Beyond the Physical: Caring for Mental Health in Sports

Being out on the sports pitch is my happy place and I am always pushing myself to be the best I can be.

About Amelia Paton

Amelia Paton is a talented and accomplished multi-sport athlete who has faced and overcome numerous obstacles on her journey. As a 19-year-old athlete and dedicated physiotherapy student, she has already achieved much. She represents the England Women’s Open squad in touch rugby, is a member of her University’s first team in Rugby Union, captains the University’s third team in hockey, and has previously trained with the Waterloo and Sale Sharks Centres of Excellence. In addition to her love of these sports, she also enjoys athletics and boxing and participated in a white-collar charity event in her first year at University.

The impact of injury

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Amelia. At 15, while Vice Captaining the England Under 18 Girls Touch Rugby Team at the European Touch Rugby Championships in France, she suffered a tear in her Anterior Cruciate Ligament, which to her dismay, benched her for the remainder of the tournament. Upon her return to England, an MRI scan revealed the severity of the injury and revealed that surgery was needed to repair it. Soon after her 16th birthday, Amelia underwent an ACL Reconstruction of her knee. She was told that she would need at least 12 to 18 months to fully recover and start playing again.

Despite facing this major setback, Amelia remained determined and worked tirelessly with her physiotherapy team and surgical advisors to speed up her recovery. Her dedication paid off, and she was ready to return to sports, but life had other plans. Just as she received the green light from her medical team to return to sport, England went into lockdown, putting her athletic pursuits on hold and amplifying her feelings of isolation and loss of control.

Struggles with mental health

Amelia’s injury was not just a physical setback, but it also took a toll on her mental health. She had built her identity around sports and being part of a team brought her joy, so when her injury forced her to sit on the sidelines, she felt lost and unsure of who she was.

” Sport was my whole life; I didn’t know who I was without sports, I didn’t know what to do”, she says. “It was unbearable.” The added stress of social separation from her teammates and the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions only amplified her feelings of isolation and helplessness.

The road to recovery and the extended return to sport, caused by the lockdown was a long and lonely one, and Amelia found it challenging to stay motivated without the support of her peers. “I felt like no one really understood what I was going through,” she says. The extended period of isolation and the anxiety about her delayed return to sport left her feeling sad and alone. These struggles not only impacted her physically, but also her motivation and drive in college, which was also being delivered remotely, were also compromised.

Despite these challenges, Amelia found solace and support in her family. “My family supported me in ways I can’t put into words,” she says.  Her family provided her with the encouragement and guidance she needed to prioritise her mental health and to stay focused on her recovery. The love and support from her family helped her get through the difficult times and gave her the strength to keep pushing forward. “But I felt like they were the only people there for me.”

Are the existing support systems in the sports industry enough?

Now that Amelia is back on the field, playing the sports she loves as one of a team, she reflects on the challenges she faced during her recovery.

While her physical injury required surgery and a lot of hard work, while rehabilitating, it was the mental toll that was the most difficult to overcome. But it wasn’t just the absence of her sports that affected her mental health. Amelia realised that the systems in place in the sports industry were insufficient in mental health education and support. She was under the assumption that once she returned to sports, she would be back to her old self, but the reality was far from it. The rehabilitation process is a lifelong journey, and she faced challenges in her recovery that she was not prepared for.

She calls for the need for external support by trained, retired athletes who have experienced such issues in their career and who fully understand what she and others like her, are going through. “Having an experienced athlete mentor within the sports industry would have been extremely helpful physically and mentally”, she says, stressing how much better it would have been for her mental health recovery, which was needed as much as her physical health recovery.

“You have to take care of yourself mentally just as much as you take care of yourself physically.” Like her, she understands how athletes who have sustained injuries can sometimes focus too much on their physical recovery, completely forgetting to lay emphasis on their mental health.

Amelia sums it up:

“Following a catastrophic injury, when competing at a high level in sport, there is an urgent need to also support athletes to understand and prioritise their mental health and to really take time to take care of it, because the fear and isolation caused as a result of injury is as devastating as the physical injury itself.”