Courageous leadership is key in ensuring we protect our athletes and the culture and ethics of our high performance system

EIS ()

In Mental Health Awareness Week, John Steele, Chairman of the English Institute of Sport (EIS), which is a signatory of the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation, highlights work being done in the high performance system to protect athlete welfare and sets out ways that more can be done in the Tokyo cycle

It tells you a lot about the changing landscape of elite sport that we now recognise that Mental Health Awareness Week is relevant to our world, whereas 10 years ago it would have passed with little notice.

Preserving and protecting the mental health and wellbeing of our people is now widely accepted as a central component of success in high performance sport.

There are many reasons for this and it cannot be denied that some of the high profile incidents of the last 12 months, which have questioned the appropriateness of culture and behaviours in some sports, have helped to drive it up the agenda. However it is also clear that there are numerous examples of excellent athlete welfare practices that exist across our Olympic and Paralympic sports. As an organisation that is embedded in the high performance system the EIS has been central to developing critical support, and along with organisations like the British Athletes Commission (BAC), has played an important role in delivering a duty of care to athletes in recent years.

Through our team of Performance Lifestyle Advisors we have provided a wide range of support to athletes throughout the London and Rio cycles and will continue to do so in run-up to Tokyo when these services will be available to more than 1,300 Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Along with this, our Doctors provide care to athletes and our Performance Psychology team deliver a wide range of services to help them prepare mentally for the demands of training and competition.

We also oversee the Mental Health Referral Programme (MHRP), which was established in 2014 and provides specialist primary and secondary care services to elite athletes that are struggling with mental health issues including depression, stress, anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders and addictions.

These services have all helped to deliver a duty of care to elite athletes, however we recognise that mental health challenges are likely to become greater and more complex in years to come and recognise that much more will need to be done.

Over the last three Olympic and Paralympic cycles we have seen unprecedented success. After each achievement in performance, coaches, athletes and staff all look to how the next incremental step forward can be made. The margins between success and failure are minute, and the challenge for coaches and Performance Directors to lift their athletes to podium success is becoming more and more intense. The fight against doping and drugs cheats must be fought and won, but there is also another cultural challenge that needs equal attention. The grey area that exists, where the line between pushing athletes to achieve in an intensely hard environment and a bullying culture can become blurred. It is sometimes difficult to define bullying and other unacceptable behaviours. There is no formula or objective measure. One person’s bullying is another’s acceptable hardship in the quest for increased resilience and success. Intent and impact are key considerations in trying to grasp where the line is drawn. As a whole the system has relied on traditions and inherited cultures to define what is acceptable. 

We have seen unprecedented support and enthusiasm from the government and the great British public over the last 12 years. We must protect the reputation and culture of our sports or we run the risk of the great British public becoming disillusioned and falling out of love with the Olympic and Paralympic movement.

This is not a situation that any of us want to see and that is why I believe there is more we must do to be on the front-foot and proactively shape and influence the culture of high performance sport in a way that prioritises athlete welfare.

  • Firstly, organisations can do more to review and evaluate their culture and behaviours.  This does happen in some funded sports and the lessons are being fed into the development of a ‘cultural health check’ being developed by UK Sport.  This will be made available to all funded sports and provide a means to benchmark the wellbeing of athletes and the culture of the world class programmes and develop plans for improvement.
  • Secondly, the system needs to be better at acting upon issues when they arise and ensure it creates and facilitates a culture where athletes, coaches and support staff are able to raise concerns because they feel confident that these will be treated seriously, looked-into and, where necessary, acted upon. There is a need for Boards and Executives to ensure transparency and focus when appropriate.
  • Finally, we need to be better at developing solutions and finding ways to address problems of inappropriate behaviour, whether it is through training and education programmes or organisations doing more to embed their core values into every aspect of the way they operate.  There are examples in the high performance system where this kind of best practice already exists and finding ways to share and replicate this is one of the challenges we should work together to address.

Underpinning all of this is a need for what I would describe as ‘courageous leadership’ from Chief Executives, Performance Directors and all of us in positions of influence within the high performance system. Decisions and plans that appear to be the “hard option” will need to be grasped. If we want a reminder of courageous leadership we only need to look back to Rio and the decision by the President of the International Paralympic Committee, Sir Phillip Craven, to ban all Russian athletes from competing at the Rio 2016 Paralympics following the country's doping scandal.  Decisions of this magnitude take courage and a willingness to act in the interest of “doing what’s right” and not opt for the easier alternative.

MHC CC & OP ()
Clarke Carlisle and Ollie Phillips during recent Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation event

As we look forward to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, I have no doubt that delivering a duty of care and seeking to protect and preserve the wellbeing of our athletes is one of the most significant priorities of the high performance system and firmly believe the success of Great Britain in Tokyo will be judged on the level of our ethical approach as well as our performance in the medal table.

Our system has become expert at identifying and implementing what it takes to win. The challenge now is to become equally adept at understanding what we will not do to win.