Dame Kelly Holmes: The workplace needs to understand emotional wellbeing

Written by
Dame Kelly Holmes

03 Feb 2017

03 Feb 2017 • by Dame Kelly Holmes

Dame Kelly Holmes' story

2004 was arguably the happiest time of my life.

My dreams had come true. The 1500 metres – which I had said I was going to be Olympic champion in aged 14  after watching Sebastian Coe win gold at the Los Angeles Olympic Games – was mine. 

I had set my dreams pretty tough. I wanted to be in the military as a physical training instructor and I also wanted to be Olympic Champion and I am pleased to say I achieved both. 

In 2005 I wrote my autobiography called Black, White and Gold. I called it Black, White and Gold as the gold was the obvious bit, the black and white because I am mixed race but also because there is black and white in sport: you win or you lose. When I wrote my autobiography I wanted to be very open and honest about the journey it took to become an Olympic Champion. 

When I came back from Athens people put me so high on a pedestal that it was unbelievable. I became a hero to people. I felt like a pop star with all those screaming fans, and suddenly I was catapulted into a world that I didn’t ever think about. I had never thought about what it would be like after I'd achieved my Olympic dream.

We all see in sport the great moments, the smiles, the tears, the trying and the not quite getting there. My career lasted twelve years and in that time I won twelve international medals – Commonwealth Games, European Championships, World Championships and Olympic Games. I also had seven years of injury problems. Seven years of injuries that crush you as an athlete, as all you want to do is go out there and perform to your best – not have people tell you your career could be over.   

I got my first bad injury in 1996 at my first Olympic Games in Atlanta. I arrived in the holding camp, felt a little bruise on my leg, had it checked it out by the doctor and got told I had a stress fracture and that I’d have to go home. I was already a Commonwealth champion and double World Championship medallist and I thought I could win an Olympic medal, if not gold.

The idea of going home was just not going to happen and I ran in those Olympic Games. I got into the final, came fourth and was pipped on the line by the thickness of my vest. I was devastated but there was also something in my head that said: 'Wow, if I can come fourth at an Olympic Games running with a stress fracture, where just five minutes before the race I’m having injections into the bone, then I know I can do this.' 

The problem is injuries became the story of my life. 

I didn’t know that I was crying. I was  devastated  that some feelings in me that I never knew I had were destroying me. 

I’d get a medal but it wasn’t the colour I wanted and I had to be satisfied that I simply got a medal. Other times, I was supposed to be the favourite going into a Championship and then I'd get struck down with an injury. A ruptured calf here, a torn Achilles there...what happens to the athlete then?

The athlete goes to the physiotherapist or goes to the doctor; the physiotherapist treats what they see: the Achilles problem, the ruptured calf, the leg strain. They treat that.

What no one once asked me was how did I feel? How were my injuries making me feel? One minute I was on a high and the next minute I was so low. I never recognised that the feelings I had were putting me further and further down. I just cried because I wasn’t the best I could be.

I cried because I was in pain. I didn’t know that I was crying. I was devastated that some feelings in me that I never knew I had were destroying me. 

In 2003 I had the worst year of my life. It was a year before the Olympic Games and I knew that it would be my last. I had got a bronze four years earlier in Sydney fighting back from injury with only six weeks of running, but this time, I knew this was the end.

I was injured again. I was going into the World Championship and I kept having this emotional trauma, thinking 'I’ve got one more year, it’s all going wrong!' I was an army sergeant with ten years in the military and I was an international athlete. Everyone thought I was tough and hard but I began to realise I wasn’t the superhuman person that everyone thought I was. 

Something in my mind clicked and I couldn’t cope any longer. I went into the toilet, I looked into the mirror and I hated myself. I saw some scissors on the side and I started cutting. Cutting for every day I was injured.

I was broken. I did not want to be here because I could not cope with the disappointment. I’d phone family at home and they'd say to me ‘Why are you doing this training? Come home!’ They did not understand what I was feeling. They didn’t understand how important it was for me to achieve something in my life, given how when I was younger I never felt like I was going to get anywhere, so this for me was holding onto my lifeline and the thought of it going away from me was unbearable. 
I didn’t tell my family about my feelings. I didn’t tell my training partner or coach, who happened to be in the same apartment when I was cutting myself, although they never knew about it.

