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Mental Health: Parallels between sports and business

In June, Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, and a month later, Simone Biles withdrew from the Gymnastics Olympics final, both citing mental health illness as the reason. In fact, a recent systemic review by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that the prevalence of anxiety and depression among elite athletes sits at around 34% in current athletes and 26% in former athletes.

So it’s clear these are not just isolated cases, but representative of the broader mental health issues we see within young adults, whereby the internal pressure to perform to unrelenting high standards is unsustainable. With the rise of social media and its birth of cancel culture, young people have learnt that one mistake or one wrong move can be life changing, creating an unsurmountable pressure.  

Nick Gold, MD of Speakers Corner, a UK & International speaker bureau that has seen the number of mental health speakers booked by businesses rise exponentially over the last few years, will discuss the lessons business leaders can take from these high-profile cases, and illustrate why ‘failure’ is an important lesson for anyone to embrace.


It has always been accepted that, within the competitive world of sport, talent would find a way to rise to the top.  Fans and the media spend their time debating who is the G.O.A.T, the best matches, the most entertaining teams, and what true glory means. In our position as casual fan ‘experts’ however, the most talented were also the most successful.

But the dawn of the 21st century saw new conversations about the quest to rise to the top in the sporting arena.  The rise of sports psychologists and new ways of coaching bought a recognition that talent alone was not enough for those with raw talent to fulfil their potential.  Those who rose to the top of their respective sports and maintained their high levels of excellence, combined their level of elite physical abilities with mental resilience and strength which both underpinned as well as enhanced their position as an elite sports person.

Over the last twenty years, there has been an ever increasing understanding and learning that for these elite athletes to succeed and thrive, ensuring their mental strength is in peak condition is as important, if not more important than the physical preparation.

Alongside this, as the digital revolution continues to transform the way we live and interact, the boundaries between different layers of society and the opportunities to communicate with each other become ever more accessible.  For professional sports people (or for anyone in the public eye), this has meant exposure to both the positive and negative of the digital world.   The pressure that already existed in their quest to rise to the top of their profession has had an additional layer where everyone, from the casual observer through the dedicated fans to ex professionals and experts have a say and a voice on their performance or abilities.

In the business world, lessons from the world of sport, that had historically been readily embraced as an opportunity for key learnings within teamwork and high performance, brought the field of employee’s mental health to the forefront.  This was especially true for those businesses where they perceived their staff were working in high pressure environments.

This appreciation that mental health and wellbeing increased exponentially as the pandemic hit as all companies, across all industries, were faced with new challenges and unforeseen business circumstances.  Individuals were having to work in new surroundings, with new pressures and levels of uncertainty that only the previous days, weeks and months, were not even in their field of vision as something to consider.

The world of sport had embraced the phrase ‘scared to fail’ to turn the concept of failure into a positive attribute ensuring every opportunity was a chance to learn and improve rather than a fear of not succeeding.  The business world quickly understood that in a time of unknown, they needed their teams to be brave, to be resilient, to embrace learning and opportunities and to resist being fearful of failure.

Over the last few weeks, the sporting world has bought to the forefront once again the pressures for elite athletes to compete.   In the cases of the sport superstars, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, there was complete clarity over the impact on an individual’s mental state and the ability to deliver in their respective fields. This isn’t new of course. Many of us will remember English cricketers flying home from overseas tours due to ill health. But the striking nature, particularly for Simone Biles, to pull out of an Olympic final, only highlights to serve how our wellbeing, just like a hamstring strain, can occur at any time.

We understand that the merging of delivering performance both from a physical as well as a mental perspective is critical to the success of the individual and the task.  These experiences that elite athletes have had in the public eye for the whole world to watch and observe will hopefully help us all as individuals and as businesses to enhance our knowledge and create environments where everyone has the support and structure in place for them to succeed.



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