Our Sporting Heroes: 6 Lessons to Learn About Depression in Sport

It’s fair to say we think of our sporting heroes as resilient super-humans, but this doesn’t mean they’re any less likely to encounter depression. No matter their circumstances or profession, mental illness can strike anyone, at any point in their life. Although depression in sport is unfortunately quite prevalent, that doesn’t mean we should stop doing what we love.

Instead, we should take time to investigate why our attitude to sport can sometimes exacerbate the problem. We hope this review of British sporting heroes with depression will help us to develop a healthier approach to some of the world’s most rewarding occupations.

 

Kelly Smith – 117 caps for English football

"I've been in a dark place at times with the injuries and setbacks I've had" Kelly Smith MBE on the way physical health impacts mentality. | Lessons to Learn About Depression in Sport | Kelly Smith and Mental Health

Kelly Smith is a footballer widely acknowledged as the finest in the history of the English women’s game. During her career, she came up against depression in amongst physical setbacks of an equally serious nature.

Some of Smith’s most serious injuries came when she was playing in the US in her early- to mid-twenties. This also happened to be a time in her life when she struggled to connect with her teammates.

What can we learn?

Since it’s normal for sportspeople to start a career in their teens, we forget that their mid-career experiences come when they’re still young. What’s more, Kelly Smith experienced these immense highs and lows whilst thousands of miles from home.

Now, it’s true that talking about your feelings with peers is a huge part of maintaining mental health. However, we mustn’t forget that some people don’t have the luxury of an immediately accessible support network.

It’s vital that sporting associations provide all players with access to professional support, regardless of whether they’re shy or outgoing.

 

Andy Baddeley – 1500m Olympian for Team GB

"I felt angry towards those people who were able to compete" Andy Baddeley on the mix of guilt and envy surrounding injury. | Lessons to Learn About Depression in Sport | Andy Baddley and Mental Health

Injury is common in sport and impacts athletes in different ways. This can be an initial trigger of depression in sport, or it can worsen and further complicate the symptoms of pre-existing mental illness.

Andy Baddeley has spoken openly about his own conflicting attitudes towards injury, from jealousy to guilt, all of which were either caused or heightened by depression.

What can we learn?

Often, an inability to ‘reason’ with yourself becomes a cause for self-reproach. This lowers your self-esteem, which in turn worsens your mood, which then impacts motivation to improve… and the cycle continues.

Coaches must prepare their players for this pattern of injury and recovery, of mental illness and health. They must also be open from the start of training about the prospect of injuries and even the fact that some athletes’ recoveries remain insufficient for professional competition.

Furthermore, it is the responsibility of trainers, coaches and athletes to check-in with each other in order to monitor on-going mental health. This will help to avoid setting unrealistic goals which risk worsening depression in sport.

 

Naomi Cavaday – Mental health Ambassador for the LTA

"I even stopped resting properly because I did not think I could afford to" Naomi Cavaday on the causes of stress and mental ill health. | Lessons to Learn About Depression in Sport | Naomi Cavaday and Mental Health

After examining her history of depression and other disorders, Naomi Cavaday made the decision to retire from playing tennis professionally in order to prioritise her health.

She cited the permanent jet-lag, her own blinkered attitude, and the relentless fight for points and sponsorship.

This acceptance and awareness of her own condition made Cavaday an ideal choice for the Lawn Tennis Association’s mental health ambassador.

What can we learn?

It’s vital that sports players know when to stop. That means day-to-day, week-to-week and between tournaments. It’s impossible to continue at a high level without sufficient rest, meaning players could risk an early retirement due to mental or physical burnout.

Trainers and athletes must work out a schedule which incorporates enriching aspects of life such as socialising. No amount of success is worth sacrificing mental health.

