Anastasia Vinnikova, founder of Winning Minds, shares her views on the ignored mental health of 'unsuccessful' sportspeople

By Anastasia Vinnikova

3P1A9897.JPG

Netflix for me, most of the time, is an opportunity to switch off from real life and jump into a narrative to make me laugh, cry or feel frustrated. More often than not, I find myself watching things that couldn’t be any less related to me or my life. But for one particular programme earlier this year, that wasn’t the case.

When Spinning Out was released, I had a deep hesitancy that was difficult to overcome. Today I work for a bank and am an outspoken mental health advocate, but in what feels like another life I was a competitive figure skater for 17 years. Figure skating was my life, my passion, and so closely bonded to my identity that it felt like a part of my DNA. So, it is probably unsurprising that I have an aversion to the often unrealistic way that it is portrayed on screens and in reality programmes.

I am not qualified to comment on the cinematography or the acting quality of Spinning Out, but what did strike me was the way it touched on the very real psychological impact of the sport. In the show the murmurs of skaters with eating disorders, the controlling coaches, the suffocating focus on perfection and the grief that comes with a premature end to a promising career tugged on my heart so violently that I wept through most episodes.

Do they delve into the complexity of real life for figure skaters, and many other athletes for that matter? No. The plot line is dramatic and exaggerated for the benefit of the vast majority of the audience who will never have had any interaction with the sport. The dark intricacies are buried under steamy rink romances and beautiful, snowy backdrops. But they offer a glimpse into the harsh terrain that aspiring skaters have to navigate on a daily basis.

Ironically, despite now being a wellbeing professional, it had taken me some time to truly reflect on my time as a sportswoman and how psychologically difficult it was. As an aesthetic and individual (therefore deeply competitive) sport, ice skating is rife with opportunity for development of poor mental health. To go into each of these could be an entire book in itself, but I want to focus on particular, and large group of people who are forgotten; the ‘unsuccessful’.

Although societally we have significantly progressed the dialogue around mental illness, I have not observed that permeating into the world of sport. Yes, from time to time we now hear successful athletes speaking out about their struggles, but they seem to frequently be those who have ‘made it’. The courage of Danny Rose and Michael Phelps is awe-inspiring and they can only be credited for making it easier for others in their position to speak out too. But what about all those individuals who didn’t make it? The 4th places, the injured, the near misses from national squads, or those who just couldn’t afford to continue? The pressure of being in an environment where all that matters is the end result can be crushing – I know from experience.

I retired from skating in my early 20s after a string of knee and spinal injuries. But even before then, what I achieved perhaps may be considered impressive and valuable by the majority of the population who cannot even stand on skates, but pales into insignificance in the world of international competitive skating. Admitting to myself that my achievements were not good enough has been something that from time to time keeps me awake, gnawing at me, even 6 years after ending my career. I often wonder what more could I have done – could I have just dealt with the pain of injury and not paused my training for therapy? Should I have trained that one time I missed a session because I wanted to go to a sleepover? Should I just have pushed myself harder? I also know that I am not alone in that. For each champion we celebrate as a nation, or as a region, or as a club, there are countless other (often) young people who destroyed themselves to squeeze their soul into the sport, and did not make it. There are thousands, maybe even millions of sportspeople who dropped everything, from education to friendships to dedicate themselves to their passion and it just wasn’t enough.

I recently attended a talk on grief during which the speaker mentioned that we experience this complex emotion after loss. I know that I, like most, never properly processed the grief I felt the end of my career. When you stop skating it is like you drop off a cliff, and are expected to move onto the next phase of your life, as if it is easy to do so. We are expected to step out of our identity as an athlete and instantaneously become someone else. We just don’t talk about how it feels to lose part of yourself in that way and especially not if your career ended before you were able to achieve what you wanted. Although for now, I’m picking my battles and trying to help promote mental health in sport, another question, for a time very soon, has to be about how we support those who didn’t make it, and those who are left standing on the outside of a community they more often than not dedicated the majority of their lives to.  

I was momentarily disappointed that Spinning Out was not renewed by Netflix for a second season earlier this year, but that passed as I sighed with relief that my watching habits could go back to a pastime, rather than a painful reminder of what feels like another life, what I did not achieve, how it crushed me, and how no one ever asked how it felt.