The importance of psychology and how this influences sporting performance has been the subject of increased attention over the last decade, as athletes and sports teams have explored what was, until recently, relatively unchartered territory. This has included sportspeople sharing the visualisation techniques they employ whilst competing and the realisation that a greater understanding of the workings of the human mind can help optimise sporting performance.
In a similar vein, there has been an increased willingness on the part of sportspeople to discuss their emotional well-being. The likes of Dame Kelly Holmes and Marcus Trescothick have spoken powerfully about their ongoing struggles with depression, whilst a more recent example is that of former England test cricketer Jonathan Trott, who has described the mental health issues that led to him walking out to bat during an Ashes test in Brisbane with tears in his eyes.
It has also been hard to miss the considerable press coverage this week of the troubling statements made by the heavyweight world champion boxer Tyson Fury during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Fury appears to be engaged in an ongoing battle with (what he has described as) a form of bi-polar disorder, a condition which has led to his management team declaring him “medically unfit” to fight and Fury himself stating that he doesn’t wish “to live anymore”.
Whilst sportspeople can often be seen as “superhuman” by virtue of their sporting prowess and some achieve a measure of fame and accompanying adulation, along with the attendant financial rewards which that brings, what happens when a sportsperson is faced with the reality of retirement? In the increasingly cut-throat world of elite sport, sportspeople of more (in purely sporting terms) “advanced” years can be cast aside for younger alternatives whilst others are cruelly forced into premature retirement because of injury.
It has been said that a sports star will die twice, the first time at retirement, and many elite sportspeople (whether they are deemed to be “stars” or not) have to cope with what has been described as a feeling of emptiness in their post-retirement lives. This is not surprising considering that the hours of training and competition that are required to reach an elite level can lead to a sportsperson strongly identifying themselves as an “athlete”. When a sportsperson’s identity as an “athlete” no longer applies post-retirement, the transition into the next phase of their life can be problematic.
However, the more sportspeople speak openly about their mental health issues, the greater society’s appreciation of such issues becomes and, importantly, the more likely it is that those who are suffering from mental health issues feel able to seek support themselves. For example, when John Kirwan, the former All Black great, fronted a depression awareness campaign in New Zealand, the demand for mental health programmes amongst the general public in New Zealand rocketed.
And whilst there is certainly more that elite sport can do to help sportspeople suffering from mental health issues, the Chief Executive of the mental health charity Mind was at pains to point out earlier this week that many governing bodies are proactive in making support available if it is needed, with around 300 organisations currently signed up to The Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation.
This is undoubtedly a positive step and shows that not only is mental health no longer a taboo subject for sportspeople to discuss but that they can seek help if required. After all, mental health conditions can affect anyone, regardless of the numbers on a person’s bank balance, their media profile or the number of followers they have on Twitter.