my anxiety is building, my stress is growing and ability to cope diminishing feels like an admittance of failure, a lack of personal strength, wimping out. I have to confess that historically I have placed too little emphasis on my own mental health. Sky News posted this really helpful article earlier this month and it is well worth a read. So if you are now thinking you should complete your own self assessment there are some great tools out there including this one from the NHS – Your Mind Plan.
My wider inclusion question for this week stems from this. I believe we are getting better about being open about mental health challenges we may be facing but there is still a long way to go. In the workplace there remains a reluctance to openly talk about mental health and we are far more likely to rally round and offer support to a colleague with flu, a chronic bad back or a leg break than one with a mental health problem. So what action can we take?
Three things really. The first is to start with yourself. We often place our own self care at the bottom of the pile. There has never been a more important time to rethink that list of priorities and place ourselves first.
The second: personal development. Build your knowledge around what to look for, how to support and critically where to signpost. Supporting someone with a mental health problem may require a skilled practitioner. Sometimes the best thing you can do is encourage someone to seek professional help. For tips on things you can do to support others this website is a great starting point.
And the third thing is what you can ask your employer to do. A couple of years ago I heard Dr Shaun Davis speak about the benefits of the Royal Mail’s Mental Health First Aider programme. Having trained colleagues readily available to support members of staff is a great way of both demonstrating organisational commitment and understanding but is also a brilliant support programme for your staff. You can read a bit more about what they have done here. What if every employer had a Mental Health First Aid programme? What if we thought about Mental Health First Aid in the same way as we currently think about physical First Aid? I will definitely be asking this question in my organisation, will you? #ImNotTired