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How a career-threatening concussion led this Olympian to meditation

by Alex Pompliano

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Here at Headspace, we have the pleasure of hearing countless stories from our app users on what led them to meditation. But through all those stories, we’ve never heard one quite like Simon Mantell’s.

Mantell is an English field hockey player. You might’ve seen him playing for Great Britain at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics or at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. But before he achieved double Olympian status, Mantell first had to recover from a career-threatening injury.

While playing for Reading Hockey Club during a 2014 game, a defender’s shoulder collided hard with Mantell’s chin. He played on, feeling as well as one could after a knock like that. But later that evening, symptoms began cropping up.

“I got blurred vision when I was driving back home from the game, which passed,” Mantell recalls. “But then the headaches started from there and didn’t pass. I just thought I was gonna wake up the next day and it would be gone.”

When Mantell went to practice the next morning, his team’s physiologist advised him to see a doctor. Then came the diagnosis: he had suffered a very serious concussion. After that, it would be 363 days before Mantell played another game.

“I realized that it was gonna take a bit more time [for the symptoms to] settle,” Mantell says. “But I never imagined it to be a year.”

“My chances [for the Olympics] were reducing for every month I was spending on the sidelines.”

A concussion can be more difficult for an athlete to grapple with than other injuries because of all the unknowns. With a torn ACL, for example, an operation will be scheduled. You’ll know how long you’ll be out. You’ll know what the rehab looks like. You can plan it all out in your head. With a concussion, there’s no telling how long symptoms will persist.

Even while sidelined, Mantell still attended every team practice—observing, learning, and waiting. To make matters worse, the next Olympic Games were looming: “I was always fighting to try and get back in the squad before the Rio Olympics. My chances were reducing for every month I was spending on the sidelines. I was missing more and more training, missing more and more matches. That was really difficult.”

During this time, Mantell began a return-to-play protocol, introducing bits of physical activity, slowly conditioning him to safely return to the field. Mantell says he got through a part of the protocol twice before his concussion symptoms “came back as bad as they were at the beginning”.

“I started to research what other things I could do to try and help my recovery because I didn’t know how long it was gonna last,” Mantell says. “A sports psychologist mentioned Headspace, saying that it could be a good tool to use.”

Mantell had tried meditation almost a decade prior when a Buddhist monk led a meditation session for his team in South Africa, but the practice didn’t stick. Mantell says he found the Headspace app “more modern [and] bespoke”, allowing him to use the Sport Pack regardless if he had 10 minutes or two minutes to meditate during the day.

“I felt, especially during the later stages of the recovery, [Headspace] was essentially a way of getting some more rest for my brain in the same way you’d rest any other sort of injury,” he says. “It definitely felt like one of the things that helped progress me through to back playing quicker than it might’ve been.”

In October 2015, one year after his concussion, Mantell was finally able to rejoin his team on the field.

“I was chomping at the bit to play,” he recalls. “I think because I was coming toward the end of my actual playing career, and I’ve had that year out, it made me more hungry to play and enjoy playing, enjoy training, and enjoy everything I was doing in that time before Rio.”

On the road to Rio, many of Mantell’s teammates would take hour-long naps to mentally prepare on a game day. He had a different routine altogether.

“I struggle to nap during the day,” Mantell says. “Something I found useful, instead, [was using] Headspace for 15 minutes lying on my bed, completely clearing my mind of the anxiety. On the match day, if you lie on your bed, you’re inevitably gonna think about the game. But I was able to get to a place where I could use Headspace to actually clear my mind. Just having that period—resting my body and my mind—it was really useful.”

Mantell has since retired from full-time international field hockey but still plays club hockey. He currently lives in London with his wife and newborn.

Photo by ADY KERRY

Alex Pompliano

Alex's writing has appeared on VICE, Noisey, and other corners of the internet. Follow him @alexpompliano.

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