Former British para swimmer James Hollis talks about mental health and building up his own resilience as an athlete. After retiring in 2018, James is now working towards becoming a sports practitioner.
I was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bones, and when I was growing up, I was always breaking things. Arms, legs…you name it, I broke it! I started swimming at a young age as it was considered to be a safe sport for me. Whenever I broke a bone, I always had a positive mindset and would immediately be asking when I could return to swimming.
As a 13-year-old I clearly remember having conversations in the ambulance and Accident and Emergency departments questioning how quickly I could back in to training, and often thinking ‘oh no I’m not going to be able to swim at that gala next weekend’. For me this was a natural and regular part of my life, swimming was something I was good at and I became an expert in recovering physically and knowing what I had to do to help that process.
Looking back at my career and my own mental health, I would encounter low moments and as it was something I wasn’t experienced in, I wasn’t very good at recovering in the same way that I would do physically and it took time to develop and adjust to.
I quickly learnt that I had to treat my mental health in the same manner. The feelings or emotions you’re experiencing are not permanent, you’re always going to come back, you just need to be positive and take care and do your rehab work on your mental health, just as you would following a physical injury.
It is so positive to see that mental health is now being talked about more and more, not only in society but also in elite sport. It is pleasing to see UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport (EIS) focusing on #PostiveMentalHealth and are providing education sessions to athletes and staff. We can all encounter negative mental health in the same way injury and illness affect physical health, no-one one is immune to it. It’s not a weakness to suffer a physical injury, it’s part of sport, and in the same way to experience mental health issues is not demonstrating weakness. If you require help it is available in sport too, and there is always a way forward, you are not weak.
Having something else in my life aside from my sport, was really important to me. I couldn’t just be an athlete, I wanted, and needed something else to occupy my mind.
Embarking on my Master’s degree at Loughborough University gave me the necessary time away from sport providing an additional focus in my life, it occupied my time and my thinking. I was no longer just swimming, eating, sleeping and living just an athlete’s life. There was so much more to think about and it helped maintain a healthy balance for me.
Looking back at my career as an athlete, I believe the times I enjoyed most was when I was engaged in other activities providing me with the opportunity to clear my mind from the pressures of training and competition.
One of my best seasons was when I broke my shoulder blade just six weeks before European trials, which to some may sound quite strange! This became a high-pressured situation, the pressure to get back into training, back into the pool and I ended up having one of the best races of my life. The rehab and novelty of doing things differently and engaging new training methods worked and the pressure and stress fell away. Having said that, I wouldn’t suggest breaking your shoulder blade before trials, but it did give what I was doing a freshness.
After retiring from sport, I undertook a real transition, I realised how different the real world was. I have had setbacks but I have been able to draw on some of the skills I learnt in sport, mainly the ability to refocus and have that confidence to keep going.
Athletes are not robots and they are not able to perform to perfection every single day. There is a human being inside every athlete who wants to win and perform 100%. I can safely say that my biggest critic was always myself.
As an athlete it took me a while to figure out what worked for me to help my own mental health. But I did discover that if things were getting too much a weekend away from university and a strict training regime, spending time with my family and dogs always had a huge positive benefit on me.
I have always found making the time talking to people outside of sport valuable. When I became a full-time athlete, I always found a desire to, and greatly benefitted from talking to people outside of my sporting bubble who had a completely different opinion on things. Chatting with friends from my Masters Course who were involved in other sports also helped me to put things into context, support my own mental health and realising that I was not alone or isolated in experiencing mental health issues.
Read about mental health support in high performance sport.