Emotional and Mental Health in Sport.

The following post is one I wrote for another website, OrangeMouth Co., which is run by a friend and focused on raising awareness of emotional and mental health. As it’s actually a keen interest of mine, I thought I would post it here as well. I don’t usually do this kind of thing so take advantage of it and read on!

We may have just entered World Cup season but that isn’t why I’m writing this piece now. In fact this very line is only a late edit. As is this one, and the one following. Admittedly, though, entering a summer of sport did give me that extra motivation to finish it.

When I began writing this, Ronnie O’Sullivan was in the midst of setting the 2014 World Snooker Championship on fire. He won his quarter and semi-final matches comfortably, setting up a final against Mark Selby; a final which he then lost upon going 10-5 in front. I’ll always remember this final because simultaneous to it, Liverpool were conceding three goals to draw with Crystal Palace in their last ditch efforts to convince people they were genuine title contenders.

The loss was somewhat of a blow for Ronnie, a man known as a genius in the world of snooker, but without doubt he typically provided fans with some of the tournament’s most memorable moments along the way. During the tournament I picked Once Upon a Time in China, O’Sullivan’s new entrance theme based on the film, for a weekly piece we do on OM called Tunesday (a series of songs that we publish every Tuesday). That’s right; even over there I’ve gained a bit of a reputation for dropping occasional film and video game references, although my intention with this one probably went over the heads of most people.

Granted it would have taken you to go through a few links in your head to figure out what any of this has to do with emotional and mental health. But Ronnie O’Sullivan has spoken openly of his own battle with depression in the past, most recently in his autobiography ‘Running’.

O’Sullivan’s eccentricities are obvious to his fans. He is a character that has thrived on the public scene thanks to his excellence in and passion for his sport, but there is a side of him that has clearly hated this exposure at times.

One needn’t look far for some of the curious headlines he has made on the snooker circuit, including a controversial forfeit in the middle of his 2006 UK Championship match with Stephen Hendry. Some of this faulty temperament is attributed to a deadly perfectionism that has plagued most of his career, a quality that has helped make him an extremely watchable yet, at times, intensely frustrating character.

A loss like his World Championship one a few weeks ago, where he had to endure an amazing comeback from his skilled opponent, was something the old O’Sullivan would have struggled to deal with. But to observe the man on that night showed a more level-headed, calmer figure, even in the face of defeat towards the end.

This improved temperament in the latter stages of his career has been largely attributed to the help of sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, who’s also been working with the Liverpool and (perhaps significantly) England football teams more recently. I think it’s worth considering the success of this sporting development for a moment; setting some context would be useful.

Reaction to O’Sullivan’s aforementioned forfeit was notable for its awkwardness. No-one knew what was going on inside his head at the time, and for the vast majority of viewers and fans, this was the scariest thing about it. Had we been aware, perhaps, that he had just suffered some great bereavement or was in some kind of physical pain, the situation, while still out of the ordinary, would have been more understandable. But he didn’t seem in any pain. He didn’t even seem unhappy. The only thing he seemed, in the end, was unprofessional. This was reflected in the hefty fine he was given by the snooker authorities in the aftermath of the event.

In part this was exemplary of a wider taboo within sporting environments toward mental health issues. It’s only fair that we widen the scope a little. Let’s look at cricket, although I scarcely need to remind any cricket fans out there of the Jonathan Trott ‘stress-related’ illness saga that has become a major issue not once, but twice in the past year.

Again, this story has been notable mainly for its curiosity. Trott seems to have been reluctant to reveal full details of whatever he has been suffering from, and one wonders whether he himself even knows, having simply labelled it as burnout at first, only to have a reoccurrence of the ‘illness’ upon his return to international cricket. Make of it what you will, but it struck me as a persistent lack of understanding (dare I say, lack of wanting to understand) towards mental health that, in sporting terms, is only beginning to be addressed across the board. Dr Steve Peters and his emerging profession is a sign of that development.

This follows major strides that have been made in football since 2011. I know some of you can’t stand how mainstream football has become – you can’t go anywhere for the next month without seeing frequent references to the World Cup, whether online or in real life – but this aspect of the sport, while in some cases being a double-edged sword, has helped raise significant awareness of mental health within it. Why do I highlight 2011 as an important year for this?

In November 2011, Gary Speed, manager of the Wales national football team, committed suicide just hours after appearing live on television looking physically healthy and showing no signs that anything was wrong underneath. It was an event that sent emotional shock waves throughout the footballing world. But out of it came many positive things as well. The Football Association began looking into initiatives to increase mental health awareness in football; former Premier League footballer Clarke Carlisle filmed a documentary (‘Football’s Suicide Secret’) last year that showed how far the sport has come since then.

While there are other areas I could venture into, I think it’s prudent that I stop here, leaving some room for your own thoughts and possible discussion on the matter. Stories that I haven’t touched on and may not be aware of at all would be useful to share. Then at some point, I’ll return to the issue for another assessment on its progress. To be honest, I think the future is bright.


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