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Sporting Highs and Lows - Episode Four with Nile Wilson

In the latest episode of Sporting Highs and Lows, our host Luke Sutton talks to ex-Olympic gymnast Nile Wilson, who announced his retirement from competitive gymnastics last month.

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Nile had to have corrective surgery on a neck disc bulge in early 2019, after an injury left him suffering with ongoing pain. The recovery period, with its forced hiatus from his life passion, led to Nile battling some serious mental health challenges in 2019.

Nile had already achieved so much in his sport, with accolades including numerous gold Commonwealth Games medals, a silver medal in the 2015 World Championships and a bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics. So when he suddenly had to deal with living life away from the spotlight, leading a much less active existence, it hit him hard.

Simon Wilson, Therapy Services Manager at Priory Group, joins the interview to offer insight from a psychological perspective. He sheds light on how the highly-driven, winning mentality drummed into athletes can end up being their downfall if mental support isn’t provided.

“My mental health started to plummet”

Nile’s career was brought to a halt two years ago when he ripped out a disc in his neck during training, pushing on the nerve and causing extreme pain. A hospital scan revealed that the extent of the injury was serious, which led to Nile undergoing major surgery two weeks later. As Nile recovered back at home with his parents, he knew his behaviour was deteriorating due to the pain. He was taking painkillers, including the highly addictive codeine, “all day every day”, as well as drinking alcohol extremely regularly.

This started to seriously affect Nile’s mental health. In his own words, “Injury is so hard as an athlete, as you’re forced to stop without wanting to…[the sport] brings purpose, passion and love into your life.”

Nile believes there is a similarity between the circumstances of his injury and the Covid-19 pandemic, as many others have had to put areas of their life on hold due to the restrictions. He discussed how difficult it was to lose his purpose and feel lost, with no gym sessions for a mental outlet, and no short-term goals to strive for anymore, except to get better. He was told that the recovery period would be around six to twelve months.

“I felt massively that I shouldn’t be feeling like this”

As Nile’s behaviour continued to change, drinking became an increasingly damaging coping mechanism for him, which led to his self-esteem plummeting. He worried that nobody would empathise with his mental health struggles, and would judge him for feeling so low when he had money, fame, and incredible sporting achievements. The pressure Nile felt to maintain a positive appearance led to him hating himself.

As he continued creating online content for his followers, he began to rely on the validation of social media, while also realising how much of a fraud he felt for not being truthful to his fans about his real feelings. In his determination to keep inspiring others and maintain his income, Nile realised he was wearing a mask. He tried to smile and entertain but he didn’t feel it inside, and the negative feelings were worsening.

Simon discussed how using the wrong coping strategies for feelings of shame, during a period of change like Nile experienced, can end up becoming a cycle that’s hard to get out of.

Nile said he was naïve about mental health before his injury, as he knew he’d had an ‘awesome’ life journey up until that point. As with many top athletes, he’d carried out a lot of personal development in training for his sport, so he was a big believer in choosing your attitude with positive self-talk and mindset strategies. He says that as he always had good things happening in his life, he was naïve to what mental health actually was. Once he started battling his own journey, he realised that the challenges were very real.

“Now I can listen to people’s stories and say, ‘I get it’.”

Nile’s shame in those bleak months of 2019 made him deny his own right to feel so desperate. As time went on and he learned more about mental health, he recognised that he was feeling the full force of genuine depression and anxiety. He now believes this has given him a newfound ability to connect with people, without judging anyone else’s feelings.

Simon discussed how the stigma is still very real for mental health, because it’s an ‘invisible illness’. So when people start to feel like they’re not the same as everyone else and struggle to articulate their problems, many end up wearing a mask in order to hide their struggles. He notes the strong link between physical and mental health, and how pushing yourself incredibly hard, as athletes do, can go against them if they aren’t mindful of their limits.

This celebration of such incredible determination can then make people like Nile feel like they can’t be human. Not feeling able to have frailties or worries, like everyone else, can be very isolating. This why it’s such an important part of mental health recovery to talk to someone about the inner feelings and emotions.

