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SportsMENTA: The first sports mental health conference in the MENA region with Ally Salama

The SportsMENTA Conference is the first sports and mental health conference in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). Its first iteration recently concluded, with famed athletes from the region, such as squash world number 1, Ali Farag and world number 2’s, Mohamed ElShorbagy and Nouran Gohar.

We caught up with SportsMENTA’s founder, Ally Salama, to hear about the groundbreaking event, mental health awareness in sports, and the future in the MENA region.

SportsMENTA

Zushan Hashmi: Tell me a little bit about where the idea to hold a sports mental health conference came from?

Ally Salama: I was inspired by my friend at Harvard. That sparked an interest in taking the idea forward as an athlete, given my professional background in FINA and Swimming, for 14 years of my life, swimming for clubs in the UAE, Canada, Egypt and the UK.

What do you think are some of the challenges of getting the conversation around mental health and sport into the mainstream in the MENA region and why?

I believe the importance of mental health isn’t emphasised enough, as we heard from Kanzy El Defrawy at the conference. When all the importance of sports is placed on the physical element of fitness, we miss out on the real game, which all the panelists also agreed on – that is being an elite athlete and winning championships is 90% mental 10% physical.

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The SportsMENTA conference recently became the first mental health conference on sport in the region, can you tell us a little bit about this first iteration of the conference?

Absolutely, due to COVID restrictions, we had to host it online. Ideally, we would love to host it on the ground in the MENA – as a day-long conference, covering a wider range of sports, including football, tennis, handball, basketball and swimming as well as squash.

The pro, by far at the first iteration of the conference was accessibility. We had 300+ attendees over 20 countries registering, 15 conference ambassadors each, representing their respective countries.

This wouldn’t have been possible without the first iteration being online. We also partnered up with Shezlong to give participants 25% of the leading online psychotherapy platform in the region with code 25OFFSPORTSMENTA.

The tactic behind tackling squash was that being Egyptian myself, having personal connections with the players’ friends, and support systems, we were able to build trust in creating a safe space where they can believe in that sharing would make an impact.

Can you share some key insights that you came away with from the professional athletes at the conference?

I’d love to be able to share our reports with Sportageous very soon.

We’ve compiled all our insights and we’re airing our report by Jan 27th 2021, which we’ll be sharing with the World Federation for Mental Health and the World Health Organization as well as our friends at the UN.

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In the West,  conversations and support around mental health are growing ten-fold, with team sports now possessing support staff such as psychologists within their teams, what is it like in the MENA region?

Honestly, Zushan, it’s not really great, hence why the top tier athletes such as Ali Farag, Mo El Shorbagy, Nouran Gohar, Kanzy El Dafrawy and Farida Osman are stepping up.

What’s more fascinating is that many more athletes have reached out after the conference, believing in the message, asking how they can take part in next event, or asking what our mission is and how can they play a role.

Isn’t it beautiful how everything starts from a conversation?

Ally Salama, SportsMENTA founder with camera
Ally Salama, founder of EMPWR and SportsMENTA (Source: Supplied)

And particularly, in Egypt, where a lot of your guests at the SportsMENTA conference were from, is this any different, considering their dominance in Squash on a global scale and football in Africa and the Middle East? Why/why not?

It’s not easy to bring athletes to speak about mental health, let alone the top athletes in their sports, respectively.

The tactic behind tackling squash was that being Egyptian myself, having personal connections with the players’ friends, and support systems, as well, we were able to build trust in creating a safe space where they can believe in that sharing would make an impact.

We knew that dominating the conversation with one sport and bringing the top athletes of their game, would create a huge impact in the world of squash, and subsequently other sports, hence why the intentional reasoning.

Now players across all sports are messaging us. Including professional governing boards of some respective sports.

I’m very glad this strategy worked out.

We’re very confident that moving forward SporsMENTA will be the largest sports and mental health conference in the world, setting records on making safe spaces a norm and a MUST in the world of sports.

With regards to mental health, you have a wider involvement in the space than just sports (EMPWR magazine), can you tell me a bit about mental health in your personal journey?

As mentioned earlier, I come from a sports background, but to cut a very long story short about how I stumbled into this passion, it stemmed from a horror personal story that I lived.

I was diagnosed and suffered from clinical depression for the years I moved away to a university abroad and still believe it affects me to this day. At the time, I lost everything, my belief in myself, my confidence and everything that made me the man I see myself as today.

I made a vow to myself then that if I ever make it out alive (yes, I did consider taking my life like many people with mental illnesses do) then I will make sure I become a champion in a different type of sport, which wasn’t swimming, but; mental health.

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So, it’s funny because the way I approach my advocacy in mental health is the same way I approach sports, due to my childhood.

In fact, I grew up in the same swim squad as Egypt’s and Africa’s fastest swimmer in history, Farida Osman, whom I share a great friendship with and had a lovely chat with her in the lead up to SportsMENTA here.

WATCH: Former squash world number 4, Paul Price on mental health challenges.

And this obviously pushed you to organise and host the SportsMENTA conference, were there any other lessons that translated from your own experiences to the vision you have?

The only lessons I learned was the need for financial backing – as the only limitation that affected us was the backing from sponsors.

Again, doing something new in a field where it’s not super digestible, nor do many people understand the importance of it, is quite challenging.

But it’s with support from partners like yourself that help us get the word out.

SportsMENTA conference guests
The SportsMENTA conference Panel

Where do you envision to see SportsMENTA in the future? (and why in that direction?)

We’re very confident that moving forward SporsMENTA will be the largest sports and mental health conference in the world, setting records on making safe spaces a norm and a MUST in the world of sports.

One thing that personally bothers me is, when I was growing up I saw the impact of male locker room conversation. I grew up in that environment having no other choice.

That’s the future of SportsMENTA. Challenging these norms.

We’ve seen the incredible impact sports have in our society, the good and the bad, and hopefully, through sports, we can truly empower men and women to reach their utmost potential in all areas of their lives.

What would you say to young and upcoming athletes in the region in regards to the importance of their mental health?

To definitely tune into our findings and attend our conferences, especially if they’re looking to up their game.

Our purpose here isn’t to talk. Our aim is to prove that with the tools and experiences our top-tier athletes have spoken about, that mental health is a MUST and not a second priority in their lives as athletes.

The difference between an elite professional who breaks records and one who trains equally hard yet doesn’t;  that’s all in the mind and that’s what we’re on about.


For more on health and wellbeing visit Sportageous.
Visit SportsMENTA on Linkedin and Instagram.
Follow Ally Salama on Instagram and Twitter.

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