You or I might be forgiven for wondering why a professional sportsperson would ever suffer from depression. After all, they are at the peak of physical fitness, often earning a massive salary from their sport as well as all the associated sponsorships and promotional deals, receiving acclaim, adulation and recognition on a national if not international stage. Surely this is a dream situation to be in?
Many sports have become the new celebrity focus. Big pay cheques, high-profile lifestyles and the cachet of being attached to an internationally recognised team or sport are raising the profile of sport and elevating many players to the level of superstar status.
But this recognition comes with a price. Players are all too aware of the responsibility they shoulder. Results are all important and need to be delivered consistently, often under the glare of media attention. Maintaining peak fitness requires following a disciplined regime. The slightest injury or indiscretion could be catastrophic for both the club and the player. And there are always others waiting in the wings, keen to take their place and become the next golden boy or girl.
Let's try to better understand how top sportspeople can suffer from depression:
- Many players join their sport at a young age and train for years, working with the single-minded objective of achieving success and recognition in their chosen field. The discipline required is huge; total commitment and sacrifice become a way of life with diet, training schedule and personal life all planned around their ultimate goal. There may be additional pressure to do well for the sake of their family, out of appreciation for the sacrifices made by them over the years.
- When they are selected by a club it often requires living away from home, perhaps with unfamiliar faces, away from the levelling stability of family and friends. This can be a lonely time for young athletes, and they may end up living their lives solely around their training, mixing with few people away from that world. It can be tempting to fantasize about the excitement and glamour of life away from the training environment.
- Living the dream can seem amazing and exciting to those on the outside. But being regarded as talented, successful, and elite can be both a blessing and a curse. Others may be envious of the money, lifestyle and acclaim but those people may also be on the lookout for slip-ups and indiscretions. New friends may come along but are they genuine or are they keen to attach themselves to the glamour, lifestyle and associated fame that comes from the celebrity connection. Who to trust can become a concern.
- Depression may start to manifest itself when the extent of their mental and physical pressure is appreciated. Many players experience private doubts and uncertainties. They want to do their best, be successful, make others proud of them. As a member of a team there is the additional responsibility to support the other players. Also family may have all their hopes for the future invested in them. The pressure to be consistently excellent can overwhelming. And the demand to keep improving intensifies as they become more successful.
- Recognising the early signs of depression is important. Lethargy often starts to creep in, nothing provides any pleasure or satisfaction, sometimes people feel that they can't get out of bed, are disinclined to eat, their temper, humour and concentration are affected. There may be physical symptoms like aches and pains, loss of libido, restlessness or difficulty sleeping. Some of these may be ascribed to an intense training regime but it is important to be vigilant about early signs of depression.
- A young player may feel ashamed, embarrassed and inclined to pretend that they feel confident, happy and sure of themself. Willpower and determination has got them to where they are today, surely it can succeed again. Keeping fears and doubts to oneself can become a habit, a way of refusing to admit what is happening. It can seem almost self-indulgent to say that something is wrong when they have so many opportunities and advantages, but that in itself only adds to the pressure.
Support can be provided:
- assign young players a mentor who will listen, share experiences and recognise whether they are coping
- encourage role models to come and talk about the pressures of being in the public eye
- treat depression as less of a taboo subject or a sign of weakness
- have counsellors, therapists or a help hotline readily available
- provide confidential support
- support players who need to take a break from the game for a while
Sport provides great pleasure to its many supporters. Let's find positive ways to care for the people involved in its provision.