April is Stress Awareness Month, during which discussions around the causes of and cures for stress are encouraged.
We know that elite athletes are far from immune from struggling with stress at various points in their careers, with the pressures of being able to consistently perform on the highest level having the potential to overwhelm.
Here, Paralympic gold medallist and BAC ambassador, Will Bayley, shares the lessons he’s learned in terms of managing the pressures of a career in elite sport.
Q) Does pursuing interests and hobbies outside of sport contribute to a better psychological balance, and can this therefore make you a better athlete?
“Definitely. I’ve been in the position – when I was 18, 19 or so – where all I had was table tennis, and I just thought about it every second or every day. I think that there’s a certain amount of time that you can do that for, but eventually it’ll catch up with you, and you start resenting the sport.
“If you want a long and successful career, I think you have to be open to other opportunities, and try to broaden your horizons – that can take the pressure off in a sporting sense.
“But it is hard to recognise that when you’re in the moment – you feel ‘I’ve just got to work hard’ or ‘I’ve just got to smash out another session’. It can be constant, so sometimes to take a step back and do something else that you’re interested in is very healthy. Having things to look forward to outside of sport has been massive for me over the last few years, and I’m a more well-rounded athlete because of it.”
Q) How important is ensuring that your mental wellbeing is as positive as it can possibly be?
“To be mentally ready is just as important as being physically ready. It comes with health as well: being a top sportsperson doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re healthy mentally and physically. You might be fatigued, you might be mentally drained, so to have a positive balance will give you a psychological edge, and will also be performance-enhancing.
“I’ve been in the position where I’ve been training all day, every day, I’ve been mentally fatigued and gone to a tournament angry, not wanting to be there. So that balance is so important for performance.”
Q) What advice would you give your younger self, in terms of dealing with the mental pressures of elite sport?
“I’d say ‘stay motivated, stay focused and give everything you’ve got, but just chill out sometimes’.
“It’s not life or death if you lose a match or have a bad training session, so don’t be so hard on yourself. If you want to be the best you can be, it’s a long game.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a bad session, but also don’t be too happy with yourself if it’s all going well. Try to find that middle ground that lets you keep going consistently, work hard and believe in the process – you’ll get there.”
Q) What advice would you give to young athletes taking their first steps in elite sport?
“I understand that it’s a mental struggle at the start of your career. You want to be the best you can be, and you put a lot of pressure on yourself to achieve that.
“But you’ve got to be kind to yourself – you’ve got to pat yourself on the back sometimes and praise yourself, as well as being hard on yourself when needed. Elite sport can be brutal, so that’s so important.
“Health is much more important than sport, so you have to think of that as well. It’s not just about winning – you want to win and be happy, otherwise there’s no point. If you win but you’re not happy, you’re resentful or sad, that’s the biggest failure for me.
“Winning, but enjoying happiness and health – that’s the ultimate place that every athlete wants to be.”