Mind games: Athletes opening up about battle with depression

Sports stars face huge pressure to deliver results, over and over. How they tackle their stress is key, writes Áilín Quinlan.

LITHE, toned, and exuding a confidence we’d all love to emulate, successful young athletes seem to have it all.

Or do they?

Separate studies carried out in the US and Australia over the past 15 months show that between 24% and 27% of elite athletes can suffer from depression — a surprisingly high figure given that levels of the condition in the general population are estimated to be around 10%.

On top of that, an athlete’s risk of depression can also depend on what kind of sport he or she plays — in 2013, a German study found that athletes competing in individual sports were more prone to depressive symptoms than those in team sports.

Last year Waterford hurler Maurice Shanahan opened up about his battle with depression, revealing that at one stage his condition almost led to him leaving the sport.

Mind games: Athletes opening up about battle with depression

Concerned about young players, in 2015 the Gaelic Players Association published a report which focused specifically on the challenges faced by players between the ages of 18 and 21.

The organisation has been tackling the issue for years. It operates an urgent confidential counselling support line for players which is available 24/7, 365 days a year.

In 2013, this service saw an increase in referrals of over 200% from 2012, and in 2014, it supported 117 players with a variety of issues ranging from simple stress-related problems to serious addiction and depression.

Meanwhile, a separate initiative launched in March 2013 with seed capital and professional support provided by the HSE, the GAA’s Healthy Club’s initiative, is also attempting to tackle mental health issues among other problems experienced by players and members, offering interventions in everything from mental health to bullying, diet and nutrition, inclusion and community outreach, drug and alcohol awareness, life skills and personal development.

There is certainly a problem with depression in sports — but increasingly, there is also growing awareness of the problem and of the need to tackle it.

None of this is new to rugby back Isa Nacewa, who represents Leinster in the PRO12 and European Rugby Champions Cup.

Mind games: Athletes opening up about battle with depression

The elite sports environment is full of pressure for team players of all kinds, but even more so for the individual competitor, believes the 38-year-old former Fiji international.

“In my own experience, coaches critique players on a daily basis on how they perform. You are fighting for your contract all the time — you have to be on point all the time — you get critiqued in the weights room by the medical staff, by the coaches, by the strength and conditioning staff. Coaches are always trying to shape a squad for the future.”

However, while the pressures are there, he says, modern teams make a priority of putting the right people in place “to help us with that stress”.

For the individual athlete, however, it can be a very lonely path — and thus more stressful. “They are fighting for sponsorship and funding, whereas in a team environment there is a lot more cushioning,” says Nacewa.

“I know athletes who are fighting for funding to get to the major events and the stress is piled on top of them because they might have just a coach and an amateur association behind them and they’re fighting for their own funding.

“People think that the world of professional sport is full of money and fame yet a large majority of it isn’t.”

However, he adds, today’s athletes have a lot more support and coping mechanisms at their disposal, more than even eight to ten years ago.

“We have everything from mindfulness to yoga and mental skills coaching. Sports psychologists are available now and these people are at the forefront of a lot of successful athletes.

“So while stress is there, there’s also the experience and the strategies to deal with it.”

Performance psychologist Gerry Hussey agrees, adding there is now so much awareness of mental health in sport, that the chances of a problem being picked up early are generally higher than in the general population.

LINE UP: Brent Pope and Gerry Hussey at the launch of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit. Picture: Paul Sherwood
LINE UP: Brent Pope and Gerry Hussey at the launch of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit. Picture: Paul Sherwood

Hussey works with the Tipperary hurlers and the Irish boxing team as well as with a range of corporations in the areas of leadership, team-building, and wellbeing. He has also worked with Bressie on the Lust for Life foundation and the Iron Mind TV show.

“You’re in a situation where you’re expected to perform every day and if you’ re not doing that, it will be picked up very quickly and more often, because in sports, you are being assessed and analysed.

“That’s why I think sport is a very healthy environment for people to be in. It gives you access to help and support that you might not get otherwise. In sport there’s a very proactive tradition of managing health and performance and early intervention if there is a problem.”

As part of the growing recognition that young sportspeople can be vulnerable to depression, the GAA and HSE run the ‘Little Things’ campaign, spearheaded by Cavan footballer Alan O’Mara. 

The initiative highlights the fact that everyone faces difficult times at some stage, and outlines mood-improving strategies. 

The IRFU too has its finger on the mental health button — the Irish Rugby Union Players Association’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign meets the issues of mental health head-on with a range of suggestions and supports.

A further indication of the growing acknowledgement of the importance of good mental health is the Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit, which runs on October 14 in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, in partnership with Laya Healthcare.

