In the past, I’ve written about “the need for safe confidants in the lives of cross-cultural workers,” using parallel anecdotes from the world of athletics to illustrate my point. In that vein, here’s some insight from UK professional bicyclist Molly Weaver into how, in the area of mental health, the need for outward perfection conflicts with the inner need for honesty.
Actually, my introduction of Weaver is somewhat misleading. Technically she’s not a professional bike racer, at least not right now. On her website, she labels herself “Former Cyclist. Future Cyclist? Current Media Type.”
Early last year, during a training ride, Weaver was hit head on by a car and suffered 13 broken bones, including fractures in her back and neck. And yet, less than six months later, she was competing again . . . until she wasn’t. In May, she wrote a blog post announcing that she was stepping away from racing.
She makes her announcement and then continues:
I originally wrote this blog without the next part. I simply stated that I was taking a break from professional cycling, and then moved straight onto the ‘what’s next’ part of the story. I wanted to keep things private. But I’ve decided now is the time for an honest reflection.
Her physical injuries weren’t the issue, she writes. Those healed over time. It was the “mental scars”—the depression—that had stolen her passion.
My biggest mistake was doing nothing to stamp it out at the first signs of trouble. But at the time, in the grips of the demon, I couldn’t see this. I didn’t want to admit I was struggling. That isn’t who I am. I’m stronger than that.
Turns out strength has nothing to do with it. Depression can find anyone, and most of the time you don’t even see it coming.
But finding help, at least within bike racing, wasn’t easy. She tells BBC Sport that only one of her former teams had a sports psychologist. She calls this a “fundamental problem with the industry.”
Victoria Garrick is another high-level athlete who deals with depression. She’s a senior starter on the University of Southern California volleyball team, and last year she gave an in-depth TED talk in which she covers her experience as a D1 athlete, the stigma of depression and anxiety in sports, and the cultural environment athletes live in:
The culture of athletics preaches, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” “The best don’t rest,” “Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.” Mental illness is associated with weakness. To appear weak is the last thing an athlete wants.
Not showing weakness is something that Weaver speaks about as well. Cycling, she writes in her blog, “is as much about your image as anything else.”
The social media lie is all too present in the world of cycling. Riders outwardly presenting the picture of the perfect life. The dream of being a professional athlete documented for all to see. For some this is probably the truth: for a lot of people it’s not.
The constant distortion of reality can be more destructive than we recognise. It looks like everyone else has it better than you. Everyone else is happier than you. But you don’t ever know what’s happening behind the filter.
I hid away my depression and put on a smile through it all. I said the right things. Some of which were true, and some of which I just wished were true. This felt like the only option. I thought I needed to paint myself in a certain light if I wanted to be successful. Mould reality around what people wanted to hear.
Then I would get home and take off the mask.
Now, by taking off their masks publicly, Weaver and Garrick are encouraging others to do the same, to be honest about mental-health issues, to be vulnerable in our humanity, regardless of our profession.
(Molly Weaver, “Behind the Mask,” May 22, 2018; Katie Falkingham, “Cyclist Molly Weaver on the Crash That Led to Depression and the Unhealthy Drive for Perfection,” BBC Sport, June 10, 2018)