Elinor Barker: The Olympian helping future generations of athletes to deal with mental health

At the peak of her powers, Elinor Barker found it difficult to the deal with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Elinor Barker's year started on a high. On March 1, she became a world champion after she won Great Britain's first gold medal of the Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin.

When asked after the race if she felt like she was in the form of her life heading into the Tokyo Olympics, her response was simple: "Pretty close."

An Olympic gold medallist from 2016, the 25-year-old was anticipating an epic year.

"I won my race so started off the month feeling pretty good about life," she tells ESPN. "The next day felt like nothing could possibly go wrong. I was on cloud nine. It was kind of the last hurdle before the Olympics and it went really well."

By the end of the month, the Games had been postponed and Barker's life had been turned upside down.

Barker is one of Great Britain's most decorated athletes. She won her first World Championship gold medal in 2013 at 18, was part of the quartet who won gold at Rio 2016 in the team pursuit and was awarded an MBE in the 2017 New Year Honours list. In the time between, she swept to wins at several more World Championships and Commonwealth Games.

Despite this success, however, she wasn't that sold on track cycling at first. A lover of all sports when she was younger, she grudgingly went to her first session with her sister when she was 10, and only joined in "because it was better than standing on the sidelines."

It became her passion, and 2020 was set to be her peak. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic means Barker, like thousands of her fellow athletes, has been left with inordinate amounts of something elite performers aren't used to having -- time to think.

"It's kind of hard to have goals when you know they're probably not going to be stone. It's been a bit difficult to be honest," she says of the last few months.

Despite these difficulties, Barker hasn't been going through it alone. As a member of British Cycling, she has access to a psychologist who is always on call. It's a blessing that Barker realises isn't available to everyone and is part of the reason she has become an ambassador for Sporting Minds UK.

"Anytime I've put out anything even slightly related to mental health I've always cited that I've got a really, really good sports psychologist at British Cycling and we work a lot together and I know I can talk to him and it is completely confidential," she says. "I can get things off my chest and we work together to solve the problem.

"After saying that a number of times in the media I realised I'm almost giving out bad advice because I'm incredibly privileged to have a psychologist who is on call all of the time. So for any younger athletes or athletes who aren't on world class programmes, I'm not giving them any advice at all."

The Sporting Minds UK charity both provides and promotes mental health support in young sports people. It was set up by academy-level cricketer Callum Lea, 19, who found support to be insufficient for young people looking to not only compete but enjoy their sport. The wide-ranging service is available to athletes aged 16 to 30 who are competing at county, academy, semi-pro and pro-levels.

In Barker's early years, she would watch as her peers slowly dropped off as cycling became more intense and competitive. "The environment and the attitude was that sport is mentally tough so we need to make things as mentally tough as possible right now to work out who is strong enough to deal with it and who can get through that kind of thing.

"If that's what you're taught when you're younger, you take it as a given but now looking back I just think I really disagree with it. If anything, you should be thinking sport is so mentally tough that you need to be able to prepare young people for it and support them through it rather than push them even more."

Comparison in sport is impossible to avoid, especially at youth levels when coaches and fans are trying to spot the next great talent. Are you faster than your peers? Are you stronger? Can you last longer? While this is perhaps most obvious during competitions, it also bleeds into everyday life for a lot of young athletes, leaving them with few places to get away from it all.

"It's at training, it's at the dinner table, it's pretty much everywhere," says Barker. "I think that's quite hard and it can be quite hard if you're that way inclined which a lot of young people are especially now with social media. The ability to compare yourself to other people is everywhere."

Barker and Sporting Minds UK aren't promising a fix-all solution. Instead, they're looking to raise awareness and provide young athletes with not only the tools to help themselves but the ability to recognise when others need help too.

Changing a culture that has pushed the "sport is tough" narrative is a slow process and Barker recognises that in the current shutdown climate many young athletes are likely feeling more lost without someone pushing them every day.

"I know it's really hard but try to see it as an opportunity to work on your weaknesses and work on the stuff that you're not that good at behind closed doors when there's no pressure, there's no fear of getting it wrong in front of people," she says.

"If you are in a position where you can't practice your breaststroke or your rugby tackles or whatever it is, just try and remember that everyone else is in the same situation.

"Try not to get too upset about it and focus on what you can achieve day by day."