Mental Health and Sports: The Drawbacks

When I started my Sports Journalism course at Lincoln, I was naïve about the art of journalism. There were aspects of it I expected, however a lot of which I didn’t. One of them was the true art of interviewing, the zone where you exude an air of confidence and trust to your subject while retaining a sharp sense of mind. If done well, it means you shouldn’t miss anything that could lead to a more interesting story or a more compelling angle.

I believe every journalist has a story they want to tell before they retire. Something that appeals to them, but told through the words and actions of someone else. Unfortunately for me, mine has already been done. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do it in the future – it just means I’ll have to search elsewhere for my big break.

No book has impacted on me more than Marcus Trescothick’s Coming Back To Me. With graphic detail and harrowing insights, the book is a look at the Somerset and England’s opener struggles with depression. There are chapters which, at least in my opinion, could really resonate with sufferers and open a few peoples eyes to the shocking effects of a disease which affects everyone, no matter of their social status. That’s the interview I want to have, that’s the story I want to tell.

The affect of sport on mental health has been a subject that I have found myself fascinated by for a number of years now. I see a lot of people who assume that because they have a lot of money, professional sports people can’t be unhappy. They think that a loss is just a loss, and that their wealth will help them get over it. They could not be further from the truth. Really, they couldn’t. And that opinion really (really) annoys me.

For a start, I find it incredibly naïve to assume that money is the solution to all problems. Nothing is the solution to all problems, and as all problems are relative, everyone has the right to be unhappy with any given situation. Secondly, place yourself in the mind of a sportsperson. You’ve dedicated your life, and sacrificed most of your relationships, to strive for greatness. You’ve come so far and find yourself amongst the very top of your respective sport, only to be constantly knocked down. Was it worth it? Yes, you’ve earned a lot of money, but money isn’t what you went into sport for – rather it’s the glory of winning. These people are not human in their make up; only winning and becoming the best motivates them. Anything else is a failure.

And so professional sport is the perfect scenario for you to develop mental health problems. Especially with the rise of social media, where anyone can go and search for their name and read the horrible things fans write. For the record, who can blame the fans, they invest emotional energy into these matches, of course negative reactions are a natural consequence. It’s also quite difficult to, as some people say, stay away from the media. Have you tried avoiding the news for a day in our generation? If you don’t understand the fabric of sport, this will probably be quite hard for you to get but I hope I’m making it clear just how tough life near the top can be.

And on top of all this, you have to factor in the immense travelling these people do. Cricket is a sport which seems to induce more mental illnesses than most, which is hardly surprising given the weeks, sometimes even months, spent away from home at a time. You don’t have to have a degree in psychology to understand that time away from home can have dangerous consequences to your mental health.

Most of us have to deal with wins and losses. The difference between professional sports people and us is that we don’t do it with millions watching us and millions more following us over the various forms of media. After we lose, we don’t have to justify our decisions to a gaggle of reporters, nor do we have to appear graceful and supportive of the person who beat us. If we win, we don’t have the weight of expectation thrust upon our shoulders from people we will never meet.

Of course, this is all over-simplified. There is obviously always more to life than sport. Andy Murray, in his worst run of form possibly for his entire career, came out recently and said that being a father has changed his perspective on tennis. Bigger things matter more than winning, it would appear. However, you could also argue that Andy has already won three Grand Slams, reached world number one and has multiple Olympic medals and so he’s already justified being the best.

The melting pot of the sports arena is nigh impossible to recreate within an everyday situation. The gladiators who compete are human with regards their feelings, insecurities and emotions yet have to appear beyond all that at all times. The stress that puts on the brain must be hard to hold without breaking. The fact more sports people haven’t opened up is surely just a reflection of how the subject has been taboo for so long.

Playing sport recreational can have huge advantages to your mental health, competing in it professionally can be incredibly dangerous. I know I wouldn’t be cut out for that level of stress; I would love to explore the mind of someone who tries to be.

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