Depression: The toughest challenge in sport?

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In 1999, Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore confessed to his manager John Gregory about his battles with depression. Gregory’s response?  “What has he got to be depressed about earning £20,000 per week?”

We live in a society that immortalises our heroes, who are adored by, and earn millions; surely the last thing on these superstars’ minds is mental illness. How can they be depressed? This dehumanisation of sports stars propels them onto a stage in which every decision they make is analysed and reanalysed under the microscopic glare of the public eye, which undoubtedly leads to unparalleled degrees of pressure.

Considering all of their mistakes and failures are magnified within the public arena, this surely must place pressure on notable names in sport. Examples of Collymore, Neil Lennon, Gary Speed, Freddie Flintoff and Ian Thorpe to name a few, have all succumbed to the pressures of the industry they are involved in. The constant stresses of travelling, being separate from their families and the pressure of performance correlating to their income all must cause worry. The results of which can lead to bouts of depression which are usually hidden away for no one to see.

Conversely having the opportunity that most have dreamed about; scoring the winning runs in an Ashes series, smashing a forehand winner to win Wimbledon or even having the privilege to simply play for your country would surely far outweigh any problems you may be feeling, right? In my opinion not – mental illness is a problem within sport and until we understand the problem and provide the necessary guidance, it will stay hidden forever. By elevating our idols to something more than they are, we fail to recognise that in reality, sport stars in crude terms are no different to me or you. When completely stripped down, no matter the differences in money or success we all feel the same emotions, pains and stresses – we are all humans.

In John Kirwan’s  (an All Black rugby league and union legend) inspirational book ‘All Blacks Don’t Cry’ he underlined the need for him, to live up to the stereotype of what an “All Black” player is perceived to be – strong, manly, unforgiving. While trying to imitate this ideal he covered up his depression until finally seeking the necessary help to overcome his troubles. Once he did he felt ‘liberated’ and ‘at peace’. However taking that first step in admitting something was wrong, was unfortunately, incredibly difficult in the environment he found himself in.

This is something that rings true in a number of cases. Gary Speed, an iconic Welsh footballer and successful manager tragically took his own life in 2011 less than 24 hrs after appearing on national television. Appearing jovial on camera, enthusing about his children and talking about playing golf next week no one could have foreseen the shocking events that followed. Here lies an inherent problem, depression has developed into a taboo subject in sport. An illness that rots the mind and if not treated can have devastating consequences. The need for sports stars to perform consistently at the highest possible level while needing to talk openly about their emotions can at times be detrimental to mental clarity.

The ignorance of the topic itself arises in sports as depression is often falsely perceived as a sign of weakness or failure. It becomes something very hard to admit to, as to seek the help and guidance would be to admit defeat. Consequently the taboo of depression seriously cripples the quality of life of those who are affected.

Ian Thorpe, better known as the ‘Thorpedo’ is another example of the illustrious names to appear to be effected. Thorpe who entered the limelight at the age of just 14, went on to become the first man to win “The World Swimmer of the Year” four times and set the 2000 Summer Olympics ablaze with a haul of 3 gold medals aged 17. Having retired at 26, the medals soon diminished and following failed attempts of a comeback toward the build-up of London 2012, he turned to being behind the camera as a pundit of the sport he once dominated.

Despite his obvious successes Ian was recently administered to rehab to treat his depression head-on. People were shocked; however perhaps his depression had plagued him for some years but due to not seeking help he was never able to receive the support he needed. Just imagine being in the public eye at such a young age, the inspiration of a nation, having such levels of popularity, not to mention the riches. The rapid decline of hi sporting achievement, teamed  with failed enterprises couldn’t emulate the level of fulfillment he once obtained. A once sound mind and great athlete slowly declined, his depression ultimately having a severe effect on his day-to-day life and career.

Although there has been so many high profile cases of depression caused suicides and tragic cases of turbulent careers as a result of depression. There are signs that progress is being made. Looking into the sport of rugby league in more detail, around a third of Super League players admitted they have struggled with depression. The high profile suicide of Terry Newton a former rugby league hooker, who was capped for England in 2010, highlighted the need for the sport to break down the barriers of depression. This led to the use of psychologists in many clubs and higher levels of education helping with depression from youth levels being installed.

Both Freddie Flintoff and Neil Lennon have brought increased publicity to the subject. The former developing a real cutting-edge documentary to attempt to relieve the taboo of depression off sporting shoulders. He as well as the Celtic manager Lennon, has publicly stated his ‘door as always open’ for players seeking help on the matter – showing a change in response from what may have been seen 10 years ago.

While guidebooks, education, psychologists and figureheads like Lennon and Flintoff who have publicised the subject all serve as ample deterrents, the heightened pressures created by media and the public eye push depression out of sight. Increased levels of support and guidance for professionals to obtain can only help to tackle the problem in a more efficient manner. Sports stars are like butterflies – so beautiful and effortless in the way they perform but we sometimes forget how delicate and fragile they are too. In rugby league head waves are being made and an example is there to follow. While depression in sport has a long way to go, areas of development are increasing to initiate a conversation to how the taboo can eventually be dismantled.

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