The stigma around mental health continues to pervade sport and, in turn, oftentimes prevents athletes from seeking and accepting the help that is available to them. USA Cycling’s multifaceted – and evolving – emphasis on well-being is breaking down barriers within the local, national and international cycling community and broader sport in general.
Currently, USA Cycling is the only National Governing Body (NGB) with a platform like In Our Own Words (IOOW) where members can speak candidly about anything. Multiple NGBs and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) have inquired about how the platform has been received by our community and are now considering implementing something similar. The Well-Being Program has also inspired further NGBs to consider the feasibility of expanding their mental health provisions. Ultimately, USA Cycling’s evolving well-being efforts are inspiring members of the Olympic Movement to engage in critical conversations about mental health and well-being more broadly.
Objective: Use storytelling to create and foster a USA Cycling culture where members (a) feel empowered and encouraged to speak candidly about mental well-being and (b) consider vulnerability a sign of strength rather than weakness. Grow the USA Cycling community into a space where individuals feel heard, connected, supported and accepted regardless of whether they are a casual outdoor enthusiast or an Olympic gold medalist. Create a community where everyone feels safe and proud to unashamedly be themselves and where we appreciate one another’s differences rather than feeling threatened by them.
More specifically, we aim to become quick to empathize and slow to judge. Ask questions rather than insert opinions. Offer support instinctively rather than waiting to be asked. Listen rather than constantly speaking. Gain perspective rather than simply offering an opinion. Expose and reprove unacceptable behavior and stand alongside those who have been marginalized rather than staying silent or turning a blind eye. Celebrate and mourn with one another when appropriate rather than staying isolated. And, give permission to ourselves and others to seek and accept help when needed. Ultimately, evolve into a community where transparency and vulnerability are viewed as a sign of strength and courage rather than weakness.
Strategy & Execution: First, launch “In Our Own Words” (IOOW) - a platform on USA Cycling’s website where individuals can share their stories anonymously or identified. There are no restrictions on acceptable topics, just that they be presented in a story format. No one can tell you that your story is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; hence, the power of stories. IOOW was launched in November 2019.
Alongside IOOW, establish a centralized database of well-being related Resources. Relevant resources are linked to each story and these links are stored on a single page of USA Cycling’s website, with the resources constantly growing alongside the publication of new stories.
Following the two intangible resources (IOOW & Resource links), a tangible benefit was launched – “USA Cycling’s Well-Being Program”. This Program offers free (pro-bono) counseling services to all past and present National Team affiliated athletes and contract workers to address issues outside of cycling. To receive this benefit, individuals simply send an email to the SafeSport Director who then connects them with a counselor.
Finally, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic inspired the launch of a Virtual Activities series, providing a nightly virtual activity for all elite USA Cycling athletes, ranging from mindfulness sessions to cooking classes.
Results: In Our Own Words (IOOW) has been embraced by a broad range of USA Cycling’s membership – and the broader cycling community – and includes stories ranging from experiences of sexual assault, to dealing with depression to coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. The stories illustrate the breadth of the USA Cycling community and have triggered some critical – but traditionally “taboo” – conversations within the cycling community and within USA Cycling’s office specifically. Engagement with IOOW has been significant, demonstrated by the fact that a new story has been published almost every Tuesday since its launch.
The list of well-being Resources on USA Cycling’s website continues to grow alongside published IOOW stories, and the range of topics included has expanded. USA Cycling’s Resources are being shared broadly throughout the cycling community and beyond.
The Well-Program has served seven individuals to date, with male and female participants ranging from former athletes, to soigneurs, officials and current athletes. Multiple Licensed Counselors have reached out and expressed their support for the Program, willingly offering both their personal services and access to their professional networks. Accordingly, a strong provider network has been created.
USA Cycling’s growing well-being program was recently highlighted in an article published by the AP.