Rebecca Adlington: Why I’m backing mental health

My earliest memories are of being in the water. I learned to swim at three and grew up around the pool.

I grew up in a small town where leisure activities were few and far between – but there were two swimming pools! Everyone swims, and my two sisters were no different. Growing up, I wanted to be just like them, and so I swam too. Weekends, birthday parties, days out with friends, it all centred around the pool.

For me, competitions, meets, junior competitions and making teams were all a natural part of the progression. Swimming was always a natural thing for me, but it’s also always been a chance to meditate or take out my frustrations and emotions.

Making the GB team for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was another step along the way, but success was so unexpected. I was targeting a Bronze medal, but I came away with a new world record two gold medals! In the whirlwind, I went from being a swimmer no-one had heard of to the first British Gold medallist in the pool in 48 years, and the first British double Gold Medallist in the pool in a century.

Four years later, I was much better known and had to deal with the pressure of expectation – but I won two medals at London 2012, in front of an incredible home crowd.

But after that, my journey would go down a different path.

When you've always been known as being something - in my case an athlete - you introduce yourself in a certain way: “Hi I’m Becky Adlington, I’m a swimmer”. It seems so simple, but that's who you are; it’s your identity, and you live and breathe it 24/7. Being an athlete in particular brings its own extra challenges - even on your days off you think, “how is this going to impact my performance.”

And then you retire.

So where do I go? Who am I now?

It took a long time to realise I’m not Becky Adlington the athlete anymore, I'm just Becky. But who is Becky and what does she want to do?

I tried a lot of different things, knowing only that what I wanted to do was make an impact.

Doing media work with the BBC and going on I'm A Celebrity helped me to find out who I was away from sport. But I also knew being a businesswoman was something I was really passionate about and something I always wanted to do. So how could I fit that altogether?

Being a single parent was also something to factor into that mix, but it helped me to realise you can’t do everything at once. I’m a mum when I put my mum hat on, but I'm also a businesswoman when I go into work.

I like the fact that sometimes I have different hats and I accept the fact that you can't be everything in one: I try to find that balance because it’s so easy to burn out if you don’t.

Business during Covid

I also knew I wanted to set up a learn-to-swim programme. That independence, to go from athlete to business owner straight away, is a very daunting path to go down but the statistics were awful - over a million kids leave primary school unable to swim. I knew I wanted to go into that rather than stay in elite sport as a coach, and having that focus helped.

I’m very grateful I had something I knew I wanted to do straight away. I set up Becky Adlington’s SwimStars with my business partner Steve Parry pretty much a couple of months after London 2012.

While it’s definitely had its challenges over the years, and it’s not a walk in the park, it’s been so rewarding. The world of an athlete - certainly in individual sports - can be quite a selfish one. Everything revolves around you and your performance. It’s great to know that, as an athlete, I've inspired people to achieve their goals or get active, but now I’ll see this little boy who used to be too scared to get into the pool and now he’s swimming. People always ask how I replicate the feeling of winning a gold medal but that feeling is my gold medal now - and I get it that feeling every week!

That was before Covid-19 turned the lives of so many people upside down.

As a business owner, and especially with leisure facilities completely closed until 25 July, that’s brought its challenges. I think during Covid the most important thing we had to learn was about being adaptable.

At the start of lockdown, it seemed like there was new information every single day and in those first weeks, I think we all just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry because of the situation.

But that situation also allowed us to understand that we are all human. We decided to stop talking business and start talking human - to open up and say that this is a scary time so let’s be honest about that. Everyone’s been impacted and everyone’s had anxieties, whether that’s about their health or their business. And if we’re scared, so are our customers.

We've all had to learn a little bit of patience and focus on the things we can control instead of the things that we can't.

My Mental Health Journey

Throughout lockdown, I’ve also learned to accept that some days I just feel down. And that’s okay.

It’s okay to be down. You don’t have to be positive and happy every single day. That’s just not possible during lockdown - in fact it’s not possible at any time, and it’s okay to accept that.

On other days, though, I felt really productive. It’s helped to accept that each day is different and will come with a different challenge. So I’ve rolled with that, accepting the good with the bad.

The anxieties of lockdown might be unique, but mental health certainly predates Covid. In my own journey, I’ve had to deal with panic and fear as well as the guilt that I think a lot of people feel when they open up about their mental health. They think, because they're not going through some sort of trauma or physical illness, they can’t open up. But that doesn't mean whatever you’re feeling isn't affecting your life.

During my career, I was lucky that my coach understood the importance of mental resilience to elite performance. After winning in Beijing he sat me down and said ‘Becky, I really think you need a sports psychologist’. At first, I thought ‘why? Is there something wrong with me?!’ but he just said, ‘No, I’ve never coached a double Olympic Champion. I’m your coach and will support you, but I can’t help you through what’s going on outside of this.’

As soon as I sat down with the sports psychologist, I immediately got it. It took my coach to initiate it, but it really helped complete my support team.

And because I always liked the sports psychology side to competing, I realised I wanted to go to therapy and open up about my experiences outside of sport. It’s not a quick journey, but around four months in I stopped having panic attacks and I haven't had one in over a year - I'm very grateful for that.

I’m also grateful for the fact it’s given me tools to use if I feel panicky. Even simple things like, if I feel anxious, I’ll switch to the other side of my brain and play a game for a while. I never knew about these techniques before and now I even do them with my daughter.

If I know I don’t feel quite right, I'll talk to Summer and take her through the alphabet. I’ll think of an animal for every letter and it totally distracts me. Once we finish, I’ll feel calm.

I can use it on her if she’s having a tantrum too! I’ll say “find me five things in the room that are pink,” and it calms her down as well and grounds her again - just like it does for me.

Everyone's been affected by their mental health in some way, but breaking down the stigmas attached to it is something I’m passionate about.

With our lives today, especially across social media, you see the image people want to project to you, so your feed is full of people with perfect lives, everyone's beautiful and everything's merry. But nobody's life is exactly that. We should admit the good with the bad because that makes you who you are.

It can also make us quite blasé about genuinely caring for other people in our lives - especially those we work with. Asking people how they are can sometimes get thrown around too easily and we all do it: we ask ‘hi, you okay?’ but I know that, personally, I’ll only ever say ‘I’m fine’. We don’t always take the time to genuinely care about how somebody’s feeling because work takes over. And we don’t take the time to genuinely talk about it because we don’t take the time to genuinely check in about it.

That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about being an Ambassador for the 2020 Not A Red Card campaign: to help break down the stigmas present when it comes to talking about mental health in the workplace.

Being more open and honest about our mental health has positive knock-on effects, too. To me, ‘being well’ means being physically, emotionally and mentally in a good place. If you get what you need personally and professionally as well as ensuring you stay active, you’re catering to the whole mental, emotional and physical package.

By just being a bit more open and sharing those different things can make a massive difference, especially in the workplace.

It’s useful to open up and say, “I’m struggling a bit at the minute.” And we're going to find that more as we move out of lockdown - especially with colleagues coming back from furlough. We need to stop and breathe, and as managers we need to ask, “what do you need from me to help you?”

You don't get a medal for good mental health, but genuinely taking that time to care about those around you is incredibly important and goes a long way.