Springbok Women’s rugby player Babalwa Latsha. File image.
Springbok Women’s rugby player Babalwa Latsha. File image.

South Africa’s top athletes speak out on mental health issues

By Sameer Naik Time of article published Sep 18, 2021

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Johannesburg - The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s mental health, causing stress levels to soar to levels never seen before, and elite athletes are not immune, with many of them dealing with a loss of motivation and a sense of despondency.

Several top athletes have even withdrawn from major sporting events, citing mental health issues as the reason.

This week, the Saturday Star caught up with some of South Africa’s top athletes to find out what impact the pandemic has had on their mental health and what they are doing to keep mentally sharp during testing times.

They highlight the importance of being vocal about mental health issues.

Babalwa Latsha- Springbok Women’s rugby player

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on all aspects of life, particularly as an athlete. We’ve been kept away from what we love for quite some time, and that has taken its toll in terms of trying to reinvent ourselves and adapt and still make sure we keep up with the required physical standards.

The biggest thing that I have done to ensure that I keep mentally sharp was to tap into my hobbies other than rugby and other passions. I have developed a knack for writing, and I’ve had one or two of my articles published in Cape Sport at Six. I did a lot of reading, a lot of introspection, and just re-evaluating my goals and my dreams. Also, just taking some time to meditate and look after myself, so that when the time came when I got back into the swing of things, I am at my sharpest mentally.

I think it’s of critical importance that athletes speak out about issues that affect their mental health, because naturally, when you are an athlete, you are elevated into a platform that allows you to have a great audience, and with that comes the responsibility of creating awareness around critical issues affecting society and ourselves, and I think mental health issues are one of those issues.

It’s okay to be vulnerable and to seek help and having mental health issues, and speaking up about it is not a sign of weakness. If anything, it’s a sign of strength that you are acknowledging that you need help, and that’s okay.

Protea Women’s wicketkeeper Sinalo Jafta. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Sinalo Jafta - Protea Women’s wicketkeeper

I think I speak for many athletes that the toughest thing was just struggling to cope. I went from playing cricket every day, going to the gym, to not being able to do anything. And the President said it would only be 21 days. But once the lockdown was extended, I think that is when it really affected me. It was an overwhelming feeling.

I didn’t do anything to keep mentally sharp, to be honest. I think it was only once we returned to playing and I was finding my feet again in cricket did I start questioning why I didn’t do anything.

Everyone is so big on physical health, but we always neglect the mental part of it, and I think that was the toughest thing to adapt to.

I think the more we keep quiet about issues such as mental health, the more we cripple our growth. More athletes are coming out and asking for mental breaks, and I think it does wonders for your career, because you start identifying things that you need to address.

I am working with a psychologist now, and I think I’m actually seeing the gaps. And working towards it is a big step, but it has to be taken.

Dricus du Plessis UFC middleweight and former EFC champion. Photo: EFC

Dricus Du Plessis - UFC middleweight and former EFC champion

The Covid-19 pandemic made me realise how lucky I am to have a healthy body, mind and how much I love my career as a professional athlete.

Not being able to fight for over ten months really made me re-evaluate everything and motivated me even more. It made me realise how much I love to compete and to never take my career for granted.

My performance was affected but in a positive way. I am ten times the athlete I was before the pandemic. I had time to work on the things we don’t always get a chance to when you are constantly getting ready for a fight. My whole game became more perfect. I could spend time on all the technical aspects, not worried about getting fit and ready for a fight.

I kept mentally sharp by keeping my eye on the goal. The situation you are in should never take your eyes and mind off the main goal, and my main goal is being the greatest fighter the world has ever known.

It’s crucial that athletes speak out about mental health issues. Probably the most important thing about being an athlete is mental health and mental strength. This game is 70% mental and 30% physical, both are important, but if you’re not mentally in the right space, you can be the strongest, fittest, and most skilled athlete in the world, but you will crumble.

Bridgitte Hartley - London Olympics Medallist In K1 W 500m, South African sprint paddler, Three-time Olympian.(AP Photo/Armando Franca,)

Bridgitte Hartley - London Olympics Medallist in K1 W 500m, South African sprint paddler, Three-time Olympian

It was extremely challenging initially when lockdown started as I was still training to re-qualify for the Tokyo Olympics training.