 

Victoria Pendleton – 3 Olympic medals for Team GB cycling

"I was told by one of my coaches I shouldn’t talk about my vulnerabilities" Victoria Pendleton CBE on the pressure to hide her depression. | Lessons to Learn About Depression in Sport | Victoria Pendleton and Mental Health

Victoria Pendleton has experienced depression both during her career as a professional track cyclist, and in the years since. In 2016, she spoke about the way a misunderstanding of what success looks like led to her being told to suppress the truth of her own illness.

Though this initially prevented her from seeing help, she was eventually treated by a psychiatrist (Dr Steve Peters) with whom she worked to develop coping strategies before going on to win Olympic gold.

What can we learn?

To help change harmful attitudes to depression in sport, we can look to Pendleton’s own words.

“There’s a pressure that you should put forward this bravado of being in control, invincible. The truth was I didn’t feel like that and it didn’t stop me being a champion.”

Coaches and players alike must remember that no-one is invincible and that bravado is not a requirement of success. Therefore it is possible to have depression and become a champion in your sport, provided you receive the necessary support from a professional.

 

Freddie Flintoff – Former captain of the England cricket team

"through talking about it and getting help, I know how to deal with it" Freddie Flintoff MBE on depression, and seeking medical intervention. | Lessons to Learn About Depression in Sport | Freddie Flintoff and Mental Health

Freddie Flintoff is no stranger to the pressures brought about by the hopes (and judgement) of a nation.

When the public are so unforgiving, it continues the stigma around talking about mental health. However, Flintoff is more than ready to talk about depression in sport, and he wants the public to catch up.

“I feel as easy talking about the weather as I do mental health…”

What can we learn?

We can help avoid further pressure by engaging in respectful discussion about depression in sport. When someone in the public eye starts this conversation, it’s down to fans and media to follow their lead.

Remember, how someone treats their depression is down to their own decisions and medical professionals. Be it through talking therapies, medication or a combination.

 

Jonny Wilkinson – 277 Rugby World Cup points for England

"When you are on your way somewhere, there is always excitement and possibility" Jonny Wilkinson CBE on struggling to be happy after finding success. | Lessons to Learn About Depression in Sport | Jonny Wilkinson and Mental Health

The 2003 World Cup final ended with a thrilling, perfectly executed drop goal from Jonny Wilkinson. Rather than an opportunity to celebrate, this actually marked the start of a depressive episode.

A heart-breaking reality of depression is that it often dulls the excitement of even the most special achievements and occasions. For Wilkinson, anxiety and depression meant all he saw in success was a disappointing lack of anything to work towards.

What can we learn?

Following retirement, Wilkinson said he felt “alone, disengaged, unable to be happy anymore.” As though he had arrived at his destination and found it had nothing to offer.

With this in mind, you could argue that having varied hobbies alongside your main sport is an act of self-preservation! However, it’s nowhere near that simple.

The more you have going on, the richer your life will be, but it will also wear your out more. Furthermore, it would be foolish to suggest that you can avoid depression altogether by choosing specific hobbies.

Instead we must see athletes, coaches, friends and family, all being open about sport’s myriad highs and lows. It’s all a case of being prepared.

 

Depression in Sport: Moving Forwards Together

Individual actions won’t ‘cure’ the sporting world of mental illness but everyone can contribute to making it kinder and healthier. It’s time for coaches, friends, family, fans and players/athletes themselves to learn from the past.

Areas for change:

  1. Clubs and sporting associations should provide access to talking therapies.
  2. Coaches and trainers should check in on their players as situations change, particularly addressing attitudes to injury.
  3. Players and trainers should be strict with their commitment to sufficient physical and mental rest.
  4. Coaches and players should seek intervention as soon as problems arise, rather than fearing the admission of weakness.
  5. Fans and media professionals should consider the wellbeing of sportspeople with as much enthusiasm as they do their achievements.
  6. No sportsperson is alone in their career, so groups of people become mutual support networks for maintaining a one another’s balance.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, but with these first steps we can help to reduce the impact of depression in sport and let the profession be as fruitful and rewarding as we know it can be.

 

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