Mental health discussion and action in the world of fitness and sport has never been more prominent and important than it is now.

From F1 to football, tennis to gymnastics and everything in-between, high profile sports stars have shared openly their struggles with mental health, the effect it has had on them, their career and how they came through the other side.

Kieron Achara MBE, Team GB and Scotland basketball star, now spends a lot of his time since retiring from the sport, working with charities, communities, clubs and companies in tackling mental health and sharing his own story with those who need help most, alongside being a regular TV pundit for the BBL.

During his basketball career, Kieron played and lived in numerous countries across the world, including the USA, Spain and Italy. Starring alongside former Chicago Bulls, LA Lakers & NBA All-Star, Luol Deng for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics and competing for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games in 2018, he retired from professional basketball in 2019 whilst playing for Glasgow Rocks.

A former captain of the national side, with over 100 international caps, Kieron was awarded an MBE last year in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, for his services to sport in the community, which he labelled “the pinnacle of my career”.

Kieron is currently in training for a delayed Stirling Scottish Marathon, running for SAMH, that will take place later in October and has recently been involved in the #TrySomethingNew campaign as well as the FC United Suicide Prevention campaign.

In this Q&A, Kieron speaks openly about his work, the challenges we all face and the help that is available to those who need it.

Q: You’ve spoken openly before about your own challenges from your school days, but leaving professional sport after a magnificent career must have brought it’s own challenges as well?

“I think for me it was an interesting one, being tall, being black. People look at me now and say ‘you play basketball, you play basketball’ but back then I didn’t know what basketball was. Believe it or not it wasn’t something I did. I played a lot of lawn bowls but the feeling of not ‘fitting in’ was a real struggle for me when I was younger.

I just knew I was different, it’s nice enough now and I speak now about embracing uniqueness and accepting who you are, which in essence will set you free and gives you the confidence to be what you want to be, but when you’re young it’s all about fitting in, that’s all you want to do.

So, finding sport for me was the big thing and that really helped me with my struggles, and actually being tall was an advantage for many things, especially when I found basketball, which really helped me with my confidence and self-belief.

I was lucky enough to have strong support networks, my mother was great and she was always very supportive of me, giving me that message of embracing uniqueness and I guess that in all honesty, seeing success in sport then really amplified that and allowed me to be who I am today.

But there’s a second thing just on leaving the sport, I think I got so consumed with who I was, ‘aka Kieron the basketball player’ that actually when it was time to retire, I just felt like I was lost, like who actually am I?

That’s why I think it’s so important, I went through a whole different phase, I went back to University and everything. It’s great to have education and everything else but just seeing success in something else really helped me.

I didn’t start so great at University but my grades improved and I ended up graduating with distinction which I was super-proud of but it was more the fact of ‘wow’ I can do other things and just putting those little bits into perspective was something I can relate back to my basketball, so where did I start on my journey?

Right, I wasn’t great when I first started playing basketball but I tried hard and I had that belief and I kept on working at it. If I didn’t understand something I asked for support and help and I was given that support. I did that with education and I guess that’s what my mantra is in life, there’s no ‘I can’t do this’ – maybe I can’t right now but it’s the ‘right if I really want to do this’ – have that belief that I can improve, go-ahead, work hard at it, if you have problems or you have concerns, you step back.

I don’t only do that from a working perspective, me as a person that is me now. From a mental health perspective, there’s not always going to be good days, well why am I not having a good day? What could I do to improve that day? Actually do I need help? Do I need support? And that’s that whole thing for me right now, I look at it through a whole holistic perspective and I apply that model to absolutely everything and that’s what keeps me going.”

Q: With your current work you must see a lot of people who also face that struggle of finding themselves ‘lost’ after full-time sport or indeed in other walks of life?

“I look at the basketball pathway which in essence was quite a relief, because it was very embedded into education so in order to advance in the sport, the majority of us go to University in the States. We are getting a degree but around 98% will not go on and play professionally and it’s still heart-breaking for them but then at least they have a degree so it’s not a Plan B it’s just embedded into the pathway.

So now my advice is, mainly working with organizations in the sporting world, thinking about how we accommodate dual-careers and helping the players understand.

If you make things mandatory, for a lot of players they are maybe not enjoying it but it’s the sacrifice they make, as in the long-run it will be more beneficial, so my advice usually talking to players, it’s not about planning and preparing for life after sport, it’s making you a better person now!

I genuinely believe that doing other things, either in education or doing a little bit more work on the side, it doesn’t affect your performance in any way. In fact, research now shows that it enhances it but it makes you a more holistic person, you have better networks, you have different supports and you understand different things. There’s a diversity in your thoughts and your not so fixated on your sport all the time that it becomes a mental problem and it’s the same for me in the fitness world.

I look at it in exactly the same way, if you only do the same thing over and over again it just consumes your mind, it’s not good for anybody.

Having that diversity and different outlets and understanding things makes you a more well-rounded person so that’s usually the advice I give in planning and preparation. I’m really trying to tackle it at organization level as opposed to just the players, because if you have a manager or a coach still saying ‘you should only focus on your football 24/7 this other stuff is a distraction’ then a young player is always going to listen to their manager or people in leadership positions.

So, I’m trying to embed that in the framework and it’s actually giving me more of a purpose as well, trying to help people on that journey. I think when you give back and the way it makes you feel personally, it gives you purpose and I think there’s nothing bigger than having purpose in your life.”

Q: How mentally challenging is it to prepare for the marathon that you are running in aid of SAMH (Scottish Association Mental Health) ?

“The reason I signed up for it was, I left my sport, I felt lost in a sense and I needed something to challenge me! I never realised how important physical training and physical preperation was to my mind, which helped so much but I took it for granted because it was just my job.

