Rowing has long been the preserve of physiological supremacy. Sure, you need a determined outlook and a single-mindedness to prevail, but the physical aspect of the sport was deemed critical above all else. That attitude filtered into how we, as a community, considered our charges. Little deference was given to mental health; athletes were told to either go hard or go home and that the cost of success was both physical and mental exhaustion.
With an increasing rise in the importance of mental health in our society (the term now has its own global week from Monday 15th May until Sunday 21st May 2023) sport is not immune to a shifting dialogue on the topic. An ever-rising number of people are feeling empowered to talk about and seek help for mental health issues. Workplaces, friends, families and society are slowly waking up to the reality that the mind can fail you as regularly, and as devastatingly, as the body.
The importance of your mental strength in rowing has never been in doubt
Is rowing doing enough to address these everchanging perceptions and ensure our incumbents are adequately provisioned for? The importance of your mental strength in rowing has never been in doubt. Stephen Feeney, a celebrated sports performance consultant and former world champion, has been working with numerous teams to hone their competitive mindset but still feels the sport has a way to go in improving its attitude towards mental health. “From what I see, performance seems to be given greater priority than the mental health of athletes,” he said. “Unfortunately, many people believe that there is no need for intervention unless there is an obvious issue. However, it is possible to establish environments in all settings that support both rowing performance and mental health, but this would require a fundamental shift in how clubs are managed”.
Steve O’Connor, the outgoing CEO at Fulham Reach Boat Club, believes clubs have come a long way in addressing the issue. “When I think about the clubs I was involved with as an athlete I would say most clubs probably didn’t do enough to support athletes for a long time,” he said. “I remember one particular individual I rowed with many years ago who had clear mental health difficulties, but it became something that was almost joked about within the squad, leading to them getting a nickname which everyone used, including the coaches”.
Since taking over at Fulham Reach Boat Club, Steve has ensured that mental health is at the forefront of program consideration. “For the office team and coaches, we use a Mental Health support charity called Mates in Mind who have a hotline that anyone can ring, 24/7 should they require some support,” he explained. “We also have a safeguarding lead within the team whose role also covers Wellbeing whether that be for the team, members or participants. This person is used as a first point of call should anyone need some support and they can then direct them to the right resources.
"The fact remains that clubs are primarily evaluated and funded based on their performance rather than their athletes' mental health, which is an unfortunate reality."
Despite certain clubs driving a positive agenda, Feeney’s view of the broader rowing community still hinges on the white space available. “While there may be effective reactive measures in place to address problems as they arise, the fact remains that clubs are primarily evaluated and funded based on their performance rather than their athletes' mental health, which is an unfortunate reality” he explained.
It is fair to say that there has been a relative explosion of available resources for athletes across the sporting spectrum to tap into. British Rowing have a dedicated page and numerous articles on the topic and Rowing Together for Healthy Minds launched in June 2020.
The national team, under new leadership, have been slowly re-calibrating to focus more on the welfare of their athletes. Martin McElroy, coach of the British Olympic Team’s men’s rowing eight that won gold at the Sydney Olympic games in 2000, explained that he wouldn’t know how to coach without taking an interest in the mental welfare of his charges. “For these athletes, rowing is often a safe space where they get to have fun and hang out with their friends,” he explained. “I see my role as a coach to keep them safe both physically and mentally; to see them leave the club with a smile on their faces, bantering positively with each other is a result. If they’re smiling, I’m usually smiling too”.
Caragh McMurty, a member of the Women’s Eight at the Tokyo Olympics, believes there is still a fundamental disconnect between people’s perception of mental health issues. “I think mental health is sometimes seen as a nice to have,” she said. “In my opinion it should be seen as any other part of the body. It needs maintenance and it needs to be viewed objectively. It shouldn't be viewed as reflective of worth or ability. Mental health can have such a huge impact on performance, and we need to get over seeing it as anything other than an opportunity to improve rather than a reason to write people off”.
Regarding club facilitation in the UK, she spoke of the privilege that continues to run through the sport. “Rowing is rooted in arguably outdated traditions of maintaining a stiff upper lip, keeping up appearances, saving face and pride to continue privileged cultures, so it makes it really hard to genuinely progress in this space,” she commented. “I don't know that many rowing clubs drive the mental health aspect of sport particularly”.
McElroy noted that if an organisation is not clear in its purpose and values, it can be hard to align the club. “If the norms in sport reflect the norms in society, then we’re all on the same journey; developing better skills and awareness to see each other through rather than see through each other,” he said. “As mental health is considered more a priority in society then it will be considered more a priority in sport. We must help each other on the journey, equipping ourselves with the skills to recognise the symptoms and knowing what the next steps are. I don’t see how sport cannot be part of that conversation so our clubs must play a role in moving the mental health agenda forward”.