Simon acknowledges that for men in general, talking about feelings can be a challenge. The statistics tell us that the leading cause of death for men under 49 in the UK, for a certain period of time, was suicide. That implies the scale of the issue around being able to talk to others about mental challenges.

“My darkest moments were when I felt like turning to suicide.”

Nile’s extreme coping methods left him going through some weeks drinking for days on end, as well as gambling regularly. He knew he didn’t want to live like that anymore. However, he also felt that he didn’t care what his own pain was doing to everyone around him. As his parents judged his behaviour, Nile stopped engaging with anyone. He was being told off for his excessive drinking, which only increased his sense of isolation as he couldn’t communicate how he so badly wanted to stop. However, he didn’t feel he could stop because of the pain he was in, which nobody else could see. The painful conversations with those around him made Nile just want to ‘switch it off’. He had suicidal thoughts for several ‘horrendous’ months.

Simon discusses how these harmful behaviours, which are an expression of people’s inner pain, can lead to judgment from others. Although these people may be genuinely concerned, there’s a way to respond which is more beneficial for people struggling with mental health – for example, asking someone what’s happening on the inside, rather than telling them how their behaviour looks on the outside. It’s the fear of judgement and not being understood which makes it difficult for people to speak up, subsequently leaving them feeling isolated and alone.

Luke mentions how there are other tell-tale signs of declining mental health, other than drinking and gambling, which can be as subtle as withdrawing from family. While Nile’s family were always incredibly close, he still struggled to engage with anyone during his struggle. This can lead to family members feeling rejected, which can in turn cause feelings of anger, upset and hurt in them too. Luke stresses that his intention isn’t to tell families to do better, as it really is difficult for everyone involved.

“They thought the Nile they knew was lost”.

Nile agrees that it’s difficult for families, saying that his own parents just wanted to fix the problem because they didn’t want him to feel that way; “it’s always through love”. However, he didn’t recognise that at the time, saying there were periods when he genuinely thought he’d never speak to his dad ever again. He knows that as his behaviour intensified, his parents just wanted him back.

Nile knows that he was lucky to have support networks and people to help him out of his situation. He now feels that he and his family are all so much more knowledgeable about mental health; happily, they now have a great relationship again. Nile also understands that periods of depression can reoccur, so recovery is an ongoing journey for him.

Nile stressed that elite athletes need to be aware of the potential mental health challenges, following intense periods of training or competing in big events. Citing the comedown of the Olympics, he states that you can’t ever match the euphoria of being at that event. Nile trained throughout his life for the clean high bar routine, performing it in front of 20,000 people while seven million people watched on television. He knew that he changed his life in that moment; “I didn’t know it at the time, at 20 years old, but I was never going to be able to match that, ever.”

“When you come home from the Olympics, you think ‘what the hell now?’”

Nile thinks that athletes have to have a certain amount of narcissism and obsessiveness to achieve in their sport. He thinks that this element of self-indulgence encourages addictive qualities; recognising an ‘all or nothing’ mentality in himself. His whole life built up to a single moment, so after coming home, he felt lost. When he then had a drink of alcohol for the first time, at age 20, he chased the feeling it gave him. He was on a constant quest to recreate the highs he’d achieved in his sport, using alcohol and gambling. His injury then caused him to continue with extreme behaviours, once life wasn’t going the way he’d planned.

Luke mentions the similarities between Nile’s story and that of Michael Phelps, who won 28 Olympic medals and battled his own mental health challenges. Michael tried to commit suicide in between Olympic appearances, as well as after retiring. In Luke’s words, the most decorated Olympian of all time tried to ‘win himself happiness’ with medals. Dedicating four years at a time to each Olympic cycle, with their huge moments of euphoria, was followed by coming home and facing real life. Michael’s answer was to repeat the cycle, chasing the wins, until eventually he had to retire. This was when he had to address his mental health and deal with his lost purpose and life meaning.

