BRAVEY: Olympian Alexi Pappas on mental health, competing, and more
By Greg Bach
When Alexi Pappas returned from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio – where she set a Greek national record by running the fastest time of her life in the grueling 10,000 meters – severe depression grabbed hold of her.
And pulled her into a scary place.
As she writes in her recently released memoir Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas:
For some people depression comes on slowly, but for me, it happened all at once. Every night I’d lie in bed, frantically trying to figure out what to do next. It felt like I was brushing my brain with a brush whose bristles were made out of fear and anxiety. I felt anxious to do anything I could to climb out of this pit. I feared the worst: Both my mom and her brother had died by suicide.
Pappas is one of a growing number of beloved athletes who are speaking openly and honestly on the subject of mental health these days.
And her perspective is incredibly powerful and enlightening.
“For me, the biggest life changer was just understanding that my brain is a body part and it can get injured just like any other and it can heal just like any other,” Pappas says. “I think having known that when I was younger I wouldn’t have been so afraid of mental health challenges and I also would have been better equipped to treat it like an injury to my leg. As athletes we are very well versed in taking care of our bodies, and if we just saw our brain as a body part that is the biggest take away from me to the world.”
OPENING UP CONVERSATIONS
As recently as just a few years ago matters concerning mental health were taboo, spoken about in hushed tones and behind closed doors.
But as Pappas so eloquently writes and speaks about now, it’s so important to normalize these discussions with youth.
And speak about mental health matters as freely as one would an achy knee or sprained ankle.
“I think it’s so key that it starts young,” Pappas says. “If an athlete has some pain in their ankle they would probably share that with their coach and the coach might adjust the training or the competition that day to reflect that. And if it was beyond the coach’s realm of expertise, or that day off wasn’t enough, the coach would probably advise that the athlete get some outside help from a physiotherapist or some other expert. And I think it’s similar with mental health where if we can open up the conversation to recognize that the brain is a body part just like any other. So if we have certain symptoms, like you haven’t been able to sleep because of anxiety or other symptoms of a mental health challenge, to know that it happens. And just like any other injury we can’t feel ashamed of it and we can seek out help.”
And then to settle in and be patient during the recovery process.
“I think the last piece is knowing that it won’t get fixed by clicking our fingers,” Pappas says. “An injury sometimes takes time to heal and I think it’s the same with mental health injuries. The best thing we can do is give athletes tools to understand it but also to accept that sometimes these brain sprains don’t heal instantly, so then we’ll feel less upset about them.”
Coaches have to be a part of this all-important process, too.
“Coaches have to create an environment where it feels ok to talk about this just as a physical injury is ok to talk about,” Pappas says.
WORDS OF WISDOM
Pappas leads a calendar-packed life.
An actress and filmmaker with her eyes on competing in Tokyo this summer in the Olympic marathon, she also is an accomplished poet and writer.
And she has a legion of young fans who look up to her and admire everything she’s done.
“It’s such a privilege,” she says of being a role model for youth. “Because when I was younger I grew up without my mom and I always wanted to figure out what I could expect of myself and I wanted mentorship and so I just latched onto anything that I could in the way of information. So to be able to write a book that might give these younger athletes a vantage point to understand that my path didn’t start out being certain to go to the Olympics maybe will give them permission to chase their dream no matter where they came from. I am quite proud to have found the words to describe my experience and to create my narrative in a way that is more subjective than objective.”
Young athletes crave development – and most tend to lack patience when it comes to settling into the long process on the path to improvement.
And that means accepting all the not-so-good days along the way.
“My coach (Ian Dobson) basically told me that we’re not supposed to feel good every day when we are chasing a dream,” Pappas says. “And that’s actually a part of it, because it means we’re growing and pushing ourselves to do something hard.”
The 30-30-30 rule Pappas operates with translates into while training for a big race she should feel good one-third of the time, simply ok one-third of the time, and crappy one-third of the time.
Recognizing that disappointments and failure will be building blocks along the way is also pivotal on an athlete’s journey.
“I think failure is the step along the path to success,” Pappas says. “We are going to have times when we push ourselves and maybe instead of that word ‘failure’ maybe we can think about it more as ‘growth.’ That’s a vocabulary shift and I hope people can take permission from this book and what I’m doing and craft their own life, not just live their own life.”
Pappas also weaves goals into her daily workouts to help stay dialed into her journey.
“On a day-to-day level I try to give myself goals that I can achieve every day because I know that I can’t control my future, and I can’t know if I’m ever going to get that dream, but I can know that I’m going to tick certain boxes every day,” she explains. “Like I can show up to practice, I can try my best today, and I can prepare my fuel so that I’m best set up for success. And I think mentally it helps to know that I am in some control.”
MARVELOUS MESSAGE FOR YOUTH
Pappas doesn’t waste time dwelling on disappointing performances. Instead, she plucks lessons from all those experiences that she uses to plow forward while striving to fulfill her goals.
“We have to shift our mind from ever allowing regret and thinking instead about the lessons,” she says. “The antidote to regret is what is the lesson here? And that’s growth. And growth is a really joyful thing. So there’s a really positive side to those days, but we have to always look at what happens to us as somehow in our favor – and growth is always in our favor.”
And she encourages young athletes to focus on what they can control – and that’s their effort.
“I think the best thing that we can ask of ourselves is just trying our best,” Pappas says. “And that means that a personal best time is a very, very worthy goal. It’s the best goal we can have.”
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