The objective of the summit — it’s billed as the biggest and most informative event of its kind to take place in Ireland this year — is to get information and education about mental health to those who need it. And that’s not just people in difficulty — it’s also aimed at employers, teachers, parents, coaches, guidance counsellors, and anyone with an interest in the topic.

Former elite sprinter, now an expert in sports psychology, Dr Olivia Hurley, points to research that suggests individual athletes may indeed be more vulnerable to stress and depression than team players who are cushioned to some extent by the collective responsibility for failure or success.

However, says Hurley, who will be a speaker at the summit, what’s increasingly being acknowledged is the importance of social support — a parent, coach, or fellow team member.

“Having one or two really good people can be a buffer,” she says, pointing to findings of the 2012 UCD/Headstrong study which emphasised the importance for young people of having “one good adult”.

She believes depression is coming more to the fore as an issue, but not necessarily because there has been a sudden spike in cases: “In my experience in terms of young athletes I work with and also my students, they’re more willing to talk to me about mental health difficulties than they would have been four years ago.”

Hurley says that in any given academic year, and out of a class of 35 to 40 students, at least five or six would broach the issue of mental health with her at some stage.

 “The more it’s there, the less stigma, the more likely they are [to feel] comfortable in talking about it rather than the fact that there is an increase in depression.”

Male athletes may still be less likely to talk about difficulties because of the stereotypical macho images with which they are brought up, she says.

However, it may surprise some that female athletes, who would have been presumed to be more willing to vocalise a mental health difficulty may be less likely to do so than a girl of similar age in the general population.

Female athletes may feel that they are supposed to be ‘strong’ so having a mental health issue is something they may be less likely to initially come forward about than a girl in the general population. 

However, says Hurley, sportswomen are still more likely to seek help than male athletes.

Social media can be an issue, she acknowledges. It can have a positive effect, for example with messages of support and goodwill if people are sick, injured, or retiring. However, it also opens you up to trolling. 

“It can be a bad thing if an athlete performs poorly. The last thing you need is being criticised on social media,” says Hurley.

“People think athletes are armoured against criticism but they are actually their own worst critics.”

Former competitive cyclist Mark Foley, who now runs triathlons — he’s done five alone this year and is planning to run in the Dublin Marathon — and has appeared with Bressie on Iron Mind, had his life planned out from his early teens.

He was going to become a professional cyclist.

From about 14, the 41-year-old recalls, cycling dominated his life. He was obsessed about everything from diet to training, cycling technique, and how light he could make his bike.

“You’re in the mindset of doing as best as you possibly can, and looking back I was probably obnoxious and arrogant and completely driven by results,” he said.

“For me, cycling was all encompassing. I had no balance in my life.

“I was very much a one-man band and I felt a lot of frustration. I’d have had sleepless nights, I’d have been irritable and probably not easy to be around.

“I was pushing myself constantly . There was no time for relationships.”

Then at the age of 22, he was hit by a car outside his native town of Sligo during a training cycle, and sustained serious injuries. It took 10 years before the full extent of the injuries he suffered — including a brain injury — was corrected, and by then, he says, he was depressed and with no motivation or drive, confused and frustrated.

“Sport is results-driven, and it doesn’t make any different how good you think you are if the result doesn’t go your way. That can be very stressful.”

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Brain training

1. Take time out When you’re a young athlete you’re juggling school or college with training or gym, a managed diet and regular early starts.

“Make sure you take time out to let your mind freewheel,” says performance psychologist Gerry Hussey.

2. Watch the little things.

“In the modern world we prioritise activity. The ability to do nothing and to just sleep has been devalued with huge consequences. Prioritise sleep.”

3. Manage your diet “Different foods affect your brain,” he says. Anxiety and stress can be increased by the ingestion of sugars, flours and processed foods, he warns:

“When we are stressed frequently our levels of cortisol get higher and higher and we eventually get to a stage where the body cannot produce enough cortisol quickly enough.”

As a result, he says, we crave sugar and caffeine – it’s a vicious circle, he warns, which can affect our blood pressure, and lead to anxiety, inability to focus and mood swings.

“You’d be amazed by how changing the food in your system can affect mood, sleep and ability to focus,” he declares. Try it.

4. Learn to love the life you have Manage your outlook on life by practising gratitude for what you have rather than focusing on what you haven’t.

“Gratitude is a pillar of strong mental health,” and the last thing you want is to end up craving a lifestyle that is unattainable — because this affects your mood.

5. Monitor your mood

Keep a mood journal. If you notice you’re feeling anxious, angry or sad for between six and nine days in a row, consider what you may be lacking in terms of sleep, good food or good conversation, he says. Also, consider what is in your life that may be causing this.

“Make small changes and if that doesn’t help, speak to somebody who might be able to give you another perspective,” he Hussey.


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