“Sport has become my rescue, my medicine…to find the strength to succeed.” By Ellen Rowley.
Every day is a new opportunity to achieve a goal, face a fear, make someone smile or create an impact. At least it is for me. My name is Elle Rowley, and I am a Senior Coach Mentor at The Change Foundation and this is my story about sport and mental health.
I would love to be in a world whereby everyone believed in themselves and recognised how a small change in mindset can snowball into one big bundle of success. Not all journeys are smooth, you can experience 100 failed attempts, all within one training session, until you realise it is the failed attempts that bring the most success. But it is easier to train the body to do that than the mind.
I personally experienced a time, where I was required to be this magical energy in the room, whereby in every step I had to be happy, I had to be smiling and I had to be enthusiastic. It is intense. It is tough. It is draining. It just was not possible to happen without a part of myself deteriorating inside. If for one hour I could not bring the energy, I was submerged internally with guilt. This guilt manifested into what is commonly known as anxiety.
I know people have it worse, and I know people do not have it as bad. However, the spontaneity of it, I could not plan for, and this is what I had trouble fighting.
How can I stop it? How can I eliminate it? How can I make the pain ease? When these feelings arrived, I noticed some familiar, yet uncomfortable symptoms: my breathing became shallow and rapid, my heartbeat faster, muscles became tense, sounds became more sensitive, and I tended to shrivel up into a ball and scream.
You try to erase the thoughts and feelings to ‘get over it’, but it keeps biting back. Many a time I thought it was gone, only for the symptoms and scream to return with a vengeance. I was in a bubble trying to find a pin to burst it. Every second, I wished someone, anyone, could see what was happening inside by head and understand why my behaviours were as they were.
This is where I found having a focus, changed my life. Since I was young, sport has forever been a passion, so I knew I needed to refocus on this. I began learning a new sport in my life, rugby. That was the moment. This is what I needed, and I found it. I entered rugby being true to who I am, surrounded by amazing athletes, who when I was knocked down, beat off the opposition and picked me back up onto my feet. For me, it was not only training my body, but it is also training my mind to protect myself and my wellbeing.
On and off the field, I learned new skills, I grew, I spoke up. Taking the first step on the pitch was hard but taking the first step of opening my mouth was harder. However, I did it. And each step that I took and each word that I spoke got easier.
I am proud to say even though I experienced unexpected anxiety attacks at a variety of levels, they became less and less as sport became more prominent and now, I can’t remember the last time I had one. I utilise my personal coping strategies that work for me, walking, dancing, cycling, playing a sport, and finding that human connection to talk.
My experiences have become my motivation to encourage all the vulnerable young women I mentor to become engaged in sport, in some capacity, as I want to give them the confidence and determination to become the best version of themselves. We often want to achieve a task ‘perfectly’ or to wait for the ‘perfect time’ before starting. However, I found this led to procrastinating, which could have prevented me to not even enter the rugby field. Instead, I adapted my mindset and decided to start by ‘doing it badly’ without worrying about how I would look or perform. Using this motto of ‘doing it badly’ gave me the courage to try a new skill without worrying about the outcome. Discovering this motto was liberating and it has become key in my coaching today. Young women I work with who have anxiety disorder have told me about their triggers and every day I do my best to vary each session so they take part in activities they enjoy and that make them feel good about themselves, which can lessen their worries. But it is credit to the young women for speaking out about their mental health in the first place, a brave and honest start to their journey with The Change Foundation.
Sport has become my rescue, my medicine, and my tool to find the strength to succeed. You cannot always see mental health battles and this needs to be remembered. Sport can give you control over your body and a positive vibe of achievement, which is the first step of gaining control over other aspects of your life.
It is ok to not feel ok sometimes. Share the good, share the bad. The mind is powerful. You are important. You are loved. You matter. Please talk.