Olympic athletes are, invariably, elite physical specimens with an incredible skillset that enables them to compete at the highest level.
But an often-underrated aspect of fulfilling a lifelong dream and competing at an Olympic Games is the mental strength required to deal with the accompanying pressures of life on and off the field of play.
As part of the Team GB women’s hockey squad that made history at Rio 2016, Shona McCallin knows all about reaching the pinnacle of her sport.
And with Mental Health Awareness Week beginning today, she’s told teamgb.com about the importance of mental strength complementing the physical in the daily world of an Olympic athlete.
“I would say the mental side of sport is about 70 per cent of the battle, especially at international level,” explains McCallin.
“Everyone is skilled and talented but what separates the good and the great players is making decisions under pressure and fatigue.
“When under stress, physical or mental, can players cope? Can they continue to perform at the level they are capable of?
“There are players in all sports who are great in training but just can’t perform on the big stage. Then conversely, there are some players who don’t shine in training but turn it on for matches.
“Over the years, learning more about myself as an athlete and a person, I’ve realised that the mental side of sport is massive.
“The brain is a muscle you’ve got to train just like you’ve got to train your quads or your hamstrings so that when you really need it, it’s able to perform.”
McCallin has had to deal with the emotional rollercoaster that comes with being an elite sportsperson – the highs of winning Olympic gold contrasting sharply with the psychologically-demanding months spent rehabbing from injuries during, including a tour-ending concussion suffered in February 2018.
After conducting some research about mental health qualifications, McCallin opted to undertake the TQUK Level 1 Award in Mental Health Awareness (RQF) via The Skills Network last year.
She has since completed her Level 2 Award and the 26-year-old admits formally learning about the different aspects of mental health – be that the labels that are given, symptoms and signs to look out for or how to help people – has been invaluable.
“Often people think sportsmen and sportswomen are indestructible or superhuman and put us on a pedestal but we’re all just normal human beings,” she adds.
“We all have the same feelings that non-athletes do and we have personal struggles. Lots of athletes have come out in the press and explained their situation, which normalises it and removes a stigma that was there maybe five years ago.
“When you’re out injured as an athlete and in rehab for five or six months, it forces you to reflect and work on yourself as a well-rounded person rather than just as an athlete.
“I remember rehabbing in 2014 when I was out for eight months, where I noticed how much of an impact your mind can have on your body and vice-versa.
“It’s carried on since – I really embraced that side of things and recognised the importance of it.”
McCallin admits that ensuring her mental wellbeing, both in everyday life and with regards to her hockey career, is an ongoing process.
She highlights the important role that sport and exercise can play in improving anyone’s mental state but has also picked up some other tips that have helped her cope with various stresses over the past few years.
“Sport can play a big part in mental wellbeing but even just getting out and about – going outside, going for a walk or a cycle and getting moving is important,” says McCallin.
“Getting off the tube two or three stops early and walking the rest or walking into town rather than driving – that helps.
“I’ve found that journaling is another good technique. People have busy heads, so to get things out on paper – either structured or unstructured, whether it’s three lines or 30 lines – has been beneficial for me over the last five or six years. I don’t do it every day but I dip in and out when I need to.
“Also, finding things you enjoy – whether that be going to see some comedy or a good podcast or your favourite radio station – is key because it’s really important to have a good laugh every now and again.
“It’s vital to let go sometimes, have a day off, have a good laugh at something. It’s important to be kind to yourself – we’re all humans, we all make mistakes, so treat yourself like you would one of your friends, in a nice way.”