A Growing Awareness of Sportsmen Struggling with Depression Suggests a Greater Need for Psychotherapy
In a documentary on the BBC last week, ‘The Hidden Side of Sport’, England cricketer Freddie Flintoff explored the depression suffered by high performing sportsmen and why, until recently, little was knows as to the extent of depression suffered amongst this demographic.
We were told that statistically, 1 in 10 sportsmen suffer depression whilst there are more suicides amongst cricketers than in any other sport.
Flintoff described experiencing “unbelievable highs and dramatic lows” during his cricketing career but often asked himself, “What’s wrong with me”, when everything seemed to be going so well, and yet he still felt low. He was winning and yet he still felt depressed.
He put on a show and gave a front of confidence that he did not feel, so that everyone on the outside thought everything was alright, until things started unravelling in 2006-2007.
“I didn’t want anyone thinking there was anything to be got at. I didn’t want people knowing I wasn’t that confident person”, “I was seen as this character who was unflappable”, so he hid behind a “happy go lucky” character.
However, he simply could not escape his feelings and drank in order to find another way of coping with how he felt, but this just exacerbated things. He said he was, “drinking to escape, change how I felt”, but depression was still there and the come down from the drinking and the behaviour during it caused him embarassment and shame; he mentioned how he felt the “disapointment people had in me”.
His fellow team player, Steve Harmison described how he felt that playing sport, throwing himself into it was an escape from his feelings, however eventually this way of avoiding what was going on for him ceased to work as he experienced hyperventiltion and panic attacks. He also mentioned that he didn’t know why he felt that way.
Boxers Barry McGuigan and Ricky Hatton also suffered from depression. They both described how all boxers doubt their ability in the ring and yet they are unable to express their fears. “Never show fear. Never show intimidation” said McGuigan.
Hatton descrided how he thought his depression was triggered by boxing. He had such a pride in boxing and in himself as a boxer, then he started to loose and he had to come to terms with that and the end of his career. The loss of his itentity as a boxer seems to have contributed to his depression.
Hatton too, as with Flintoff, turned to drink to try and resolve his feelings with similar results. He said, “Suffering from depression then add drink to it, its like a runaway train”. Hatton tried to deal with his problems by himself, in secret, however, Barry McGuigan had a close family to whom he turned. He said that other boxers did not have this and did not wish to seek help from a counsellor or psychotherapist. Hatton backed this up by stating, it is “very very hard for a man to go to someone and say “I need help”. It’s tough”.
Vinnie Jones, another man seen to have been successful in life, described how he came very close to suicide with depression. He said, “You feel so degraded in yourself. Every bit of pride was taken out of me. Why are these people putting up with me?”. He went on to say that there was no one to turn to within sport and that depression was ignored as it was, “taken as a weakness”. Jones was fearful of how admitting to depression would affect those around him and their opinions of him.
In an interview with Piers Morgan, the ex editor described his feelings at the time towards the depression suffered by sportsmen. He thought that a person could not be depressed if they have wealth and fame. It was impossible and, “You know what, get over it…”.
It seems that his attitude was that lucky and talented people have no entitlement to depression. Fortunately, Morgan’s attitude has since changed. Matthew Syed backed this up by saying that in his opinion people assume that if you have money and fame etc then you are in a “psychological nirvna”. However, it is the fear of this attitude in others that often stops men seeking help for depression in the form of talking therapy, such as psychotherapy or counselling. Dr. Steve Bull, a cricket team psychologist said that attitudes to depression amongst sportsmen are changing but he acknowledged that, as 10% of the population in any given year are liable to experience some form of anxiety and depression, more attention should be given to the mind as well as the body.
He too seems to support Hatton’s feelings that sportsmen are obsessed with what they do, that there is a personal identity with their sport and that it is alright when things are going well but terrible when not. However, he did not think that sport caused depression, seeming to imply that it is more the feelings about the sport and the level of participation in that activity. This could be applied to many activities.
Dr. Bull also thought that there is a greater awareness of depression in sport because of the publicity, not that this is a new phenomenon.
The above experiences of high functioning sportsmen can be applied to the experiences of many men in every walk of life. Even if life seems to tick all the positive boxes, there may still be inexplicable feelings of depression.
Identifying with one’s work so that failure is not an option can be similar to how sportmen identify with their sport. Pressure to succeed in work or private life can add to a sense of being unable to cope. Fear of others attitudes towards depression may prevent men seeking help, such as committing to a course of psychotherapy. Fears of weakness, of social exclusion or feelings of shame may all contribute to not seeking help and support but suffering alone and ultimately may lead to self destructive behaviour, such as drinking (as with Hatton and Flintoff) or drugs. However, as Flintoff said, to “talk about my feelings was good to do”.
“Disappointments as a player I’ve tried to forget, bury my head in the sand a bit. But confronting some things, I think has helped me tackle some of my insecurities head on”.
“I think moving forward I can let go a little bit. I don’t want to have to pretend to be what I’m not. Nor do I want to play up to what everyone wants from me. I think its just time to be myself”.
The therapists at The London Cavendish Psychotherapy Practice provide a confidential therapeutic environment in which to discuss and explore difficult feeings. They provide non judgemental, open minded, professional support.
The Cavendish Psychotherapy Practice is based at 121 Harley Street, London.