Is there a hidden link between physical and mental wellbeing?

Published: 21/08/2020
Author: John Barclay, Engage4 brand ambassador

The latest blog from John Barclay, our Engage4 brand ambassador. Sharing his personal journey from injury to recover.

As a sportsman, the focus was undoubtedly on the physical side of the game. Looking back on a 16 year career, I wonder if I missed a trick and paid too little attention to the mental side of the game. The more I think about it, the more I convince myself that I limited myself and my performances by not giving it the time it deserved and required.

Rugby teams are ruthless but also arguably an extension of our normal society. Encouraging people, and men especially, to talk and open up, without worrying about appearing weak is an issue I encountered throughout my career. Put 45 young testosterone fuelled men together and you create an environment that doesn’t perhaps best lend itself to the softer skills of life. But increasingly, teams are understanding the importance of mental wellbeing and it’s link to physical wellbeing. Not only this but the good teams, are investing time and money into it and not just paying it lip service.

“Increasingly, teams are understanding the importance of mental wellbeing and it’s link to physical wellbeing.”

Over my career, the approach to physical injury changed and more was done to prevent injury rather than treat it. The approach to physically preparing our bodies for the pain we were about to inflict increased, as did the recovery strategies. Ice baths, hot baths, compression garments, turmeric, cherry juice, massage, the list was endless. What didn’t change a great deal however was the approach to mental preparation and recovery. Without doubt, the increased awareness around mental wellbeing has improved drastically and the value form it understood more. But in terms of the time and investment into it, we are some distance away from having the same approach as we have to physical side of the game. We are too reactive as a society to mental health. We prefer to applaud someone for speaking out after the horse has bolted. A more proactive approach is rarely lauded with the same enthusiasm as the reactive approach to someone revealing they have had their own issues, their own demons.

Injury and disability go hand in hand with sport. I suffered my fair share of injuries in my career, but bizarrely consider myself one of the less injury prone players. Rupturing my achilles ranks up there with the worst you can do, and for me it proved to be the case both physically and mentally. The physical pain I went through – in the moment and more so in the extensive rehab that follows – truly tested me.

Rehabilitation was as much physical as it was mental. The stress involved was huge. Here I was, at the peak of my powers, Scotland captain, and I could barely walk 7 months post surgery. The internal monologue my brain created was hard to handle. Would I ever play again? Would I ever get back to the levels I was at before if I did make a full recovery? What would I do if I the rehab didn’t work? How would I support my family? What would be my purpose? Whether it was the morphine or my own conscious, I sat after surgery and cried. I thought my career was over.

Once I had recovered from the initial shock , and generally feeling sorry for myself, I approached the rehab much like the rest of my rugby career. Control the controllables, and forget the rest. Sure, a DVT truly tested that mindset, and injecting myself with blood thinners every day for 6 months did little to assist my mental state. But I, along with physios and doctors, began to break the return down into smaller more manageable parts. No point running before I could walk; quite literally.

I learned to compartmentalize my injury and not let it weigh down the rest of my life. Scheduling activity away from rehab helped as did spending time with friends and family. Without rugby to play, I had inadvertently lost my purpose, my raison detre. And so I had to find purpose elsewhere through my family, university, amongst others.

This isn’t to say I didn’t have bad days. We all do. Pressure from coaches to get back fit. Self doubt as to whether I was doing enough. The expectation from senior execs for me to get back playing. I worried about if my achilles would hold up if and when I got back fit as I knew if it went again, that truly was the end.

“Wellbeing does not exist without mental wellbeing.”

Did I speak to anyone about my feelings during this? Absolutely not. I was definitely guilty of the classic coping mechanism most men adopt whereby “everything is fine”. This was neither helpful nor true, and whilst I didn’t need to lie down and cry on someone’s lap, I am sure speaking to someone would have helped ease some of my stresses. Wellbeing does not exist without mental wellbeing. I am not a psychologist, but I do know that if and when I am feeling frustrated, or anxious about anything, rarely does some form of physical exercise not help. Without doubt the physical wellbeing aids the mental and vice versa. So making time for both in equal measure has to become accepted as the new norm in sport and daily life, especially when your faced with physical challenges through injury, accident or illness.