HOW HITTING THE WALL HELPED PARALYMPIC CURLER HUGH NIBLOE FACE HIS PANDEMIC FEARS

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Paralympic wheelchair curler Hugh Nibloe has had to overcome many unforeseen challenges in life but admits the recent onset of the global Covid 19 Pandemic had left him feeling more challenged by anxiety than ever before. During Mental Health Awareness Week, the 38 year old is consequently hoping that by sharing his innermost fears he can help others overcome any similar challenges they might be facing and take the first brave step towards seeking help. 

Nibloe was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2006, but prior to that he had been an enthusiastic club rugby player and had sailed the world with the Merchant Navy before becoming a manager at a bookmakers. In 2012 his introduction to wheelchair curling ‘transformed my life,’ leading to a new sporting and globe-trotting career that brought a trip to PyeongChang for the 2018 Paralympic Games, followed up by a silver medal winning appearance at the World Curling Championships in Stirling in 2019, adding to the World bronze won in 2017. Promoted to skip. he took to the helm for the first time as part of a new line-up at the start of the 2019-20 season and at the same time also undertook a BA in Sports Business Management at the University of Stirling to be close to the National Curling Academy, home of British Curling’s world class performance programme, juggling academic and sporting commitments. Nibloe skipped at his first World Wheelchair Championships in Switzerland, the only World Curling Federation hosted event to take place this season before all major sporting events were cancelled due to Coronavirus.

Life took another turn as lockdown became the new norm and Nibloe, like many with underlying health conditions, had to start shielding in isolation. A new routine required a heightened diligence around hygiene protocols as precautionary measures when provisions were delivered interspersed with video calls with his team mates and Head Wheelchair Coach Sheila Swan, as well as key members of the support team from sportscotland Institute of Sport. It was during one of the scheduled meetings between Nibloe and staff that he started to admit to a growing sense of health anxiety.

“I have a profound sense of gratitude to those in that video meeting, especially David Pugh who helped to create a safe environment which enabled me to open up about how I was feeling,” Nibloe confessed.

Coach Swan had arranged the video meeting to discuss physical preparation plans for a return to training at home. During the discussion, aided by the expertise of Physical Preparation Coach Harry Booker and Dr Pugh, however, the conversation shifted from physical to mental health needs.

“With hindsight I think David started to pick up on cues and started to ask me the right questions and eventually I started to talk,” he said.

“For me the group scenario made me more relaxed than a one-to-one meeting, I knew I was with people that I could trust. David recognised signs from me and I started to talk about my health anxieties and my growing fear of going outside again. 

“I have been in self isolation now for nine weeks and whilst it has been hard, I started to get a growing sense of anxiety and paranoia about transitioning out of lockdown.

“I knew that I wanted to be the person I was before, not afraid to travel, to go to new places or have paranoia about the worst case scenario all the time.

“After revealing how I really felt David was able to guide me towards what was to become my plan of action, so there was a resolution right there at the end of that meeting.

“He suggested signing up online for the ‘Big White Wall’ to help me to manage my new health anxiety and his follow up with me after the meeting gave me a sense of affirmation that there was a way forward for me and it was a relief.”

Pugh, who is the lead doctor for the GB curling programme, provided Nibloe with help in accessing that online resource which is available around the clock, enabling support at any time.

“It has been a great help to me,” said Nibloe.

“I can either join online group forums and get interaction within a safe online community, or I can access some of the self help modules which I have started working through.

“I can log in at any time I want, engage if and when I want and I wish I had been able to access help like this when I was first diagnosed or when I ended up in a wheelchair in 2010-11.

"I can’t recommend it highly enough, it is completely anonymous so there is no stigma attached and I just want other athletes to know it is available and it can help with a huge range of areas which you can access online from anywhere in the world, in any time zone.

“If just one person signs up to use it and gets a benefit from it then that will be the outcome I am hoping for. It is about making informed choices as an athlete and I am very grateful that David was able to steer me towards what has been such a help in my life moving forwards and I can start looking forward to getting back to training and curling again when that is permitted.”

Pugh, who works across a diverse range of professional and amateur elite sports as well as having a long and distinguished career in general practice, said; “Having worked as a GP for 30 plus years I have always made time to listen to patients, as it will always take you to the answer.

“Taking time to listen when dealing with any psychological issues provides the opportunity to pick up on cues and start working towards solutions and it is different for every individual. 

“The effects of Covid 19 will be diverse and for Hugh talking about his health anxiety so openly will hopefully help others. Understandably Hugh developed an anxiety about illness and the Big White Wall resource has enabled him to access information and help in his own time and on his terms, which is helping him to understand how to cope with the anxiety.

“The resource has in effect opened up doors in his head. It has been immensely rewarding seeing his motivation coming back and it has kick started him to a better place. Ultimately, it is about helping athletes to get to where they want to be so they are able to fulfil their ambitions.”

What is the Big White Wall?

Niall Elliott, Head of Sports Medicine at the sportscotland Institute of Sport explains how the Big White Wall has become a valuable asset, providing another link in a range of mental health support that is available.

“It is without doubt a valuable addition to the provision of mental health and wellbeing support,” said Elliott.

“The Big White Wall is a leading digital mental health resource which can be accessed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, providing a safe online forum supervised by clinicians.

“It is completely anonymous and uses second generation technology providing a safe, user friendly and interactive online peer community. It is worth noting that it is available to all athletes and staff (age 16+) in the High Performance System.”

The resource is an addition to what is already being offered across the network by specialists in the field, as well as other organisations such as the Samaritans, Breathing Space, Mind and SAMH.

“The Big White Wall has been available to our network for less than six months and it is also used by the armed forces and the NHS along with a number of other organisations. UK Sport’s strategy for mental health explored what was being delivered by our network of colleagues, so this provides a different environment and is a useful add-on,” he said.

“It enables those to seek help anonymously outside of their organisation, so that can be very empowering as all conversations are effectively taking place behind virtual closed doors. There are so many benefits to having this facility available within our network.”

Having worked at the sportscotland Institute of Sport for 19 years and before that as a GP, Elliott knows how important it is to provide appropriate support for individuals. 

“We know that managing mental health and wellbeing is complex and it is about education and protection. In general practice 40% of appointments in the community are related to mental health and wellbeing, such as stress, depression, anxiety and inherited conditions. We can assume that those figures will be indicative of what is happening in sport, although we will never fully know the whole picture.

“Mental Health Awareness Week therefore provides a vital role in highlighting support that is available, hopefully helping to break down barriers and staring the conversation.

“The advantage of the Big White Wall is that it provides a degree of consistency 365 days a year, both out of season and also in the more challenging competition environment. In that respect it enhances the support we are able to provide, so athletes at Tokyo 2021, Birmingham or Beijing 2022 have the same year round support regardless of where they are geographically. it is essentially an extra piece of equipment should anyone need to use it.”

Images: PPA / Graeme Hart

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