Myth-busting conversations with six women about their sports and mental health

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I spoke to six women, that participate in nine sports between them – about how sport influences their mental health, in a world where stereotyping occurs, stigmas still exist, and gender gaps are apparent.

We got real, we got deep, we shared some truthful insights, and we busted six myths surrounding sportswomen. The aim of this article is to reassure women who are reading this understand that they are not alone in anything they feel. In fact, there are whole communities behind you that can provide compassion, support, encouragement, motivation and knowledge should you need it!

Myth Bust #1: escapism is not a bad reason to do sport

Straight off the bat, it was apparent that sport provides a way of escaping and forgetting the “stresses of work and life” as Sarah Ritchie (eager runner, who dabbles in triathlons) put it so eloquently. The Oxford Dictionary defines escapism as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities”, with a negative connotation surrounding it. Although it’s clear that such habits and reasoning has a positive effect on sportswomen.

Steph Lynes (keen hiker and occasional rugby player) described that such escapism impacted her mental health by “providing a release and headspace”. Whilst ‘release’ suggests something in the vicinity of escapism, ‘headspace’ leans towards calmness rather than a redirection.

Funmi Morgan (triathlete turned weightlifter) explained how sport improved her mental health for a similar reason. She said, “99% of the time, whatever problem is on my mind feels much more manageable after thinking it through during a swim or run”.

All the interviewed athletes I spoke to admit the joy of having something else to focus on is a part of why they participate in their sport. The reasons behind such focus varied; from health reasons and social engagement desires, to seeking performance improvements through competition. The desire to feel content and refreshed ran through everyone’s reasons for doing the sport they enjoy.

Tip: Escapism is okay, but taking control with breathwork helps combat that anxiety

You might not be able to take control of your feelings and thoughts flying around your head (just yet), but you can certainly inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for another 4 seconds, and repeat. Breathwork has been shown to have significant physiological effects – such as reduced heart rate and sweating – as well as instilling calmness and clarity.

Myth Bust #2: Confidence in achievement

It’s safe to say that achievement is by no means the reason that everyone takes part in sport. I found that the interviewed athletes that took part in team sports were less motivated by success and achievement, with the latter coming as a bonus if and when. This is partially unexpected, although team players are likely to perceive success differently to individual sports athletes, due to the different ‘controllable’s available.

For example, a runner goes into a race wanting a personal best (PB) of X minutes, therefore they have to run Y pace, but account for the wind between A and B. Rugby players, on the other hand, cannot decide their pace, their plays, the number of tackles they make in the game, due to the 29 other players on the pitch responsible for their own actions – let alone the referee’s behaviour!

Whilst many female athletes seem to find confidence and a boosted self-esteem from achievement, the opposite occurs too. Furthermore, the negative effect that non-achievement had on these women’s mental health sometimes impact them before they even get to the start line.

Both of the runners I spoke to identified that data analysis, especially when a training session or race is perceived as below their expectations, has a magnified negative effect on their mental health. Jess Cox (a strong runner who also enjoys the triple-threat sports of a triathlon) explained that watching the analytics of heart rate and pace “almost becomes obsessive”. She said that this amplified the difficulty of moving on from a bad result or event.

These individual sportswomen (myself included), occasionally take those analytics a step further – not only do they compare their own performances but theirs in comparison to others’ performances too. Sarah explained that it is “easy to over-analyse after obsessing over what you deem as a failure. Comparison to others is also something that can get you down”.

In a world where we, as women, are encouraged to abide by certain unwritten societal rules to fit in, it's no wonder that such self-judgement and comparison translate to the sporting world too.

Myth Bust #3: Psychological problems don’t just stay in your head

It’s somewhat amazing the effect that feelings and emotions can have on the physiological responses of the body and your behaviour.

In terms of a physiological reaction to a psychological problem, a reoccurring situation such as sickness at every squad track session can look like a nutritional or muscle problem to onlookers and professionals alike. Some put my such experience down to intolerance of eggs, to an iron deficiency, to an imbalance in hormones.

But would it come to you as a surprise, that throwing up every session was a physiological response to a psychological problem? I used to be someone so obsessed with small margins, about personal comparison, that I forgot to look inwards.

The pandemic sent me home, and out of that environment, where I thrived on track sessions with friendly faces. My speed, my distance and my happiness increased because those psychological triggers were now removed.

A behavioural reaction to psychological barriers can be seen in large female dropout rates. A study by Women in Sport found that 1.3million girls across the UK drop out of sport, largely due to the fear of being judged and their lack of confidence. Therefore, it is very reasonable to assume that barriers to female participation are not just tangible monetary, access or opportunity barriers.

A study by Mirehie and Gibson (2020) found that should psychological well-being be promoted, the retention of sportswomen could be increased. They focused on how positive emotions, engagement, relationships meaning and accomplishment, were all factors of female participation.

Tip: We are built to care what people think.

Caring what people around us think of us and our actions is an innate instinct from the early evolution stages relating to the need to be accepted by our tribes. Therefore that notion of ‘just stop caring what other people think’, well that’s nearly impossible; if you really didn’t care what people think at all, you wouldn’t function in the society we live in today. So instead of putting emphasis on ‘not caring’, recognise when you do care, and put emphasis on the actions you take after receiving that information.

