The Mental Game

Date: January 2, 2012 / Posted by control

Former England skipper and all-rounder, Andy Flintoff is the latest player to come out and speak about his battle with depression. In an interview with the Daily Mail, he has spoken of the personal battles he faced while leading England to a 5-nil loss in the 2006-07 Ashes series.

Flintoff’s plight, where he admits to turning to alcohol and losing his passion for the game, sees him add to a swelling list of elite cricketers who have gone public about their fight with depression.

The first player to really capture international headlines was former England opener and one-time Flintoff teammate, Marcus Trescothick. The veteran of 76 Test matches was an automatic choice for England between 2000 and 2006.

But, in 2006, he returned home from a tour of India citing a virus as the reason for his withdrawal. It was later that same year that he publicly announced that he was actually suffering from clinical depression, leading in the end to a self-imposed exile from international ranks.

Since Trescothick’s public admission, further international players have also openly chronicled their battles with mental illness – England’s Michael Yardy, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard; New Zealand pair Iain O’Brien and Lou Vincent; and Australian speed merchant Shaun Tait.

Whilst hardly an epidemic, these instances do point to the pressures of international sport, keeping in mind that there would be many players who have suffered in silence rather than go public with their condition.

Having been a sufferer of mental illness myself, I know the stresses it can produce in everyday life. Ally that to being a high-profile international sportsman and the stress levels are greatly magnified.

One would imagine, as was the case with Flintoff, the trigger for the onset of depression, should it be sport related, would manifest itself at a time when the athlete concerned is struggling to perform.

At the same time, being in a high profile position, the reporting and comment on the individuals performance levels, especially in the new era of social networking, can be quite damning, adding to the stresses they may be feeling.

By their very nature, elite sportsmen and women are conditioned to believe that they are invincible. So much of one’s success in the sporting arena is built around a supreme level of self-confidence that you will not be beaten.

This mindset brings with it two nasty side effects when it comes to mental illness. Firstly, the athlete’s heightened mental strength is likely to mean he or she believes they can overcome their problem without the need for external intervention, which so often is not the case.

Secondly, admitting the problem exists may, in the athlete’s mind, cause him to suffer when it comes to selection. This thought is often in the mind of many employees in the everyday workforce.

One wonders how often athletes are actually upfront and honest when they have a session with the team psychologist given the concerns that they may harbour.

Flintoff, himself has given his reasons for why athletes may opt not to admit to a problem, saying “”Because sporting stars earn high salaries and have a privileged life compared to the majority of people, there’s a perception that they can’t possibly suffer from mental health issues. They don’t want to seem ungrateful or whingeing and may be hiding their suffering rather than getting help for it.”

He also makes another interesting point when he states, “All I wanted was for the doctor to tell me what was wrong but no one suggested it was depression.” It may well be the case that in a lot of circumstances clinicians put down the reason for a sportsperson’s mindset as merely being associated with performance anxiety and that a return to form on the field will rectify the athlete’s misgivings.

One of the biggest areas that needs to be monitored and supported is the many athletes who fail to make the grade. For every athlete who succeeds at their chosen endeavour, many more simply don’t and this is often an area of grave concern when it comes to mental illness.

Many aspiring sportspeople sacrifice what is considered to be a “normal” adolescence in the quest to succeed at their chosen sport. As a result their social network and life experiences can be stunted.

Add to the mix is the fact that they may briefly make the grade before being overlooked or no longer selected. Their dreams and aspirations are cut down, in their mind, in a life-altering fashion – the old case of today’s peacock, tomorrow’s feather duster. Such a change in circumstance can prove extremely distressing to cope with.

But, sadly, for so many of these athletes the support systems that may have been in place while they were in “the system” are no longer available. It is left to the individuals to fend for themselves.

In many ways, elite level sport is somewhat of a sausage factory where the code itself is merely looking to build the perfect athlete. When the sportsperson in question is deemed to be below the standard required they are discarded and another is chosen as the next “work in progress”.

As mental illness and its associated outcomes gain greater awareness it is to be hoped that sporting bodies become more cognizant of their responsibilities to help monitor its possible manifestation in both their current charges and the ones that they have condemned to the sporting afterlife by providing some sort of open door policy to clinical help should it be required.