The positive benefits sport can have upon mental health are unquestionable. The issue became a prevalent theme in this year’s TCDSU elections, with two of the five candidates running for welfare officer citing plans to promote sport as part of positive mental health programmes. For musician Niall Breslin, who suffers from anxiety issues and regularly speaks about his battle with depression, sport and exercise are a way of controlling long-term mental health issues. “For those who deal quite badly with general anxiety disorder, sport has that ability just to stop it,” he tells me. “As soon as I started training that nauseating feeling in my stomach would leave me, that breathlessness would ironically leave me. Most people get breathless when they train, I started getting my breath back when I trained. I started become more mindful and more aware of my body. Whenever I trained or played a match: for those brief moments my anxiety went away.” Most other people, he acknowledges, work the total opposite way, getting anxious before matches. “I am the opposite,” he says. “I get anxious for no reason. I get anxious watching television, I get anxious in bed. But I don’t get anxious in environments like that.”
Running, for him, has offered a sanctuary of sorts. “When you are running, you are completely present, completely mindful of what is happening there and then,” he says. “When you are running, everything else leaves your brain. Thoughts are the absolute devil for people with anxiety issues; thoughts that you cannot control, that just go flashing through your brain all the time and you can’t control them. When you start running, they disappear. The minute I start running, I become completely present, but if I try to meditate and be present then I get anxious and I hyperventilate. But the minute I get into a running environment, everything else becomes irrelevant. That is a very difficult thing to achieve for people with anxiety problems: to be able to stop their thoughts. That is what running does for me. That is why I do it.”
Breslin is a triathlete, and frequently competes in the punishing Ironman triathlon. “The Ironman isn’t a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. It tests your mind. I call it the iron mind.” In order to compete Breslin had to learn to swim, conquering a long held fear. “I learned how to swim even though I had a huge fear of water. That was another part of my recovery, facing fears and showing my mind that I have an element of control”.
“I think in general, as a society, we need to open our eyes and stop being naïve to sport, thinking these people are flawless, powerful strong elite athletes. They’re not.”
That feeling described by Breslin, of being utterly bewitched by the moment when running, is echoed by Clementine Yost, a final-year student at Trinity College. Her passion is horse riding and show jumping, and her descriptions of her sport are extraordinarily vivid and enthusiastic, as if she is reliving the moments she describes. “When I am on this animal, galloping around the arena, building pace and momentum, getting the push,” she tells me. “With show jumping, you have to create a balance, and you feel that you have helped this horse realise its potential in a way, stopping them from being something that might just run around and act the maggot to something that, bouncing, approaching the jump, then boom. It feels like an explosion, they get to the last stride, they plant their front feet, their hind feet plant down together and they kick off.” The experience is particularly uplifting after jumps, she says. “When you are over one jump, and can see another one coming, it’s unreal. The feeling when you are in the air, it feels like you are flying. It is like the climax of the experience. You are building their momentum, their energy, their frame and shape, you can’t have them with their heads too close to their chest or they’ll slow down. You need them with their head out, shoulders raised, cantering with their hind legs pushing underneath themselves all the time. Then you push over something, and that’s all you have been working for in those five minutes.” Clementine has suffered from anxiety and bulimia, but finds that show jumping is helpful in dealing with issues of mental health. “I got bulimia because of my anxiety, and anxious people are anxious of ‘the inevitable’, so that is a lack of control. With horse riding, it offers control over the situation you put yourself in.”
Sport is a tangible rendering of cause and effect; it offers the participant a most obvious and immediate way of asserting control. This control is also important also for Breslin. “It [physical activity] is having an element of control,” he says. “With issues of anxiety, you feel you’re in freefall, you feel you can’t stop it, and that’s frightening, really frightening. It’s terrifying to the point where you think that this is the way you feel it’s always going to be. If you can regain a touch of control, you start realising, fuck, maybe I can [deal with anxiety].” He used to control his anxiety through sleeping pills and valium, but eventually realised that this was unsustainable. “It’s not good for you. It’s not the way I wanted it to go; I was addicted to sleeping pills for four or five years. I was on them every night and I knew it was doing me serious damage. I started learning other ways of maintaining control.”
And yet with such high stakes, sport can have a seriously negative affect one’s mental health. Clementine says as much about her time as a coxswain on the Trinity Rowing team. She says the sport was ultimately detrimental to her mental health, as it set a racing weight of 55kg in the interests of fairness, to prevent teams drafting young, teenage coxswains in order to keep the boat as light as possible. “You’re expected to be 122.5 pounds, and at 5ft 8, that was really hard,” she says. “Two weeks before the colours race for Trinity, I starved myself for 14 days to get from 57 kilos to 55. I would have a bowl of cereal in the morning, and I would only have an apple for the rest of the day.”
