Not your standard gap year. I suppose that’s one way to describe Callum Lea’s creation of the UK’s first ever registered charity to support young sports players experiencing mental health issues. Although vintage upon vintage of volunteering ‘gap yahs’ before him have taken the well-trodden, admirable charity route; building wells in ‘Indyah’ or ‘Tanzaniahh’ – either out of the genuine goodness of their heart or to spice up that CV with a sprinkle of wholesomeness, I had never heard a story quite like Callum’s.
Just 6 months on from becoming a registered charity in partnership with Bupa, Sporting Minds has experienced huge success. Endorsed by the likes of former Manchester United player Paul Scholes and Olympic legend Dame Kelly Holmes, it’s clear that the charity is playing a hugely important role in providing support and raising awareness surrounding mental health in the sporting world.
Where did it all begin?
The venture emerged from Lea’s own experience as a young athlete. After finishing A-Levels and beginning his cricketing career, the former Worcestershire Academy Player began suffering from mental health difficulties including anxiety and low mood which became serious enough to warrant him reaching out to access support via the Professional Cricketers Association. However, after taking the all important first step to get help, Lea was greeted with a ‘frustrating’ system which simply wasn’t good enough. After continuous disappointment, the cricketer got professional help privately but recognised that this is not an option available to everyone, ‘If I was having deeper mental health issues, the situation could have been much, much worse’. Instead of heading back to his cricketing career, Lea set off on a new path. All too familiar with the poor mental health services available to cricketers, Callum widened his investigation to representative sport in general and quickly found that there was a huge gap that needed to be filled.
“Sporting Minds is essentially bringing private mental healthcare to the public”Callum Lea, Founder of Sporting Minds
Although there were a handful of organisations raising awareness surrounding the issue of mental health in sport, Lea stresses the important message that ‘Whilst prevention is always better than cure, once the mental health issues have begun, the awareness is certainly already there – the players are experiencing these issues first hand. What then becomes essential is to provide support to these young players.’ This is exactly what Sporting Minds has done with its partnership with Bupa, the world’s leading private healthcare provider. By outsourcing the support system to such an established private healthcare corporation, the charity is ‘essentially bringing private mental healthcare to the public’ for players who need it.
But why is mental health in representative sport such a prevalent issue?
‘Diversifying your identity’ was a phrase which cropped up a lot and it soon became very apparent why. Getting to a representative or professional level in sport can be an incredibly difficult task. Whether it means getting up at 5am to get the swimming in every morning or constantly training to ensure you’re picked for a team, your sport can very quickly become the only thing you care about. When Lea first started experiencing his mental health issues, he noticed that ‘cricket had become my entire identity’. With so many uncontrollable factors which can prevent you from doing what you love at the level you want to be at such as injury, inability to get a contract or simply not being good enough, sport becomes a very turbulent industry to be in. Lea also drew attention to the ruthless individualism which competitive sport inevitably breeds. ‘Very often it becomes less about the team and more about you as an individual trying to get to the next level. For example this can mean wanting a teammate not to do as well as you, it can breed selfish thoughts which can get really horrible.’ One of the things the charity focuses on is encouraging young players not to place their whole character on their sport but also finding other passions so that the athlete’s entire identity isn’t on the line if they cannot continue to play. Callum also discussed the common misconceptions surrounding the professional sporting lifestyle: ‘In reality the industry can be really brutal, especially in sports such as football and rugby there is the expectation that you should be really mentally tough’.
How is the lockdown impacting the mental health of young players?
The work of Sporting Minds has never been more relevant. With the lockdown placing a strain on thousands of people’s mental health across the country, Lea explains how lockdown can specifically impact young players. ‘There is the initial issue that they cannot play the sport they love, but also for many players their career development is on hold… 2020 could have been a really important year for them’. This frustration hits particularly close to home with one of Sporting Mind’s ambassadors, Dom Cunningham, a 25 year old gymnast who won a team gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. 2020 was going to be a hugely important year for Cunningham, with plans to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. However, Lea stressed that their ambassadors are adapting well with the inevitable disappointment lockdown has brought. From getting wattbikes in to maintain fitness, to zoom calls with the coaches, athletes up and down the country are learning to adapt. Yet even more importantly, Callum sees the lockdown as a unique opportunity for players to ‘redirect their energy’ into other things. Whether it be following the nation in their baking obsession or taking online courses, quarantine has given players the chance to try new things and find other passions outside of sport whilst training must be put on hold.
“It’s by no means a one-size-fits-all approach. Each case, whether it be from a dancer, swimmer or rugby player, is assessed individually and the treatment is custom made for the player”Callum Lea, Founder of Sporting Minds
What to do if you need help
If you are a young sports player competing at a representative level experiencing mental health issues, here is how you can get in touch
- There are plenty of options when it comes to getting the help you need. You can send an inquiry to hello@sportingmindsuk or DM the Instagram page @sportingmindsuk. However, the best way to get help is to fill out the support system form on the website www.sportingmindsuk.org
- Within 48 hours you will have a consultation phone call with a professional
- Bupa will then determine what next steps are needed (for example 12 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy)
- This is entirely funded by Sporting Minds
- The player is also provided with access to a 24/7 helpline
Lea stressed that ‘it’s by no means a one-size-fits-all approach. Each case, whether it be a dancer, swimmer or rugby player is assessed individually and the treatment is custom made for the player.’
Whilst the lockdown has put various fundraisers on hold, Sporting Minds is still finding ways to help those in need. Get off ASOS and shop with purpose by purchasing some of the charity’s merchandise by visiting https://www.sportingmindsuk.org/shop/ (I ordered the white hoodie and was absolutely thrilled with how it looked).
In these difficult times especially, Lea urges young athletes to reach out to the charity to ensure they get the help they need. Thanks to Sporting Minds, you do not need to be alone.