British Cycling has unveiled a new Mental Health Strategy today to provide support to members of the national cycling team, the latest in a series of reforms to the way it cares for athletes following an independent review of its medical procedures, concluded in June 2017, following criticism from both a House of Commons Select Committee and UK Anti-doping.
That review was published just one week before the release of the final report of the independent review of the organisation undertaken following the allegations of bullying and harassment aired by former track sprinter Jess Varnish and others three years ago.
The new strategy, been drawn up with input from UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport (EIS), comes at a time when the mental welfare of elite cyclists elsewhere has been in the news with the suicide earlier this year of American world champion track cyclist Kelly Catlin.
Following her death, four-time Olympic champion Laura Kenny urged Britain’s national governing body to protect riders who might be having similar thoughts, telling Telegraph Sport: “I just hope someone at British Cycling saw that. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with British Cycling. But did USA Cycling even know how she was feeling?
“Were there any warning signs that they missed? Because I would hate to think that there was someone on our squad who feels that way; who feels they have no one to turn to …”
Outlining the strategy today, Doctor Nigel Jones, who in 2017 was appointed the first head of medical services for the Great Britain Cycling Team, said: “We took the decision to revise our approach to athlete mental health and well-being based on the acknowledgement that, as an elite sports team, we operate in a high challenge, high support environment.
“Much like we encourage a proactive approach to other areas of health and well-being, such as saddle health or injury prevention, we have applied the same philosophy to proactively managing mental health and well-being in order to try to prevent issues in the future.
“With support from UK Sport, English Institute of Sport (EIS) and British Cycling’s Clinical Governance Committee, our mental health strategy now focuses on the development of resilient people through a more psychologically informed environment.”
He continued: “The aim is to move away from the more traditional approach of reactively providing external support to those diagnosed with a mental health ‘disorder’ and to instead shift the focus to a proactive approach of educating our coaches and support staff to allow for better understanding, toleration, containment and ultimately decreasing the prevalence and impact of challenging behaviours and mental distress.
“The first key area of focus is to support and develop those primarily responsible for the provision of mental health support. We now have two full-time sports psychologists, Rich Hampson and Lara Barrett, employed by the EIS to work full-time with the Great Britain Cycling Team, which is double the provision we had this time eight months ago.
“For specific cases, UK Sport will be providing monthly access to a clinical psychologist to offer supervision which will in turn provide improved, more informed support for our athletes.
“The second key area is educating the wider coaching and support team around general principles of human development and creating the optimal high challenge, high support environment. The aim here is for the staff to develop a better understanding of specific presenting difficulties within individual athletes, and to facilitate sessions with all support providers across the team to develop appropriate action plans.
“Thirdly, new athletes joining the programme will undergo a mental health screening and existing programme athletes will be screened on a six-monthly basis, allowing us to identify athletes who are struggling mentally but may not recognise this themselves.
“Finally, we will be providing clearly signposted mental health pathways which enable the athlete to feel comfortable when seeking help and know the range of options available to them
“As a firm believer that putting the health and well-being of our athletes first is the right thing to do and the best way to achieve success, I am confident this revised strategy will enhance the mental health and well-being of our athletes for their own personal benefit as well as supporting their cycling ambitions.”
The new strategy follows the implementation of other medical initiatives including concussion and cardiac screening policies, a standard operating procedure for medical incidents whilst training at the HSBC UK National Cycling Centre, standardised illness and injury advice for riders when training and competing elsewhere and setting up a Clinical Governance Committee
Great Britain Cycling Team Performance Director, Stephen Park, said: “The implementation of our revised mental health strategy is another step forward in our commitment to putting athlete welfare at the heart of what we do.
“It’s important that we create a culture and environment in which our athletes feel supported, and one which they want to be a part of. Psychology plays an integral part in that, so I’m pleased with the progress Nigel, Rich and their teams have made in this area.
“The revised mental health strategy is just one piece of the jigsaw in terms of how we’re constantly looking for improvements in the support we can offer to our riders. It’s not to say that we have all the answers, but rather we are committed to making improvements in the services we are able to offer.”
He added: “Our ambition is to top the medal tables once again in Tokyo 2020, and we now have some solid foundations in place to support our athletes in achieving our ambitions.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.