This was not due to a culture among the club of encouraging her to lose weight but rather to the fact she did not yet feel comfortable in openly admitting her issues. “My senior coach never mentioned my weight once,” she says. “My coach last year, a week before an early season race, was like ‘oh we have a race coming up and we want everyone in tip-top shape, and coxes, if you could practise weighing yourselves, and remember that race weight is 55 kilos’. I genuinely believe that in his head he was used to having small, underweight coxes and he was saying that to say ‘make sure you bring your extra weights’ to the underweight coxes so they make weight. The way I heard it was ‘you’re so fat, don’t eat any food’.” The pressure she felt under was never noticed by those around her, though. “All the rowers were super guys but never noticed that’s what happened. From the perspective of the 6 foot, 100 kilo male rower, I was tiny, but in my head I was just letting him down”. Clementine is unsure whether support structures were in place within the rowing club, as she did not seek them out. “Last year I hit rock bottom and accepted that I had bulimia. Had I accepted that earlier, I may have sought a support within rowing.”
Breslin experienced sport at its worst during his four year spell as a professional with Leinster Rugby. Having gone from embracing every sport he could as a youth, the pressure of professional sport proved intolerable. “When I became a professional athlete that environment changed. You have got pressure in an environment, an environment where mental health is certainly not spoken about or in any way promoted or nurtured. It made things worse and worse. That massive crutch I had in terms of physical health was taken from me and it became something I had resented until I retired.”
Breslin is critical of the structures in place at Leinster. “I’m not sure if my issues were clear, but not once was I asked how I was in any shape or form. People assume wellness in this country is associated with our physical wellness, but the fact is that I was in absoluter hell playing rugby. I was doing the one sport I loved the most in the world, and I hated every moment of it as I felt like a complete and utter outcast because I had this quiet kind of silent issue that I could never speak about. The fact is that when I played professionally a lot of the coaches, some were from the old school where they would send you on the pitch with a broken leg and ask you to run it off, so I certainly wasn’t going to start getting into mental health issues with people who had an attitude like that to physical problems.”
“The minute I start running, I become completely present, but if I try to meditate and be present then I get anxious and I hyperventilate. But the minute I get into a running environment, everything else becomes irrelevant.”
Breslin believes that society as a whole needs to recognise the prevalence of mental health issues in sport. “I think in general, as a society, we need to open our eyes and stop being naïve to sport as being a beacon of people,” he says. “These people are flawless, powerful strong elite athletes. They’re not. They’re human and they have got serious problems that aren’t allowed be dealt with. Now you have brilliant things like the GPA and IRUPA, who are about player welfare. They couldn’t give a shit about your contract, couldn’t give a shit about money, they are just there for player welfare and it is about time because the fact is that I think the IRFU are an amazing organisation who have done great things but do they care about the welfare of the players? Do they really? I don’t know.”
In defence of the IRFU, in November of last year the organisation launched a scheme alongside Pieta House entitled “Mind Ur Buddy”, aimed at equipping rugby club members across the country with the ability to recognize depression in others. Breslin is encouraged by the increasing openness with which mental health is being treated. “It’s becoming a hell of a lot more acceptable in every facet. If you look at any of the top teams in the world, the first person they appoint is a sports psychologist. Somebody that is there to monitor the emotional welfare of the player.”
Sport is also likely to play a bigger role in positive mental health campaigns on campus in the coming months, with two SU candidates for the position of welfare office connecting issues of mental health and physical health. Conor Clancy, who has spoken of the importance of sport as a “powerful antidote to depression”, has also worked with the current welfare officer, Ian Mooney, on a voluntary programme to educate the captains of sports clubs about the signs of depression.
The benefits of physical activity to one’s mental fitness are undoubted, yet regular physical activity within a sports club must be supported by an environment encouraging openness relating to mental health. For Breslin, sport becomes problematic when it robs identity: “When I came to Dublin, I discovered that in certain schools, rugby was a religion, it actually defined a person if they played rugby. It defined who they were, where they were from, and everything about them. They had no identity. The minute you sacrifice your identity, you will start struggling. You have to establish what your values are and what you want to be and if someone in school is saying that ‘you play rugby and you’re brilliant’, and you don’t feel brilliant, then you are lying to yourself. For me it’s important in the sporting environment that no matter what you do in sport, do not sacrifice your identity or else it will eat at you. If part of your identity is issues with your mind, if sometimes your mind can be a little hard on you, then fucking tell people. Don’t hide behind it, or it will come back at you.”
Photo of Clementine Yost by Matthew Mulligan.