Dedicating Myself To Psychology

Hi everyone! My name is Rhys Maredudd Davies. I’m a former canoe slalom athlete and coach, and currently a clinical psychology PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. My research focus is on mental health in athletes and retired athletes.

Back in October 2015, I was competing for an elusive space in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. My sport was canoe slalom; a technically, physically, and mentally demanding sport that requires its athletes to navigate a set course on the white-water rapids with precision, speed, elegance, and flair.

I had spent the previous eight years dedicating my skill set to the men’s double canoe discipline, which required two of us to navigate the course together in the boat. My crewmate Matt Lister sat in the back of the boat (You may recognise him as a ‘Brit Crew’ member from season one of RU-Paul’s Drag Race UK!), whilst I sat in the front.

We had to guide our collective 170kg of weight through the racecourse in complete synchrony and had to learn to read not only the river, but also ourselves and each other, to ensure that we could react accurately to the ever-turbulent conditions of rapid moving water.

Unfortunately for us, the Rio Olympic Games would be our last chance to compete at an Olympic level; the International Olympic Committee had announced that the men’s doubles category would be dropped from the Olympic Games, so that the sport could achieve much needed gender equity. We had started the year with a lot of bad luck: I had suffered an intense shoulder sublux injury (my left shoulder was dislocated and relocated three times in a row by the force of the river), and my crewmate Matt had damaged his ribs and forearm through overtraining.

But by the time we came to the GB Olympic Selection series, we were at the peak of our performance, and we were consistently putting down the quickest times on the racecourses. Unfortunately, we just missed out on a place on the Olympic team, so it was time to look for a new challenge. Fast forward to now and I’m doing a PhD in Clinical Psychology with at the University of Edinburgh.

I was drawn to psychology after working with amazing Sport Psychologists, and through my own interest to improve performance under high pressure.

I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge that the clinical inspiration of my research interests wasn’t somewhat inspired by the existential crisis of retiring from elite sport (the cruelty of having to identify as a ‘mere mortal’ was too much to bear!)

The transition from a very physically intensive career path to a very academically intensive one has been challenging, but there are a surprising number of parallels between the two. Both require dedication to the craft of understanding your domain; either hours on the water attempting to understand the nuances of the river, or hours in front of the laptop, reading up on the literature.

Both require careful long-term and short-term planning to meet goals and milestones, and both need to be reactive to any sudden changes that may need to be applied (something we’re all too familiar with in the age of COVID!). But perhaps most strikingly, is that in both fields, you only can only control what you do; the river and your competitors will always do their own thing, as will the conditions associated with research. It is pointless to stress out about the potential outcomes; far better to focus on learning what you can personally control. Sometimes we just need to accept that we can be lucky or unlucky, regardless of how hard we work.

My first research project will be exploring how exercise influences cognitive mechanisms that are considered important for functioning mental health.

A driving force for the research is that full time athletes will suffer from mental health difficulties at a similar rate to the general public, despite the reported benefits of exercise to mental health. This indicates that the relationship between exercise and mental health has nuances that requires further understanding.

I will be exploring factors such as the frequency of exercise, motivations of exercise and the nature of the sport which an individual participates in, and how these influence cognitive processes that underpin mental health. My hope is that the research can be used to guide a more informed approach to exercise based therapy, and to help athletes protect their current and future mental health as well as aiding in performance.

To help Rhys with his research, please click here: