“At the start line, all you can think about is the blood, sweat and tears that you’ve put in; that you’ve done everything you can possibly do and that this may be your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
This is what Team GB triathlete Alistair Brownlee says was going through his head at the start of the 2012 Olympics triathlon, where one hour 46 minutes later he took home the gold. Amid external pressures – the crowd, the media, his coaches and his family – the most significant pressure, he says, was “the one I put on myself.”
Olympic athletes like Alistair push themselves to their limits everyday, and the act of breaking through barriers – physical, mental and emotional – is truly inspiring. They are ordinary people achieving extraordinary things, and their stories are proof that seemingly insurmountable obstacles are, in fact, possible to overcome.
Through their athletes’ stories of achievements, resilience and setbacks, Team GB are on a mission to inspire and touch every individual in the UK and promote not just physical but also emotional and mental health.
“The aim is to embed mental and emotional health into everything that we do, on top of the physical,” explains Lauren Thomas, Social Impact Manager for Team GB. “We want to speak about health and wellbeing on a holistic level, rather than within their own silos.”
Team GB’s extensive research has shown that people aged 10 to 25 are most in need of urgent support for their physical, mental and emotional health. These findings led them to partner with YoungMinds, the UK’s leading young people’s mental health charity, and StreetGames, a charity that seeks to harness the power of sport to change the lives of young people and their communities.
“The aim is to embed mental and emotional health into everything that we do, on top of the physical.”Lauren Thomas, Social Impact Manager at Team GB
Young people’s mental health
“Although physical activity levels in the UK haven’t massively changed in the last ten years, mental health and GP referrals for young people have been ever increasing,” Lauren points out.
According to NHS research in 2021, five children in every classroom suffer from a mental health issue. But what is causing this mental health crisis?
“Young people had already been having a tough few years. Then the pandemic hit and things got astronomically worse,” says Tom Madders, Campaigns Director at YoungMinds. “They’re feeling like they’re experiencing a world that hasn’t been set up for them. They are shut out of politics and worried about climate change, polarisation and their future employment prospects.
“The prevalence of mental health conditions among young people is at the highest it’s ever been. We saw a spike from one in nine young people with a mental health problem in 2016, right up to one in six just after the pandemic in 2021. At the heart of these statistics, however, are the young people who are waiting for support and not getting it.”
“The prevalence of mental health conditions among young people is at the highest it’s ever been.”Tom Madders, Campaign Director at YoungMinds
So how can a sports organisation help young people struggling with their mental health? Team GB’s research shows that people are looking for athletes to open up beyond the medal-winning moments: 63% of people surveyed would like to hear Team GB athletes talk about mental and emotional health.
Team GB’s partnership with charity StreetGames also uses the power of storytelling to inspire and change lives. “Many athletes didn’t have an easy route into sport and have amazing stories of overcoming adversity – it’s about using those stories to inspire young people,” says Lizzie Simmonds, a double Olympian and one of Britain’s most successful swimmers.
John Cove, Chair of StreetGames, believes that the partnership can help “bridge the sporting inequality gap, deliver vibrant sports sessions, and share authentic stories that inspire and empower.”
The power of collaboration
A few months prior to the 2012 Summer Olympics, triathlete Alistair damaged a tendon, rendering him unable to train for weeks. “I had a lot of dark nights of worrying, not sleeping. This was my chance, my only shot at the Olympic Games. It was all going wrong.”
Many athletes have a story to tell that can change each young person’s life – the heart of these stories are often about building confidence and resilience. “When young people are struggling, it can help to see someone who is a bit like them and seeing them overcome stories of hardship,” says Tom from YoungMinds.
By working closely with YoungMinds, Team GB are able to legitimately and respectfully communicate their mental health messaging. “For young people in low moments, they might not want to see notions of ‘aspiring to be your best self’,” Tom adds. “Sometimes all they can bear to do is get out of bed for the day.”
“This is about instilling belief in young people that they can thrive in life.”Lizzie Simmonds Olympic Swimmer
In response, Team GB gathered feedback directly from young people on what they thought of the term ‘resilience’. “They actually like it,” Lauren explains, “as resilience isn’t just about bouncing back, but also understanding the importance of recuperation, rest and setting achievable goals.”
Through effective communication and powerful storytelling from the athletes – and getting young people as involved in sport as possible – Team GB are working to improve the overall wellbeing of the nation’s youth. Indeed, the 2019 Active Lives survey by Sport England shows the power of sport in leading young people to be “happier, more resilient and more trusting of others, with higher levels of mental wellbeing, individual development and community development.”
Team GB hope that the impact of the strategy will leave a legacy of profound and ingrained change: “Imagine what will come of the deep resilience that we’re fostering in our young people, and what that could leave for future generations,” says Andrea Hartley, Founder and CEO of Skating Panda, the social impact consultancy that is supporting Team GB in their strategy.
“Every single national Olympic body has extraordinary power, that they might not even realise, to deliver significant social change at the grassroots and a global level.”
Our next generation
This is only the beginning for Team GB in helping to drive the health and well being of the nation – but their partnerships with YoungMinds and StreetGames form the bedrock for ensuring their strategy stays holistic and inclusive.
“We can’t do everything on our own,” says CEO and Secretary General of the British Olympic Association Andy Anson. “But if we want to target broader audiences and maximise our impact, we need to work with partners. That’s how social impact becomes part of our everyday activity.”
“This goes far beyond inspiring the next generation of Olympians,” Lizzie concludes. “This is about instilling belief in young people that they can thrive in life.”