I like to use the phrase “it was taken away from me” and I just felt lost, what am I going to do? It was a whole different direction so it was nice to get back into some routine in my life, getting my training and making sure I was using different muscles than I was used to. I was making sure I was doing all the correct exercises, doing like deeper squats and little things I didn’t do before.

Then all of a sudden – due to the pandemic- it kept getting postponed, postponed, postponed so I’ve probably been running like 2 years, when it’s meant to be a 4-5 months thing but I’m committed to it! I see no pressure on me because I’m not trying to be a world-beater but I’m still challenging myself and I’m really looking forward to it!

I chose SAMH as my charity as that’s very much aligned to the work I’m doing around mental health with my own company ‘FrogSystems‘ and the work they do for their champions cinema. Just seeing the great work that SAMH are doing, raising awareness and offering different support mechanisms within the community which is a massive, massive thing.”

Q: Unwinding and reflecting is something that has really helped people through the last 18 months, especially from a mental health aspect, so what kind of things help you to relax and de-stress from day-to-day life?

“At the moment I’m doing ‘Munro-Bagging’ and I’ve done 15 or 16 Munro’s now and if you were to picture what a ‘Munro-Bagger’ looked like I am definitely not that!

But I got out there for the first time and it was tiring, gruelling, all the different changes of weather but the way it helped my mind, I just felt free from absolutely everything so it was something I tried.

If you’d asked me that 4 or 5 years ago I would maybe have been like no that’s not for me so it’s hypocritical of me to say go out and try things because actually, there’s a lot of things I haven’t tried because of my perception of certain things.

But trying to drop that, I’ve tried so start saying yes to things. Public speaking I absolutely despised public speaking because of my fear of speaking to groups of people but now I’m saying yes to things, so I’m just trying new things which is really helping my confidence.

You can actually learn to get better and enjoy things but you will never know until you try that. I’ve had loads of people who say to me ‘no the gyms not for me’ or ‘I can’t do this’ well how do you know until you try?

We put up these barriers in our life and I think, looking at social media, it’s actually helped ‘munro-bagging’ as everyone wants to see that beautiful view and the reality is your not always going to see it because of the rain… But that mindset of you have to be a certain person to do it, or in the gym you have to look a certain way or to be an athlete you have to look a certain way, and there’s all these barriers we set-up and say ‘that’s not me’ when actually it can be, it’s just that you have to try.

That’s not to say everyone has to be an Olympian but how does it make you feel afterwards? If you are starting to feel good about something, I like to call it a ‘coping-strategy’, life can be tough but have as many ‘coping-strategies as possible and you’ll find more balance within your life.”

Q: Just in the last week you posted on social media that you supporting the FC United campaign, which is aimed at suicide prevention, what can you tell us about that?

“Going back to the power of sport it really does amplify certain things, I’ve lost friends to suicide, some really high profile friends from a sporting perspective who ‘had everything’ money, playing at the highest level and the reality is that you never quite know.

I’ve done the mental health first aid training and I really love the work that the Chris Mitchell Foundation is doing in Stirling, working with the SPFL Trust, BackOnSide, there’s so many great campaigns and support, but at the same time if you don’t have that confidence to speak up and speak out, we call it ‘psychological safety’, that by doing that you won’t be judged.

A big fear for a lot of the players, is that what they love the most – being their sport – will be taken away from them if they speak-up because if the manager for example says ‘well his heads not in it’ that’s the fear.

So, we have to get past that, people can still perform but if they speak up on it and are given support, their performance will probably go to another level, so let’s encourage that!

Don’t just say this person needs to take time off because that’s maybe not what’s best for that person, the only way to ever understand that is by communicating and being able to talk and talk freely, not stigmatize it, communication is just a part of life.

There’s a skill in learning how to communicate, so there’s an educational piece behind it but I love the work FC United are doing, talk to save lives, I think it’s a great campaign and I think it will have a real, real effect in Scotland.”

Q: What’s the biggest bit of advice you give in terms of: 1. Address? 2. Communicate? & 3. Get that help you need?

“The first key I believe is that whole self-awareness piece, taking time to reflect on certain things and understand who you are and how you feel.

So my thing is; somebody could say something to me and I get really offended or insecure about it because this, this and this. I’m angry but I’ve never asked myself why, and when you dig that little bit deeper you see that actually, there’s something wrong with me inside and then working on that, so that’s the only thing I feel you can control. You can’t control what others are saying or what ohers are doing.

On top of that, how do you tackle this? This is where you work on those ‘coping-strategies, and the way I got this was I started talking to other people and asking what they did.

So, I had the confidence because I understood that there were issues, talking and asking other people I was like ‘yes ok that could work for me’, or ‘I don’t really like this’ so I created more opportunities because there was more things to choose from and from that I found that works.

Have the confidence to try new things but think how are you using them, these ‘coping-stratgeies’ are something that everyone needs. I believe if you have that infrastructure, then the confidence to speak out and ask questions and ask for support when those things that happen that are very reactive occur, you’re still in a better place to deal with them than you would be if you didn’t have that infrastructure.

There will be ups and downs in life and sometimes they will be hard-hitting but how do you bounce back from that? So yes self-awareness, asking for help, and having the confidence to ask for help and that belief that life can get better is probably the 3 main things I would sum up when helping people on their own journeys.

If you would like to donate to SAMH and support Kieron in his marathon run, please click here. Kieron has been a long-time friend of Powerhouse from our previous partnership with Glasgow Rocks and we extend a massive thanks to him for taking time out to talk about mental health & the work he is doing around it.

You’ll find more articles on World Mental Health Day, Stress Awareness, Wellness Products & Stress Relief here.

Was this post useful?

© 2022 Powerhouse Fitness. Europe's no.1 for home fitness. All rights reserved.