Helping the heroes of sport face up to their demons

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Following the recent tragic death of Wales football manager Gary Speed, Adam Shergold investigates what the governing bodies in sport are doing to help alleviate the mental problems which may be afflicting our sporting icons as the pressures of success invariably begin to take a heavy toll

To the man on the street, professional sports stars appear to have everything.

Many are instantly recognisable across the world, lapping up the adulation of millions of fans. They have the fame, the lifestyle, the wealth and a weekly chance to re-write the record books.

We never consider that our sporting idols are living in a goldfish bowl.

Their daily lives in a constant spotlight, they must play in the knowledge that any errors will be seized upon by fans, rivals and the media, replayed and scrutinised over again, thrown back at them as weakness.

As role models, as well as athletes, they are expected to be perfect. They must also cope with the unpredictable fortunes of sport, which can take them from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low.

It is little wonder they can sometimes crack.

As we add the case of Wales manager Gary Speed to the list of tragic sportsmen and women, we realise there are few corners of the sporting world which remain unaffected by the dark clouds of depression.

In cricket, Michael Yardy and Marcus Trescothick were forced to exit the international stage after admitting they were struggling with mental issues.

Just yesterday, Derbyshire captain Luke Sutton quit the sport altogether after suffering through the 2011 season.

In football, some of the finest players of the modern era – Paul Gascoigne, Stan Collymore and Neil Lennon – have battled through depression, an illness which has afflicted snooker’s Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Allen, athletics heroine Kelly Holmes, boxing champion Frank Bruno, rugby union star Jonny Wilkinson and top tennis players Serena Williams and Monica Seles.

German international goalkeeper Robert Enke and rugby leagueinternational Terry Newton were driven to suicide by the illness.

In the macho environment of competitive sport, depression and mental illness can stalk the dressing room. But it remains unspoken.

“Lots of sportsmen and women have the mental capacity to cope with the pressures they are placed under,” says Ian Maynard, Professor of Sports Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University.

“Sportsmen are perfectionists and they are obsessives. This can be positive – some athletes get the motivation and the drive and they strive to be the best because they believe that somewhere in the world, someone is training to beat them. They push themselves to the edge, but they are able to cope with it.

“But we are all humans and we all make mistakes. This is the flip side. When a sportsman is a perfectionist, they can sometimes fail to adapt to errors. And sometimes they blame others in the team but they can’t overcome the problems with themselves.

“There are highs and lows in sport. You can go from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low within the space of a week. Most players can deal with this but some get very down.

“On top of this, they are expected to be role models. They are looked up to by society, who perceive them as perfect. They are not expected to open up and reveal weakness, so a molehill can become a mountain in terms of mental problems.”

Gradually, as one-by-one they are touched by tragedy, professional sports are awakening to the realisation that mental fitness is every bit as important as physical condition.

Support networks are being built, direct referrals to specialists speeded up and club staff trained to identify the tell-tale signs of a player labouring under mental fragility.

The Time To Change charity has been working in conjunction with the Football Association to try and reduce the stigma associated with mental health, a stigma magnified countless times in the high pressure world of sport.

Hayley Richardson, from the charity, says: “For many people admitting to a mental illness is unthinkable because of the fear of discrimination.

“For sports people, this is no different. The psychological pressures of playing sport at the highest level are immense, with many people training from an early age to succeed.

“Alongside high-profile players there are many others who didn’t make the grade after dedicating half their life to success, and experience the psychological consequences of rejection and failure.

“In addition, the pressures will also affect people who have reached their peak and retired or been forced to retire through physical injury.”

The charity aims to encourage players at all levels of the game to discuss mental health with coaches as openly as they would physical injuries.

Time To Change works with 16 Premier League clubs to educate staff about how to identify the signs.

The Professional Cricketers’ Association have started similar work, with young talent mentored by current or former professionals who have been trained to nurture the mental state of their charges, as well as working on the techniques of the game.

Jason Ratcliffe, PCA assistant chief executive, talks about how playing the sport at an elite level has become more difficult in an age of packed schedules and long overseas tours away from the comfort of home and family.

“It isn’t like in the past, where players would get the chance to go out and explore the country they were touring,” he said.

“Now, they’re more likely to spend time in the nets and they are living in each other’s pockets, and within four walls.

“That is not dissimilar to any other walk of life, where you would see the same people everyday at work. However, you add the public spotlight and the pressures of fame and the pressure to perform on top of that.”

Rugby league has been one of the most pro-active sports in creating cast-iron support for players, with the Rugby Football League’s State of Mind campaign responding to the twin tragedies of Newton, the former Leeds Rhinos, Wigan Warriors and Bradford Bulls hooker, and Wakefield academy player Leon Walker.

Emma Rosewarne, RFL operations director, explains the campaign’s work: “As well as professional counsellors and social workers who are able to help players with a wide range of issues, we are now – through the contacts made in the State of Mind programme – providing training for mental health first aiders at junior and senior level at our professional clubs and some of the larger community clubs.

“With the help of State of Mind, we have been able to train four adult and 15 youth mental health first-aiders at club level and will train a further 32 at both levels in January.

“Earlier this year, with State of Mind, we ran mental health awareness sessions which were attended by 327 Super League players and 45 club staff and are offering the same sessions to Championships clubs.

“In addition, every Super League club is currently in the process of appointing a ‘Player Welfare Manager’ who has or will be trained in mental health issues.”

But despite these steps in the right direction, there is much more work to be done in order to break the taboo around mental health in sport.

Professor Maynard says: “You need to get through to the athletes that they are big enough to share their worries.

“There are not many sports with a professional referral system. In football, for example, only the five or six top clubs will have a psychologist. They all have physiotherapists who can recognise some of the signs but are not trained to deal with it. Clubs with psychologists are few and far between. Far too many clubs consider psychologists to be an extravagance. In reality, an appointment can cost about £150, which is nothing compared to the club budgets and player wages. It’s a false economy.”

Every sports star lost to mental illness serves as a reminder that, as much as we want our heroes to be perfect and infallible, they are vulnerable to their demons.

Slowly, sport is gradually helping our heroes to confront them.