‘Break before you’re broken’ is the mantra Nekoda Smythe-Davis lives by. The judoka and BEAA Ambassador withdrew from the 2020 Olympics having suffered a concussion in 2019, and now, having returned to elite sport, advises other athletes to take care of their mental health.

Speaking as part of a BEAA and UK Sports Institute feature for Mental Health Awareness Week, Nekoda shared insight into life with a serious injury while preparing for a Games.

“Nobody ever really spoke about the mental side of things when you have a concussion: the anxiety you feel or the depression that you can feel with it.

“That was really difficult to deal with, especially in the pandemic, because everyone had anxiety around what was going to happen, especially with the Olympics being that year. We didn’t know whether it was going ahead, whether it was being delayed. Even if you weren’t an elite sports athlete you had anxiety around: what does this mean? Am I going to get Covid? Am I going to get really unwell? So I had that on top of feeling rubbish every day.

“It was a really, really long journey. It wasn’t just like a quick thing or I could go on medication or I could just speak to a therapist and be fixed within weeks – it was months, it took a very, very long time to physically start feeling better but also mentally as well. As I physically got better with my symptoms I mentally started feeling better. For me they were so closely linked and I just wish I knew that at the start.”

Nekoda says she “chose [herself], chose health and chose feeling better,” by taking a break from training and competition to recover fully. Having recently returned from the Judo World Championships, she is firmly back at the top of elite sport today, and in part credits her self care: “Ultimately, if you’ve got nothing left in the tank, when you’re faced with adversity it’s very hard to overcome it. I think as an elite athlete, you often think: ‘No, I can’t take my foot off the gas.’ Actually you can sometimes and actually it’s better to sometimes.”

Another source of support for Nekoda was her mindset: an attribute honed over years as a top-level athlete. Others can take heart from her belief that the experiences sportspeople face help to prepare them for life’s broader challenges.

“I genuinely wouldn’t be as strong as I am if I didn’t choose the path of being an elite athlete,” she says. “I wouldn’t be as resilient. I don’t think I’d understand the value of giving your all to something, day in, day out and not knowing actually if you’re going to reap the benefits and rewards of that straight away.

“You’re not going to just give up on the first turn. It’s not just a straight path to success, it’s a winding road. I think in some of my really dark places and some of my bad injuries, I don’t think I would have got through them if I didn’t have this elite athlete mindset.”

Elite athletes who require support with their mental health can contact the BEAA. We can listen, advise or make professional referrals – and all of our support is tailored to you, for as long as required. Reach out via the below channels if you need us:

Read also: Explaining the BEAA’s mental health support

Athlete advice

'Break before you're broken': Nekoda Smythe Davis shares mental health story

The BEAA Ambassador on handling the challenges of elite sport.
May 16, 2023
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