Why? Because I didn’t think they would understand. I had to be tough. I was going into a World Championship and I had to be mentally focused. A turning point was three weeks after this first incident – when I was really at rock bottom – I won a silver medal at the World Championship. I stood on that rostrum and no one knew what I was going through. No one knew the tears I had had the night before.

In one way that made me feel very strong and empowered, but in another way I was still crushed. Here I was, Kelly Holmes; the person I thought was a tough cookie but was actually fragile beyond belief. I came away from that period of time not myself because all I could think about was going through this trauma.

My saving grace was the Olympic Games. I had a focus and a goal. That is something I always tell people: you have to have something to hold onto. There’s always going to be light at the end of the tunnel. Mine was the Olympic Games. 

I got a good team around me. I made people realise that I needed them more than ever. I needed my physiotherapist to know that she had to be there no matter what. I needed my training partner, who was an Olympic athlete himself, to help me. It may have been a selfish attitude, but I knew that I needed these people to stay with me, to stay strong because otherwise I was finished. 
In 2004 I went into the Olympic Games with no injuries for the first time in seven years. While I didn’t tell my team exactly what I was going through, they started to understand that I needed to talk to them away from the athletics track. I needed them to treat me normally and to perk me up when I needing perking up, not just when I needed to run well. This was a transition for everyone. It was about people seeing and talking to me as a normal person and knowing that if I’m crying, not to assume it’s because I’ve twisted my ankle, but to ask me if I’m OK. That made me stronger. 

People  need someone to talk to. We need to share and to care; it’s as simple as that. So talk.

I went into the Olympics the fastest and strongest I’d ever been. During that time I started to think more about myself. In 2003 and the years leading up to it, whenever I felt down my nutrition went out the window. In 2004, I suddenly thought more about my health and more about the food I was putting in my body, not just from a performance point of view, but also for brain fuel. I was also sleeping better. I realised that when I was down, I wasn’t sleeping; I was then getting so erratic, so tired and grouchy. Without my team and myself recognising some of those things, I never would have achieved what I did.
I believe in fate and that’s why I believe I went through this journey. I can actually prove now to other people that if you have a dream and an aspiration, you can come out of the dark tunnel and there can be a light at the other end. 

So why do I talk about my journey? Because I’m just a human being. I had a talent but I’ve also gone through a lot of life struggles like a lot of people. My key learning is that people need to talk. There should not be a stigma. When I released my autobiography, there was a radio presenter who said: ‘How the bubble has burst. She’s not as strong as we thought she was.'

They believed that I should have just stayed up on that pedestal and kept my mouth shut because people would think I was no longer good enough because of my mental health problem. But do you know what? That made me feel stronger. I’m going to talk because there shouldn’t be a stigma. Athletes are not superhuman. They are just individuals who have a physical talent and are human like everyone else.

Wellbeing in the workplace: mental health

We look at disability in the workplace and in sport and see people on crutches, in wheelchairs, but we don’t ever see the person struggling with their feelings. Why can’t we talk about it the same way we talk about other things? People need help. People need someone to talk to. We need to share and to care; it’s as simple as that. So talk.
I do a lot of public speaking to businesses about teamwork, inspiration and going for gold and they are only just starting to touch on the wellbeing and health of their employees. I keep telling them it’s so important and you can miss the brightest stars in your workplace because you are not giving them time to talk. We need to put things in place so that people feel they can express themselves. They need to know where to go and they will open up if they are given the chance and opportunity. 

Any job can be stressful and it doesn’t matter what title you have, we can all be affected. We spend so much of our lives at work, seeing more of our work colleagues than we do our own family and friends, so emotional wellbeing needs to be viewed as a key part of our overall health.

Businesses have a responsibility to support the emotional wellbeing of their staff and I think the new emotional wellbeing service from Nuffield Health will help fill a vital gap in supporting the needs of millions of workers up and down the country. Together we can make more champions in their own field.

Dame Kelly Holmes Trust

In 2008, Holmes founded the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, a registered charity, to support young athletes and help the lives of young people across the UK. Kelly has set herself a goal of raising £250,000 for five charities she is passionate about including that of the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. To donate click here.