This is my search for ‘perfect imbalance’ in my life and why it matters.
In July 2017 I left my role as CEO of the British Athletes Commission (BAC). I was ill. Two months earlier I had been diagnosed with severe anxiety, stress and depression. In short, I was burnt out. I sought psychotherapy, initially because my self-esteem and confidence were non-existent, and I wanted someone to give me some answers. The first answer I got was that ‘it was no wonder I was mentally ill’ because “you have had five years of vicarious trauma” offering advice, support and guidance to many Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Often this has been provided under very pressurised circumstances for them and me. To my surprise the other answers eventually actually came from myself as the therapy sessions continued and I started to recover.
However, something else was triggered in my mind when I returned to work briefly in July 2017, and I started to tell other people why I had been off work. I didn’t hide behind some spurious contagious illness or a physical injury. I was honest, it was because of a mental illness. The result was surprising and a game changer for me. Pretty much everyone I told said something like;
- “I know a lot of people like you” or
- “I have to drink several pints each a day to cope.”
Perhaps more tellingly others said; “I know exactly how you feel I’m taking X mgs of anti-depressants a day.”
Firstly, this made me feel not such a loser as I was very clearly not the only one in sport struggling with mental illness. But I also realised that something needed to be done. In August 2017 I spent a lot of time thinking about “what next?” I had a choice, should I walk away from sport or try and stay involved in some capacity? Sport has been a constant in my life since school. I’ve played, coached, watched, volunteered and sat on Boards. Could I really walk away? Admittedly the last five years had been very demanding but enough for a full divorce and self-imposed exile?
It’s cliched but time IS a healer and eventually my decision came down to this. Was the work I had done to start to rebuild the BAC as a business and a voice in performance sport an end in itself or a means to an end? The conclusion I reached was the latter. Those conversations with other leaders in sport had left their mark. The question in my mind was if the issue of athlete welfare had been begun to be taken (more?) seriously who then was looking after the people responsible for looking after the athletes?
I also took inspiration from Professor David Lavallee – the first ever Professor of Duty of Care in sport at Abertay University – who I’d worked with helping Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson undertake her review of duty of care in sport for the government in 2016. David was there when I needed support most. He was one of a few people who reached out to me when I was ill. He always ending his conversation with me with the phrase “Give and take care”. I loved this phrase, because it gave me a connection with another person as I’d become so withdrawn and lost connections with so many people.
Planting a new seed
Combining the two thoughts gave me the seed of an idea about making a “comeback” into sport. I discussed this with several people until I met up with another great friend, John Sturrock, the man who had taught me the mediation skills I used in the BAC. He asked how I was, and I told him that I was heaps better and that I’d got this idea forming in my mind. An idea about going back to sport with duty of care as a focus. The duty of care of those in sport who weren’t athletes as a priority.
I remember telling him that I’d discussed the idea with so many people I had “drunk enough coffee to fill a bath.” His reply was succinct and to the point. “Just get on with it Ian.” So, I did. The next day I registered DOCIAsport at Companies House and started this leg of my journey.
I also took the opportunity to ring David Lavallee, told him my plans and my intention to adopt his phrase “Give and take care” but with a twist. “Take and give care” would be the strap line not only for the business but for me personally. I realised through my own lived experience that in giving care to the members of the BAC I had neglected my own well-being. Therefore rendering myself useless at giving care to others. If I did take care of myself, I would be able to give care to others as a businessman, father, son or husband. “Take and give care” was to be the new mantra.
One of the first things that I did after starting DOCIAsport was to sign up for a Mental Health England First Aid course. I’m so glad that I did. I wanted to do this for a number of reasons;
• To be able to reflect on the advice I had given to many athletes who were suffering mental illness to check whether I had done the right thing. I believe now that I did and perhaps the best part of my role was that I actively listened to all of them and without judgement. So many said they felt better just because they felt that they had been listened to properly.
• Because I knew that mental health and mental health education was going to form a significant part of what I wanted to do. Being a MHFA England trained First Aider would give some peace of mind to the people I’d meet for the first time in this next “chapter”.
• What I now realise in hindsight too is that the course gave me a framework, boundaries if you like, that I shouldn’t cross in helping others but to signpost them with confidence to better support than I could offer which would also reduce the risk of my own mental health declining again.
Through Martha Silcott, another friend in my network, I was then introduced to Jaan Madan a member of the Leadership team at MHFA England. Whether it was because my story resonated with him or just to get rid of me, he very kindly agreed to offer a collaboration.
Between DOCIAsport and MHFA England we set up a Mental Health First Aider course specifically for the sport sector. I arranged for 14 people from all over sport in England and Wales to attend a MHFA England course for free in return for their input into what a course for sport might look like. That took place in the Autumn last year.
The next significant milestone in developing this course was only recently. I was determined that the case studies required for the course would come from across the sport sector. Both performance and recreational sport and from those on and off the field of play. We had coaches, administrators, athletes and a referee offer to help.
What incredible people they are giving of their time for no fee to share their lived experiences for the ultimate benefit of others. It was both humbling and a privilege to listen to each of them. I will always be grateful to them. What also struck me was that it isn’t easy to pigeon hole mental illness. It’s too easy to say can you talk about your anxiety or the time that you had suicidal thoughts because you can, but not in isolation as in many cases there are more than one condition causing the mental illness of an individual.
Secondly, a lived experience is just that and it’s unique to any one individual. They can not and should not be graded. For example, X’s experience was worse than mine which was more severe than Y’s. They are what they are; especially if you take into account the isolating, lonely nature of everyone’s experience whether they were surrounded by lots of other people or not.
The sports course is scheduled to be available in the Summer by which time I hope to have become an instructor. So that I can work with others to deliver it. With more people trained as a Mental Health First Aider in sport I genuinely believe that the sector will be able to sign up to the meaning of “take and give care”. Because it will be better equipped to address mental illness in its various forms for those that work in the sector. Personally, I can’t wait.
Who’s looking after those who look after others?
But I will have to. This leads me to another answer to the question “Whose looking after the people looking after the people?” The answer is that we all have a duty of care to ourselves and our own well-being. I learnt that I was poor at this at a great cost and ended up in a very dark place as a consequence.
With the help of my psychotherapist I started to devise a series of relapse prevention strategies. They remain hard to apply consistently nearly two years later, but I am trying! I have started to recognise that taking time off is actually an integral part of the whole. Just before I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I believed that why things were beginning to overwhelm me was because I wasn’t working hard enough. My answer was to “work” even harder i.e., longer not better. Just not big or clever.
Since setting up DOCIAsport I have met many interesting people and quite a few have helped develop the business and / or my own self-awareness. One such person is Jeff Weigh from Ignite Performance. He hosts a podcast called “Perfect Imbalance”. I was asked to record an episode for him in which we discussed his concept of perfect imbalance and concluded that there is no “one size fits all solution “.
Why it matters
For me I have come to realise that its ok to be completely dedicated to a period of work with little or no play, but that it is not sustainable. I have started to break this down into different sized pieces. In any one day have meaningful breaks. In the evenings try to avoid tech, at the weekends have a technology amnesty on at least one day. There’s therefore an attempt to achieve perfect imbalance over different time horizons.
After periods of great intensity I have tried to adopt a new strategy on some weekends after an “imbalanced” week. Do nothing. This can cause a bit of tension at Chateau Braid. Because my wife sees an announcement about my intention to do nothing as an opportunity for me to select from a number of things on the “to do list” she has drafted for me!
So, like all things with regard to managing my mental health it remains a work in progress and the journey continues. I am no longer on my own.
Take and give care.
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Certainly check out all the episodes to date here