Interview with Sportside ambassador  Olympian Kieron Achara on his personal motivation for running for Stirling Scottish Marathon partners SAMH. Sidebar on SAMH’s guidelines on mental health. Sidebar from mental health charity SAMH on how fitness improves mental health.

Basketball star Kieron Achara scaled the heights when he starred for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics. Today he is pounding the cyclepaths another challenge – running for mental health charity SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health) at the Stirling Scottish Marathon.

At 6ft 10in in his size 15 Asics trainers, crossing the finishing line will earn him a place in the record books as the UK’s tallest marathon runner.

However, the motivation for partnering SAMH is intensely personal. 

Kieron has witnessed first-hand the mental struggle of fellow professional sportsmen and sportswomen  – including that London 2012 generation – as they come to terms with their sporting mortality.

A crushing loss of identity and purpose as they go from the adulation of millions on the world stage, to anonymous twenty or thirtysomething in civvy street on the first rung of the job ladder.

It is the closest thing to grief – so much so that sports psychiatrists say “athletes are the only people who die twice”.

Kieron sees the partnership with SAMH as an opportunity to talk openly about mental health; to challenge more Scots to express their feelings and share their inner thoughts and fears with family and friends.

He grew up in Braehead, Stirling – as Scottish, tall and black. He learned to embrace his uniqueness on a journey that saw him study in the USA, captain Glasgow Rocks and play at the Commonwealth Games and Olympics.

Kieron said: “I don’t think I suffered from depression, however, I went through a difficult transition as my career neared its end.

“For the first time in my life I felt I couldn’t control things;  I was playing poorly, the team was playing poorly then I started becoming obsessed by a few trolls on Twitter, who were consistently criticising my performance. 

“I ended up playing to trying to please them. I would judge my performance by what two or three people were writing about on Twitter. 

“I then took the decision to quit one Christmas..and it was like a weight off my shoulders. 

“However, when the time came, it was real shock when I saw my name had suddenly been removed from the basketball team group chat. That was so final – I was no longer Kieron Achara basketball player with team-mates, manager and physios. I was Kieron from Paisley, Scotland, looking for a job with a baby on the way.”

Kieron believes the key to good mental health is purpose in life, something he has found through his two children and a rekindled interest in sport. 

After watching  Eliud Kipchoge became the first man ever to break the two-hour marathon barrier in Vienna he decided to start training again, buying a bike from Decathlon, (which he laughs is far too small) and setting out along the cyclepaths near his Paisley home.

“That opened up a whole new world. I met so many on those cycle runs … people who had previously been strangers at the school gate became friends. I carved out a new identity. I was the father who drops his kid off at the school gates. And I’m happy with that.

The final commitment was to run his hometown marathon of Stirling, in a frame that was perfectly designed for basketball, but faces challenges in navigating 26.2miles, albeit through some of the country’s most scenic countryside.

“Running helps me feel good, mentally and physically. It is accessible, you don’t need a gym membership and is satisfying seeing your progress.”

In December he was appointed sports development executive of Frog Systems a specialist digital firm that promotes mental health and wellbeing.  Kieron is busy building relationships  with UK sporting bodies to use physical activity as a key improvement tool.

“When we think of sport, we focus on the physical fitness benefits that regular exercise brings,  often overlooking the positive effects that it brings for our mental health. The camaraderie, the sense of purpose, the feeling of worth, simply getting out of the house and socialising. It’s an important enabler for general wellbeing.

“That’s what impresses me about Sportside’s ambition. It breaks down barriers, increases participation in sport and that has to be good for the mental and physical health of the nation.”

Sportside are partnering with The Stirling Marathon’s two-day festival of running on October 10 and 11 including half marathon, 5k and family fun run. To enter go to thestirlingmarathon.co.uk

SAMH sidebar

SAMH share that vision of better mental health through physical activity, hence the partnership with Kieron and the Stirling Scottish Marathon.

With Kieron’s support they aim to recruit 20 runners to raise money and awareness. 

SAMH delivers a number of projects which aim to promote getting active as a way to improve mental health and wellbeing.

This includes two The Changing Room projects in Hibs and Hearts Football Clubs, funded by the Movember Foundation. The Changing Room kicked off in 2018 with then then Hibs manager Neil Lennon, a radical project which encourages men aged 30 – 64 to open up about their feelings.

SAMH community fundraiser Cindy Cosgrove said: “Men aren’t always great at talking about how they feel, and we know that talking is one of the first steps to better mental health. Without talking, opening up and taking action, nothing will change.”

SAMH encourages people to look after their mental health by following the New Economic Foundation’s Five Ways to Better Wellbeing.

Connect

Staying in touch with loved ones can make us feel happier and more secure; and often just having a chat can help to lift our mood.

  • Put five minutes aside to ask someone how they are
  • Arrange to meet up with friends that you haven’t seen in a while
  • Join a local group or club and meet new people in your community

Be active

Being active isn’t just good for our physical health; it’s also proven to have a positive effect on our mental health and wellbeing.

  • Go for a short walk at lunchtime
  • Discover a physical activity you enjoy and one that suits you
  • Try the NHS’s Couch to 5K programme
  • Check out our partner jogscotland’s group finder for your nearest jogging group

Take notice

Whether you’re spending time with friends or taking a moment for yourself, try to stop to take notice and be aware of the present.

  • Set aside time to practise mindfulness or take up yoga
  • Take notice of how your friends or colleagues are feeling
  • Spend time outdoors, enjoy the fresh air and notice what’s around you

Learn

Learning enhances your self-esteem and confidence, and can be a great way to meet new people.

  • Sign up for a class and learn something new
  • Rediscover an old interest, such as cooking or gardening
  • Take on a new challenge to make or fix something

Give

Giving can be very rewarding – in fact those who report a greater interest in helping others are more likely to rate themselves as happy.

  • Volunteer your time for a cause you are passionate about
  • Spend time with someone who you know has been having a difficult time
  • Fundraise for us and be part of Team SAMH.