April is Stress Awareness Month, and as we continue to navigate a global pandemic which has caused so much disruption, and head towards an Olympic and Paralympic Games, managing pressure and stress levels has never been more important for our members.
In the intense and, at times, all-consuming environment of elite sport, having another passion, a distraction or simply a way to switch off from training and competition is vital. Here, rower Melissa Wilson explains how she achieved that crucial balance over the last few years. For further blogs on this subject, please see here (Kristian Thomas) and here (Lora Fachie).
“I took up rowing when I was 18. I’d just started university, and wanted to do something that got me outside – especially on the river, which was a very beautiful, peaceful place to spend time.
“In those early days, I guess rowing was something I used to give balance to the studying I was doing. But as time went on, and rowing became a bigger and bigger part of my life, that shifted so that rowing was centre stage, and my work was the thing I used for balance.
“At some points during my time on the rowing team I was very blinkered about my training, and worried that doing anything else might just be a distraction, or get in the way of me being on top form. But the times when I had that attitude tended to be the points where I’d pick up most injuries or illness, or mentally struggle to feel my best. Training could become all-consuming, to a point where one bad result could feel like it defined me – even though that was never going to be the best psychological place for me to perform.
“What’s been exciting to me is seeing how, rather than being separate, my “work” and rowing have actually started to overlap. Over the last four or five years I’ve grown to care increasingly about protecting the environment. At first, I approached this through some work as an environmental lawyer. But last year, when the Olympics were postponed, I got involved in the organisation Champions for Earth – a group that looks to use the power of sport and athletes to help the environment.
“Over the summer we wrote a letter to the Prime Minister on behalf of athletes, which basically said that the approach we had to the Olympics – thinking about our legacy, being brave, using a ‘winning’ mentality – is what we need for climate change. The letter was signed by over 300 GB Olympians and Paralympians, and 40 Olympic and Paralympic Champions, and the response it got across the media (including outlets like the BBC, Sky Sports and the Press Association) started to make me recognise that this is an issue that athletes can be involved with really powerfully.
“Since then, I’ve been doing more to work out how sport can lead the way with sustainability – so that we can be role models and spokespeople for these issues in a credible, impactful way. At times it’s been tricky to balance this with my own training, and I’ve had to keep reminding myself that if I’m working with people outside sport, I might need to be really upfront with them about the toll training takes, and the need to still prioritise recovery. But any time I’ve had those sorts of conversations they’ve been received really constructively. Maybe that’s helped by the pandemic making people think more about work-life balances.
“A coach once said to me that we’re ‘people first, athletes second’, and that has definitely helped me to keep the inevitable highs and lows of sport in perspective. Pressure is always going to be part and parcel of elite sport, but working for a cause I care about alongside sport has made me realise what a brilliant platform our sport gives us to make a positive difference in the world, and has also made me feel like I’m bringing more of ‘me’ to the day-to-day.”
If you would like to be involved in the work of Champions for Earth, please get in touch with Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org.