Hannah is a double Olympic medalist and reigning Olympic Champion after winning Gold in the Rio 2016 Olympics with the Great Britain Women’s field hockey team. She has a doctorate in Exercise Physiology and is a qualified Performance Coach with Track Record (www.trackrecord.coach) working with leaders, executives and teams in business to enhance confidence and resilience to create a performance advantage.
In this exclusive interview, Hannah shared with me her insights into how elite athletes look after their own wellbeing; how her own experiences with mental health have made her more empathic toward others and valuable advice for employers looking to support the mental and physical wellbeing of their workforce post Covid-19.
As one the world’s top athletes, it would be great to hear your views about links between sport/or physical activity and mental health?
The link between mental health and sport has always interested me. Athletes have different perspectives about physical activity. There can be constant judgement and assessment about yourself, your fitness, performance – it’s a job. Interestingly, sometimes this can be the source of mental health problems.
Although my relationship with sport ended up at elite level, we all start our relationship with sport for much the same reasons – because it has the power to bring out the best in us. While it turned into being a job for me, sport was and is much deeper than just an occupation. For me getting involved in sport was initially about feeling accepted, about building my self-worth and confidence.
So how do professional athletes, or any active people, ensure exercise remains fun and beneficial for our bodies and minds?
The Great Britain women’s field hockey team developed a specific culture based on valuing individual differences and developing a high level of psychological safety. This created an environment where we could openly talk about our mental health and wellbeing. We turned the dial, recognising even though it was a requirement to be super fit and at the top of our game, the importance of being active for the benefit of your mind was just as important.
It was yoga for some people. For me it was a long bike ride on my own. We actively reminded ourselves as a team that exercising can be for fun and the benefits go beyond just getting fit.
Now that I’ve retired from professional field hockey, I love running. I love being on my own. Friends ask to run with me, and I say no. It’s my time for thinking, contemplating, listening to podcasts. I don’t want to be competitive – which is in my nature!
My connection to physical activity has whole-heartedly shifted after learning this approach through my time with the Great Britain field hockey team.
If we’re not training for competition or playing matches, we all discovered the benefits of finding activities that supported our wellbeing. It was quite a shift in thinking from always seeing physical activity as a competition or something to get ‘good at’.
I truly believe there is a sport out there for everyone to benefit from.
In terms of your our mental wellbeing, has sport personally benefitted you?
I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder when I was 24 years old. I’d had bouts of depression on and off for a number of years. After a physio I was working with asked me a number of times, ‘Are you okay?’—I finally stopped and answered honestly, ‘no’.
In terms of managing this challenge, exercise played a huge part. Sports helps me to recover from whatever I’m experiencing. It keeps me on a level playing field; helps me maintain a sense of balance.
Learning about my mental health condition definitely had some benefits in my drive to succeed. It’s also created a sense of empathy towards others, because of my own experiences.
It’s a challenge, but it’s never been a barrier.
Proactively investing in your wellbeing and mental health during the good times and the struggles is essential. Creating a support network around you is just as important and together, it’s possible to live a happy fulfilled life. Success is absolutely achievable, with any goal. It’s defined by you. Physical activity is in your control. I think of it as a proactive way of being the best version of yourself.
I’ve always been active but what I can focus on now that I’m retired from elite sport is to use exercise and sport to primarily benefit my mental health. I look at when I need to pull it back or when I need to get out to do some exercise.
What elite sport has given me is a mindset of: ‘What’s within my control to show up as the best version of myself?’; ‘How can I learn from experiences?’; ‘Who might be able to support me?’.
In what ways are you ‘giving back’ after retiring from professional sports?
I believe passionately in the power of sport to boost mental health, which is why I joined mental health charity Mind as an ambassador. Athletes have the platform to inspire and influence people and I continue take on that responsibility after retirement. I was due to run the London Marathon this year to raise money for Mind but we’re holding on to find out if it will go ahead. The training and fundraising continues!
I also coach the Great Britain hockey development squad on a part time basis, working with young aspiring professional athletes.
The reason I work with young people now is there’s a lot of pressure for youth in competitive sports to achieve in all areas of their lives. There is pressure coming from school, parents, society to achieve excellence. It creates a lot of anxiety for young athletes. I try to help young people maintain a healthy balance between sport, their academic aspirations, and their mental wellbeing.
What advice would you give people struggling with their mental health who find it difficult to motivate themselves to get active?
Willpower alone is not enough. I always say there’s a responsibility to be proactive around your own health and wellbeing.
Even an elite athlete needs strategies. For example, I can get really busy with work and feel as if I don’t have time to get out for a run. So I use an app, it’s a Garmin training programme. It tells me what run to do what day. I find it really helps me.
For people struggling to motivate, here are some really simple pointers that can help:
- Find a strategy that works for you. Everyone is different. Don’t feel pressured that what’s working for someone else should also be your thing. It’s about you. What works for you, your mind, your body.
- Speak to friends about joining you on your workouts, whether in person or online. It adds another level of commitment and makes it harder to back out.
