Tuesday, September 28, 2021

How Black Sticks star’s open letter resonated with Olympians

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Lucas Ball
Lucas Ball is a freelance sports journalist

“This is one of the lowest times you’ve ever felt” wrote former New Zealand hockey player Brooke Neal in her open letter titled ‘Dear Olympian’.

Her social media post last month went viral and resonated with athletes who have experienced post-Olympic blues.

Neal’s letter – she retired from the Black Sticks in May 2020 – aimed to ease the concerns of Olympians following the games, with the New Zealander adding that she wished she received this letter post Rio 2016.

The defender, who earned 176 caps for her country, wrote: “I just wanted to pop in and check on you.

“So you might be a little confused right about now. You’ve just competed at the world’s biggest sporting event and yet, this is one of the lowest times you’ve ever felt.

“You have been in this bubble, your own little world, with 10,000 athletes who are at the top of their game. You have poured blood, sweat and tears to get there, but you weren’t really prepared for the day after. For the week after. For the months after this huge spectacle.

“You weren’t prepared for life to continue as if nothing happened. When you walk down the street and from the outside, you still look the same. But your insides are still processing all that you’ve been through, and no one can see that. ‘They don’t understand’, you might think. Not even your close friends and family.

“This is the hard part – because unless they have experienced the Olympics before, how can they possibly understand? Yet somehow, you get frustrated at them and you’re unsure what they even did that was wrong. It’s ok, it’s part of the process. Continue to connect with them and walk them through your feelings.

“You find yourself with 56 unread messages, not wanting to open them and reply politely. You consider copying and pasting the same response, and then you give up. You are surrounded with so much love and support, but somehow, you still feel alone. Scrolling through your phone mindlessly to fill the gap that you have that hurts.

“You cringe at the messages that ask, ‘How was it?’ ‘Unlucky, you fought so hard’ ‘How does it feel to be an Olympian?’ You don’t know how to answer because you have mixed feelings.

“On one hand, you think, ‘Yeah, that was frickin epic. What an experience” but on the other hand, your heart has been ripped to shreds from the rollercoaster you’ve been on and you’re on the verge of tears over the smallest things. Like you’re a tree that hasn’t put its roots down and the smallest gust of wind could knock you over.

“You feel a little selfish, don’t you? Because your relationships have been pretty one-sided lately. It’s been all about you. Just remember that in relationships, there is always give and take. You will have your chance to give back to them in time. Perhaps you can focus on planning an exciting adventure together with a loved one, and create some conversations that don’t involve what you’ve just been through.

“A bit of advice… talk to those who have been there before you. Connect in with your teammates – after all, they’re no doubt experiencing these feelings too.

“Your body is limping, aching, bruised and begging for your attention. Pleading with you to rest. So you’ve been sleeping all day, but you’re still exhausted. That’s normal, don’t worry. I want you to know is that guilt you’ve been carrying – you can let go of that.

“The guilt that you feel for not wanting to make breakfast, let alone exercise – it’s a normal emotion to feel, but we can let that go. You have just spent 100% your energy, focus, time and heart to be at the top of your game. You deserve to rest, without the guilt.

“What’s the point of exercising anyway, you might ask? We have had this huge goal to get out of bed for the last 4 years, and now you have some time to yourself, you’re thinking – what’s the point? Remember how good it feels to walk in the sand. To stretch your muscles. Start small, and take that stopwatch off your wrist, ok? Just give it a try! You don’t need to be hitting targets, you need to be connecting back in with your body.”

The post has almost 50,000 likes on Instagram and hundreds of comments from fellow sporting personnel, many expressing their familiarity with the issues explained.

In a further post, the 29-year-old added: ‘Never have I been more hopeful that our voices can create change. I am truly blown away at the reach of my letter ‘Dear Olympian’, as I initially wrote it just as a letter to my younger self.

‘I have heard from thousands of people from around the world who have had conversations with their loved ones about what they are feeling. Whether it was a mother who didn’t understand what their daughter was going through and now she does, or the countless Olympians (many who have medalled) who thought they were alone in these feelings.

‘Yes, as Olympians, we are extremely grateful for getting the opportunity to do what most only dream of. But because of this, we also hold onto this immense guilt that we should feel nothing but gratitude. When we feel empty, lonely and sad, it’s so hard to communicate this to others because from their perspective, what they see is someone who got the opportunity of a lifetime.

‘So, let’s get to work! It starts with us. Using our voice to make change. We can prioritise ad normalise these conversations. Athletes are humans first, let’s not forget that.’

Former Hockeyroos player Georgie Parker was among those to comment, as well as a number of high-profile British athletes such as Dame Kelly Holmes and Siobhan Marie O’Connor.

Hannah Martin, who played for Great Britain in Tokyo, added a comment whilst Pippa Hayward – a former teammate of now wellbeing coach Neal – wrote: ‘Amazing Brooke! Keep up the fab work’.

Neal’s posts also come in the wake of the more open struggles of Simone Biles, who pulled out of a number of events in Tokyo to focus on her mental wellbeing, whilst cricket’s Ben Stokes is currently taking an ‘indefinite break’ for the same reason.

Simply, it shows that – like us – these athletes are only human and have their own battles. They deserve our respect and support through both the good and the bad times.

Neal did end her initial letter with a message of hope: “What I know for sure is that everything you’re feeling will pass. You will start to feel better, I promise. Take it one step at a time, one day at a time, and remember that you are exactly where you are meant to be.”

If you are struggling with your mental health, Mind’s website has some helpful advice

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