Mental Health In Sport

Gary Bloom with Swimmer Rebecca Adlington

This is probably one of the most difficult subjects I have covered since I began writing. When it comes to sport I would say I have a pretty good knowledge of most, although the Olympics has introduced me to some new ones. However when it comes to mental health in sport I have to admit I have no idea. But with so many high profile cases in the past couple of months I felt I had to look into it. The sports of tennis, gymnastics and cricket have been rocked by some of their biggest stars coming out saying that they needed to take a break. Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Ben Stokes have all cited mental health as an issue in their chosen sports. Now of course anyone can have an opinion on this but I felt that having no knowledge of the subject, I needed an expert to explain it all to me. 

On Monday I was listening to Hawksbee & Jacobs on Talksport and the subject of sports mental health came up and they were interviewing a Sports performance Psychotherapist called Gary Bloom. He spoke so eloquently about the subject that I knew he was the man I needed to speak to. I contacted him and we chatted together on Tuesday.

Two things to explain first, who is Gary Bloom and what is Sports Psychotherapy?

You will probably recognise Gary Bloom from his very distinct voice, as a football commentator he has provided commentary mainly in World Cups and also the Olympics. For many seasons, he was a commentator on the iconic ‘Football Italia’ programme on Channel 4 with James Richardson. He hosts the award-winning show “On the Sporting Couch” on Talksport and is the main commentator of the DLS game series. As a psychotherapist, he works for Oxford United and is the only psychotherapist currently working in first team professional football. His first novel “Keeping your Head in the Game,” is ten stories of sports people in therapy and was published in February 2021 by Penguin Random House. 

Sports psychotherapy focuses on improving sports performance by addressing anxiety, lack of concentration, and other issues that may arise for both amateur and professional athletes. It can include individual sessions with athletes as well as group work incorporating teams and support staff.

Gary says Sports Psychotherapy is a relatively new discipline, compared to sports psychology which has been around for many many years. This looks at performance in sport and how to get those “marginal gains” which helps athletes progress and become more successful. A sports psychotherapist looks at the well being of an athlete, what’s going on in their personal life, what makes them tick and in their psyche that creates an individual and makes them successful. We all have what we call life events such as bereavements, break ups, losing our jobs, illness and his job is to make athletes feel better about themselves. Gary’s mantra is happier athletes perform better and it’s the same in any other walk of life. But nobody so far has gone into sport and said we know you’re not playing well, why? Which is where Gary comes in.

When it comes to high performance sport, athletes do their work under critical spotlight. The examination at the elite level in all sports can be crushing and can be very difficult to deal with. We’re not born with the skills to deal with this so why not use a sports psychotherapist to help? If you pull a hamstring you see the Physio so if something isn’t right psychologically in your head then why not use a sports psychotherapist? The problem is that it’s perceived right now as a weakness and immediately puts doubt into a coaches mind. There’s a fear in sport that this sends out the wrong message but why shouldn’t you ask for help? 

If Simone Biles, Ben Stokes or any of these elite athletes say they need a break then they obviously do. You might say it’s because of playing too much sport, but usually there’s a back story too. It could be relationship issues, a dispute with someone within their club or even the club itself, loss of form or coming back too early from injury. It’s up to Gary to find that issue, deal with it and in the majority of cases performance does improve. 

Social media is either a necessary or unnecessary evil aligned to the problems of these athletes. Because in reality they are biting off the hand that feeds them. More followers & likes bring greater sponsorships for these people, however this can also bring greater criticism. Simone Biles has 6.7m followers on Instagram, Naomi Osaka has 2.8m, Ben Stokes has 1.7m. You can argue they shouldn’t go to together but unfortunately we are in a World where they do and social media companies should be held to account more. 

I was interested to hear Gary’s thoughts on young people trying to enter the higher echelons of sport. His advice was enjoy it and tell your parents to back off. Most young people go through a tunnel from the ages of 12 to 17 years as there are so many influences in their lives, like peer pressures, friends who are less talented who will be teasing them, academic studies and even boyfriends or girlfriends. At this point Gary quotes the Pink Floyd song “leave those kids alone!” and let them enjoy it. Because the minute they stop enjoying it, they will stop playing and all the positive influences they get from amateur sport like socialisation and team building will be lost. When your kids ask you how did they do,(which is the first question I get asked after every game from my kids)tell them to speak to their coaches as this will help them progress. That doesn’t mean ignore them, praise them to the hilt and tell them how proud you are of them. But you’re not the one they need to impress going forward and their coaches are far more qualified than Mum or Dad. Be happy that they are participating in something that improves not only their health but their well being too.

I learnt so much in my 15 minute chat with Gary and I do realise that mental health issues are not just relevant in sport but in all walks of life. Especially after the last 18 months of the pandemic it’s been tough for a lot of people. It’s important to know that there are people out there that can help like Gary but also the support network of your family and friends is important if you’re finding it difficult to reach out to somebody. 

I did mention it earlier but Gary has released a book, which is definitely worth a read. 

He explains, ‘In Keeping Your Head in the Game we peer into this highly confidential world. We follow the journeys of ten athletes in their therapy sessions with me, from a rugby player arrested for a drunken brawl, through a homesick cricketer on tour, to a snooker player struggling with his feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

Structured around the emotions we all experience on a daily basis – shame, anger, fear, jealousy and envy, love – chapter by chapter, the book reveals, explains and attempts to resolve the inner traumas that have an impact on the performance of these sports personalities. Seeing how they overcome their demons is a powerful way of tackling our own and, as I always say, happier players play better – in sport and in life.’

Gary can be contacted via his website https://garybloom.co.uk 

With the advent of Zoom he now talks to people all around the World. I hope like me you found this talk informative and helpful. I will post the whole interview on my Facebook page over the weekend. 

Take care everyone and enjoy your Weekend! 

Richie presents the Radio One Mallorca Breakfast show Monday to Friday 07.30-11.00am on 93.8fm in Mallorca and 102fm in Calvià, online at www.radioonemallorca.com on mobile through their free App for IPhone & Android, The Tunein Radio App, iTunes, the Spanish TDT TV service and all smart speakers. If you can’t hear him on the radio then you’ll find him working at Pirates Adventure the islands number one night out and every now and again he may make an understudy appearance! 

Follow him on Twitter @DadTaxi1 & Instagram @dad.taxi or feel free to email him at rprior@globobalear.com 

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