- Tell someone else your plans to exercise. That way they can check in with you after; offer you support and encouragement. It can offer you that little bit of accountability that will help with motivation.
- Try different activities to see what works for you. Have fun experimenting. There is something out there for everyone.
- Always lie your workout clothes out in the morning so you see them. Or if working from home, wear them to remind yourself you’ve committed to exercising that day. Then there’s no excuse!
- Try sharing your exercise commitments and experience on social media. Peer support can be really empowering.
Look, we can all find it tough sometimes to exercise. Even the world’s most successful athletes. We’re only human! A teammate of mine from the Olympic field hockey team who was a new mum, was really struggling with her mental health and fitness during the Covid-19 lockdown. So, she decided to sign up for a couch to 5k challenge and to share it on social media to stay motivated. And it really helped her.
We know that Covid-19 has had huge impacts on people’s mental health. We’ve also seen an increase in people getting active. What correlation do you think there is?
I absolutely think this has been one of the positive side effects of Covid.
With lockdown people have more time for trying online classes, etc. Lockdown has shifted this perception a bit. Before people didn’t have time or were less motivated to make time. Now we have more time during our evenings as we’re not commuting, and our weekends are less busy.
Compared with before lockdown, people from all walks of life and levels of ability are jumping into the fitness space. For example, I’ve seen a neighbour in London around 50 years old in pyjama bottoms skipping rope on the street.
And a few doors down, I’ve seen a family doing their exercise gym class outside—their own version of Aerobics! Children may have never seen their parents exercise before as they disappeared to the gym. Now it’s a family activity!
The accessibility of sport has increased. People are realising they don’t need money to work out, they just need space. It’s less about body image and not looking the part, not being a sporting expert.
There’s been an incredible amount of creativity around getting active. People have valued the community feel of sport through sharing online in forums and on social media. People are enjoying trying new things. I’ve even seen people lifting and bench-pressing tree trunks in the middle of Hyde Park!
As a person who’s enjoyed great professional success, who has a PhD in Exercise Physiology and who works an Executive Coach, is there any specific advice you would you give to an employer looking to support the mental and physical wellbeing of their workforce?
Firstly, employers need to recognise that the next generation expect to be valued as individuals, to be seen as a whole person versus just an employee, especially when it comes to wellbeing. So, some leaders have to catch up. To engage with this population of workers it’s essential that leaders are role modelling wellbeing and personally investing in the initiatives they’re promoting to staff.
Mental health isn’t always an easy starting place when it comes to supporting staff wellbeing, so I recommend that employers look at physical activity, sleep, nutrition and recovery to get people initially engaged. It creates the space for the conversations that allow people to tap into the emotional side—for people to feel more comfortable to open up and be vulnerable.
To offer some additional context, there are four domains which form the foundations of work I do with professionals and businesses to enhance resilience capacity:
Identity – We ask people: What is your purpose? Are you living it? What are your values and beliefs? Are you engaged with your community?
Emotional Domain – We explore optimising self-awareness, self-regulation and emotional flexibility.
Mental Domain – Optimising cognitive capacity, attention span, ability to focus, flexibility and creativity. Focusing on what you can control versus what you cannot.
Physical Domain – The physical permeates across all the other domains. It includes hydration, nutrition, exercise, sleep and recover.
What are your thoughts when it comes to personal/employee versus employer responsibility around committing to a culture of wellbeing, including physical activity?
This might be a blunt statement, but I believe it is everyone’s responsibility. Businesses need to make it easy for people to engage in physical activity, whether that’s:
- Time away from the desk for exercise
- Walk or cycle to work schemes
- Free memberships to fitness apps
- Performance appraisals including conversations about what employees are proactively doing to look after their wellbeing and around building resilience capacity/supporting their mental health
We cannot afford to be reactive and pick people up when they fall off the metaphorical ‘cliff edge’. We need to be proactive in understanding the tools (physical activity being one) we have available and to create a work-life balance that enables us to live happy and fulfilled lives.
Do you think that more people doing physical activity as a result of Covid-19 will be a lasting positive side effect?
Professionals I’m talking to want to continue with the activities they’ve started over Covid-19. They’re really seeing the benefits. We’ve been offered this opportunity to observe ourselves from a different space. We’re learning new ways to practice self-care.
I think it’s really important to raise these conversations now, to keep ahold of these habits. More people are learning that physical activity can help them manage the stresses and strains of life and can help with mental health challenges.
It’s really not about donning Lycra or using expensive sport equipment. Just going for a walk is enough to give you health benefits. Exercise floods the body with chemicals that boost our mood and dampens feelings that create anxiety and worry.
It’s not a new problem. We know mental health is a challenge in society. The benefits of physical activity and mental health and wellbeing are undeniable now. It’s well established and the conversation needs to turn to action. Very similar to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Inequality and racism are no longer a question—it is undeniable. Like the importance of caring for our minds, and bodies. But commitment and action are needed now so we are not still having the same conversation in another decade about the mental health crisis, the inequality crisis.
What action are you going to take?
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.