When they announced the postponement of the Games, it was a big blow. There was no reason to wake up and train every day, and financially, I had to find a job as focusing for a few more months to be an SA athlete with not much funding was not an option anymore. I started to hate being contacted by the media as it was already such a challenging time, and no one really understands unless you are in that situation.

I then got an awesome online coaching job with Jeff Together, guiding people through training programs and eating patterns, which was amazing.

But I struggled to sit at a desk for most of the day. I tried to get back into training, but I ended up buying a mountain bike and enjoyed spending time with groups cycling in the Karkloof, and I spent less time paddling as I didn’t feel like it.

I think it’s very important for us to speak out about mental health issues as athletes are always made out to be these tough individuals as we train at such a high level and push our bodies to the extremes. Admitting mental health issues is thought to be a weakness. Many athletes won’t mention this until some of their role models speak up.

But just speaking about it is not the solution. It’s important that the correct person or people are spoken to so that the athletes can get nurtured and guided in the correct direction.

Pro skateboarder Jean-marc Johannes. Supplied image.

Jean-marc Johannes: Professional skateboarder

My performance hasn't been affected negatively by the pandemic. I've dedicated a lot more time to training, both on and off the board.

I have been using the Nike training App to assist me with my physical training, and I have a simple home-made rail that I used during the lockdown to keep my rail tricks in check.

Speaking out about mental health issues is as important as anything else in our sport. It is real, and if it is not spoken about or acknowledged, it may have a harmful long-term effect.

Zane Waddell - SA swimmer. An 11-time All-American at Alabama and a world champion in the men's 50-meter backstroke (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Zane Waddell - SA swimmer. An 11-time All-American at Alabama and a world champion in the men's 50-meter backstroke

The pandemic had a huge impact on my mental health. It has stopped me from training and ultimately stopped me from swimming due to financial reasons. It prevented me from proper training and access to training facilities.

I did a ton of meditation and breathing exercises. Meditation helped me stay focused and ready.

It is incredibly important for athletes to speak out. It could be leveraged as a source of encouragement, especially from an athlete with a significant platform.

Keenan Horne- Protea Men’s Hockey player. Photo: Caleb Sheperd

Keenan Horne- Protea Men’s Hockey player

The hardest part about being a “professional” hockey player in South Africa is that you don’t get paid to play if you are based in South Africa. To really put in the necessary training and commitment, you sacrifice starting your career outside of your sport, and therefore, essentially put your life on hold.

I was incredibly lucky to be playing in the UK just before the pandemic, and I came home before the borders shut. The pandemic did derail my plans to return to Europe and earn a living while preparing for the Tokyo Olympics. Since returning from the UK in April, I spent about eight months just training without real competitive matches. Thankfully, I have a huge support system that always kept me mentally sharp.

It is incredibly important that athletes speak out about mental health. A lot of things get said about athletes in the media and social media. They are doing their “work” with the entire world judging them. Nobody that does a normal office job has that type of pressure or that type of hype surrounding their every performance.

With the world waiting to write headlines, the more athletes speak about the way they feel, we will get a lot more support. We are people, entertaining and doing what we love. Not robots designed to be perfect.

Igeu Kabesa - Former EFC Featherweight Champion. (Photo by Anton Geyser/EFC Worldwide/Gallo Images)

Igeu Kabesa - Former EFC Featherweight Champion

Before the pandemic, my mental state was on point. I woke up at four every morning and started my training. I had my schedule planned out, and I was working hard at the gym because I was always in my office. As Covid-19 hit, the gyms closed and all I could do was go for a jog and train at home, and that was hard.

My performance was definitely impacted, and that showed in my last fight. To keep mentally and physically sharp, I asked my wife to join me with training and to just be around me. My kids also got involved, and we now train as a family. It is important for athletes to talk about their mental state. We forget that we are also human, and talking about things and making sure our minds are healthy is important.

Luthando Biko in action. Picture supplied.

Luthando Biko - Former EFC Bantamweight champion

The pandemic prepared me mentally for tougher situations because I’ve lost loved ones. Two of my aunts and my uncle passed away, and so it made me mentally stronger, and now I feel hungrier than ever before to succeed.

I trained at home to stay focused and mentally sharp because I knew I would be returning to the ring eventually, and I needed to be prepared.

As athletes, we need to open up to anyone close that we trust. When your mind is not in the right space, it shows performance-wise.

The Saturday Star

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