Myth Bust #4: Pressure is not just external

If I was playing word bingo in my interviews of these 6 women, the word ‘pressure’ would be an easy win. Every single woman in sport feels pressure – in some shape or form.

Interestingly though, ‘pressure’ appeared in answers to different questions that I asked my interviewees, emphasising the personal element of the concept, despite ‘feeling pressure’ being a widespread phenomenon among sportswomen.

Both Steph and Funmi recognised the increased pressure they felt when either the ‘event’ such as a 100km cycle was too big, or the training load was too big. Either way, it’s recognisable that creating goals and expectations that are realistic for YOU is incredibly important. Sure, cycling 100km is humanly possible and done regularly by many, but that doesn’t mean it will be the right thing to do for YOU.

Funmi and Sarah also recognised a type of internal pressure, commonly known as our own ridiculously high expectations of ourselves. We are our biggest critics. We’re pre-programmed to spot threats that might harm us, with our internal dialogue flagging such threats. Psychologist Dr Daria Kuss explains that women are far more likely to judge themselves harshly, which could lead to significant negative mental health impacts.

Coinciding with research (Wang and Biddle, 2001; Brunet and Sabiston, 2011; Egli et al, 2011; Liu et al, 2022), it was agreed by all six women, that when the pressure is perceived to have built up, the performance of our bodies or our mental health is hindered.

Hannah Breen (aka Breeny, a powerful rugby player who can drive through a defensive line like anything) recognised that she “started to hate the sport (horse riding) when she was pushed too far” – when there were other people’s expectations and feelings prioritised instead of her own.

Pressure is described as ‘a difficult situation that makes you feel worried or unhappy’. This pressure is an external force exerted on you. Therefore, this force can potentially be removed.

Steph describes a good way of dealing with that pressure, ‘simply’ (it takes lots of practice!) by learning to distance herself from it. She no longer keeps track of the league points table, or even the match score, instead focusing on her own performance.

Hannah also distanced herself from the people that caused such pressure on her, turning to rugby for the social element, as well as freedom of herself setting the expectations. Both women dealt with these external pressures differently, but effectively, highlighting that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to dealing with the unique pressures upon us.

Tip: Your brain gets it wrong sometimes

The emotions we feel are, in fact, our brain’s best attempt to tell us how to react based on the information it has in front of it; whether that be memories of past experiences or otherwise. Think of it like this: nervousness and excitement, actually feel the same. So what you’ve got to do, is tell your brain you’re excited for this race / this match / this event, not nervous. Again, it’s how you react with the information your brain provides you with that matters.

Myth Bust #5: Your sport is not your sole identity

Each one of the women I interviewed recognised the importance that sport had in their lives. They appreciated how it transposed into part of who they are. However, not one of them thought that’s all they were. When asked, ‘how much does your sport contribute to your identity?’, here’s what they answered:

Stef: “If you make friends that will affect your identity. I’m more likely to get into something that’s outdoorsy because that’s what I’m about. It’s what you train for, but that’s not your sole identity – there are lots of other parts to you. Outside of that, you have your job, friends, attitude towards new things, and your community. You’re not someone who just plays sport. You’re so much more”

Hannah: “After years of horse riding I now work as an equine dentist which I love; so sport massively impacted my identity in that way. I think that when people find out I play rugby, they then automatically assume I’m a team player and easy to get along with, as well as strong and confident. So I suppose sport impacted those personality characteristics too.”

Jess: “Sport massively impacted my identity – people outside of the sport know me as someone who does a lot of it. It’s part of me.”

Sarah: “Sport forms a significant part of life and can’t imagine life without it – it is part of who I am.”

Funmi: “Sport has always been a big part of my life, so I'd say it makes a fairly big contribution to my identity. I've definitely learned a lot from sport over the years and there are lessons and skills I've taken away, that have helped me in other areas of my life too.”

Tip: List all the parts of your identity

Speaking to people in your support network can help you create a list of all the parts of your identity. That list is likely to include your sports, your hobbies, your job, your family, your friendship circles, your community groups and more! When you’ve got that list, accept that over time that list will change, and that’s okay too.

Myth Bust #6: Women are strong

Yes, we already knew this, but we wanted to make a point of it.

These women have spent their lives generally being in the minority. Three play the male-dominated sport of rugby; a sport that is only just seeing an increase in funding, opportunities and community growth.

Two have swapped sports after 10+ years of training, competing and breathing triathlon; they moved on from what they knew to something else, with enjoyment as the reason.

One battles on through injury despite no end-of-the-tunnel in sight – yet.

All six have experienced the ups and downs that come with being a woman in sport – whether that be regarding performance, expectations, stigmas, body image, self-esteem or lack of opportunity.

Women are strong, and women in sport are very much so.

Final Note:

Firstly, thank you to the women that took part in the interviews that fuelled this article, sharing insights that are beyond insightful. Secondly, thank you to the communities and clubs that have facilitated our progress, our sessions, and our love for our sports.

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