In his compelling documentary, The Hidden Side of Sport, Freddie Flintoff recently revealed that despite a career of some unequivocal highs, “you’d never think the lows would turn into depression”. What is interesting yet disturbing in sport is how exhilarating successes can inexplicably transform into abject despair. This has been demonstrated by recent revelations by footballers, rugby players and cricketers, coming forward with private stories of unnoticed illnesses. It takes a brief glance over the sporting headlines in recent months to recognise the transformation in interpretations of the mind-set in professional sport. But why is depression so widespread amongst current and former sporting professionals?
In most cases, depression occurs when the neurotransmitters in the brain fail. This failure can begin due to biological and social reasons, one being the ‘washing machine effect’ when a person is accustomed to repetitive lifestyle to the point where deviating from their rigorous routine is difficult. The failure of the neurotransmitters results in the breakdown of the limbic system, which controls mood as well as, directly or indirectly, every hormone in the body. Taking into account this simplified scientific side of depression, it should come as no surprise to learn that many sportsmen also suffer physically, highlighting that depression is not a simple mental illness, and its manifestations can be as varied and nuanced as the people it effects. The All Blacks legend John Kirwan details how his heart used to race frequently and he experienced several panic attacks. Marcus Trescothick echoes Kirwan, saying how he wouldn’t eat or sleep properly, and found concentrating for extended periods of time impossible, a worrying effect for an opening international batsman who should regard that as second nature.
Depression in sport is not uncommon. In fact, sporting history is replete with cases of extremely high-profile, successful sportsmen who have become victims of the galling condition; a curse of the strong. I call it this because the sportsmen we have seen, and will see, who admit that they suffer from this ‘curse’ all have the same attributes and expectations. An elite athlete undoubtedly has the desire to succeed, to push themselves to the highest limits, and will be conditioned to display and represent physical and mental toughness. Admitting they have a problem, and in doing so showing vulnerability, is something that sportsmen aim to avoid. Even knowing they are ill doesn’t suffice because on the whole the illness is largely invisible and there is nothing evident to others to show that they need help. Neil Lennon, the controversial Celtic manager, movingly supports this assertion, explaining how he has been “in a room full of people and felt like the loneliest guy in the world”. Michael Yardy flew home from the Cricket World Cup nearly a year ago after deciding to seek help for depression and, unlike many other athletes, conceded that seeking help “was the only sensible option for me.” His former captain, Michael Vaughan, backed up Yardy, again working to emphasise that depression should not be seen as a sign of weakness, but a physical illness. This somewhat surprising statement is true: sportsmen, being the type of people they are, find it very difficult to take a break and stop working, and this results in several physical changes.
Kelly Holmes, Frank Bruno, Johnny Wilkinson, and in the sadder cases, Robert Enke, Dale Roberts, Gary Speed. The list of sportsmen who suffer seems endless, but this is still as much a testament to the fact that depression is a widespread, silent illness amongst all people. As Frank Bruno perfectly summarises, “Top sports people may have more money than you, more cars than you, but they’ve still got to go to the toilet, brush their teeth, put on their clothes…You’re only human at the end of the day”.