Simon has worked with many highly driven people who’d be considered high achievers. He says that working towards your goals can come at a price. Anyone working at such a high level, such as in athletic sport, knows that there is a time limit when they are determined for a certain amount of time in their life. They then run out of steam when their body starts to fail or they cannot sustain the same level of achievement anymore. This is when the symptoms will start to have an impact as routines change, whether these are sleeping or eating patterns, anxiety, intrusive thoughts or simply lost energy.

“I think for so long, I defined myself by the external”

For top athletes, they certainly need an exit strategy to deal with what happens after the adulation stops and the work no longer continues. After giving everything for so long, they suddenly have to start from scratch. The challenge of this can make people feel empty or sad, lost, depressed, hopeless.

Nile says that being an Olympic medallist was what he thought was his ‘happiness ticket’. This need for fulfilment carried into his online content, as he felt defined by how many views a YouTube video would get, or how much money he would earn. This would directly influence Nile’s mood on a regular basis. He believes that this reliance on external factors led him to his mental health challenges. He now understands that there is more to a person than an Olympic medal or whatever they are striving to achieve; “it’s more about the person you’re becoming”.

Nile no longer feels that he needs Olympic medals to fulfil him. He places greater emphasis on what he wants to give back to the world, including the type of friend, brother, boyfriend and son he wants to be. When Nile started to learn those things and began to live by them, it helped him to reach a position where he could announce his retirement. He believes that if he hadn’t had his injuries, or had the support around him, he wouldn’t have been able to cope with leaving professional sports.

Nile knows that everyone has to go through their own journey, and while he can try and educate other young people coming up through sport, people can only fully understand once they experience their own challenges. Nile is grateful that he had this experience in order to reach a place of acceptance. He now knows that chasing his former goals isn’t the right path for him anymore. “I’ll still miss it and be gutted when I’m not in Tokyo, but for now I’m fulfilled with my life and what the future holds.”

“That's what treatment can give you, to overcome some of those thoughts”

Simon advises that when someone is severely depressed, they should take bite-sized steps known as ‘behavioural activations’. This involves starting small and building up; simply getting out of bed, for example. If someone is in a dark place, he urges them to just reach out to someone – even if it’s a stranger. No matter who it is, open up to someone you trust and tell them you’re having a tough time. Starting that communication is key; keep in mind that however you feel, someone else will have felt it too and will understand.

No matter how unusual your issues feel, even if you’re completely isolated, talking to someone will start to normalise the experience and stop the vicious cycle. It can take time to restructure your life and thinking, so while athletes’ psychological coaching shapes a single-minded focus on winning, it can take as much effort to get into a different mindset. Once you find a different focus and start to think differently, treatment can help you to overcome and adjust some of those thoughts

Luke asks what Nile’s message would be to the thousands of athletes preparing for the Tokyo Olympics this summer, before coming home either with or without a medal and struggling in those periods of time.

Nile says that as the Olympic Games is of course one of the biggest events in the whole world, they can “feel proud of that and then navigate slowly into the next stage”. He advises that tough periods like this should be embraced and really felt. “I found in the times when I’ve felt like that, you want to feel some sort of self-esteem, to feel good about yourself in any sort of way, no matter where you’re at.”

Nile recommends engaging in exercise or nutrition, or even just getting out of bed; achieving anything you don’t want to do, no matter how small. For Nile, just having a night sober made him feel better. “It’s about just learning and trying stuff, and learning about yourself.” Nile now realises that it isn’t always about what’s next. “It was all about the journey.”

Mental health treatment

If you’re struggling with mental health challenges, reaching out for help is the most important step you can take. Suffering with a mental health condition alone is the worst thing you can do for yourself. Leaving them untreated can be highly damaging to long-term health, as well as impacting on relationships with those around you and leaving you unable to cope with day-to-day responsibilities.

At Priory Group, our experienced specialists have treated many people in situations similar to your own. They know how to help you overcome mental health difficulties and live a much more fulfilling existence. Contact us for a free assessment to find out how treatment can help you to move past your specific situation, according to your own needs. Our mental health treatment programmes are designed to help you live a happier future, with the tools to continue managing and reducing your symptoms.

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