ParalympicsGB swoop UK Sport Innovation Award

The British Paralympic Association's approach to supporting mental health was world leading for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games

By Paul Eddison, Sportsbeat

Elite sport is all about world-leading performances and ParalympicsGB are being recognised for doing exactly that in the field of mental health.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the two most challenging major Games of recent times, with Britain’s Paralympians last summer in Tokyo and earlier this year in Beijing having to deal with Covid testing, empty stadia and constantly living with the fear of having their dreams ripped away from them.

All that came while competing in the biggest events of their lives, already the most stressful possible period for an athlete.

To that end, even prior to the pandemic, ParalympicsGB had identified the need to introduce a new role of mental health and wellbeing lead and that decision is now being officially recognised with the organisation winning UK Sport’s prestigious PLx award for innovation.

Dr Amanda Gatherer, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the English Institute of Sport mental health expert panel, was selected to carry out the role before Covid-19 hit in 2020, and her role only grew in importance as the impact of the pandemic was felt.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

Tom Paulson, who was deputy chef de mission for ParalympicsGB in Beijing and whose work is powered by National Lottery funding, explained: “There were two key factors that were the drivers behind introducing a mental health and wellbeing lead for Tokyo and Beijing. Firstly, there was a growing sense of importance and awareness around mental health, so we really wanted to capitalise on that experience and expertise. Secondly, in Rio and previous Games, the medical team and the performance support team had to deal with quite challenging mental health cases.

"We really managed the spectrum all the way from acute incidents where the medical team and performance team were quite heavily involved all the way down to the day-to-day experiences of athletes and staff while they were away.

“We developed the strategy with Dr Stuart Miller in the summer of 2019 so a lot of the work had been instigated, in terms of recruitment of Dr Amanda Gatherer as the mental health and wellbeing lead and mental health awareness training as part of our team days.

“Then the pandemic happened and interestingly, we were halfway through the mental health champions training that we had started with our support staff and it hit home the importance of connections, having groups of people who were focused on mental health. From there it became more and more important in terms of managing the Games environment.”

It is not just UK Sport who recognised what a revolutionary step it was to dedicate a specific role to mental health and wellbeing.

In Tokyo, Dr Gatherer’s accreditation fell under the team’s support staff quota. By the time Beijing came around, the IOC and IPC had realised the need for a mental health support staff and had introduced specific accreditation quotas to that end.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

The response from the athletes was also telling, with Dr Gatherer’s help regarded as particularly helpful by those competing.

Paulson added: “One of the unique things about the work was that most of it was done before we left the country.

“The feedback we have had was overwhelmingly positive. Those who worked with Amanda both in advance of the Games and during the Games appreciated having that expertise within the team. To have dedicated expertise was really important.

“It’s always nice to be nominated and to win the award is brilliant. I think it’s a really true reflection of how we approached it. It was a significant team effort. I truly believe that we had a world-leading performance support team environment in both of the Games and long may that continue into the future.”

The PLx awards are organised by UK Sport, the nation’s high-performance experts. Through strategic leadership and investment of National Lottery and Government funds, UK Sport has transformed high-performance sport, winning more Olympic and Paralympic medals than ever before. For more information visit https://www.uksport.gov.uk/