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Sharing not Sledging

November 27, 2013

It’s a long way from the parish of Kilbeacanty, near Gort in Co Galway, to Rondebosch in the suburbs of Cape Town, but they are linked, sadly, as the homeplaces of Galway county Hurler, Niall Donoghue, and England Test Cricketer, Jonathan Trott.

Donoghue took his own life in October, just days before his 23rd birthday, to the shock and pain of the whole GAA Community in Ireland; Trott, like a number of cricketers before him, admitted to stress issues before pulling out of cricket and flying home from England’s current English Ashes Tour.

Such events inevitably give rise to comment and reaction, but, equally predictably, the news agenda moves on, until the next time.

At first sight, there is little to connect inter-county hurling and Test Match cricket. One is proudly amateur and linked to the community right down to parish and townland level, the other is part of the multi-billion pound business that international sport and television coverage has become; one player lived in constant contact with his home community, the other in the bubble of top level sporting achievement. Yet both felt personal pressure and isolation; in both cases their mental health suffered.

The connection, of course, is that you cannot generalize about mental health; by definition it is personal to each of us and can be affected in ways which vary from pressure to succeed, traumatic family events, to chemical imbalance. One’s private, hidden, reaction to incidents which may be of no account at all to those around us – even our closest family and friends, is often the crucial element in depression. In isolating the sufferer in this way, it is at its most pernicious.

Young men, in particular, often face challenging mental health issues – and at a time in their life where they may feel pressure to forge a career, shine amongst friends, establish successful relationships and, in general, live up to the template provided for the young by marketing and media around the world.

Wherever he went in his homeplace, Niall was recognized and known: he was the star in the local club who had made it to county level, he had played in an all Ireland
Final at Croke Park: youngsters wanted to be him, parents wanted him as a son, everyone told him how proud they were. This in itself is pressure, of course, but when such admiration is contrasted with an inner feeling of unworthiness or inability to live up to expectations – or even a fear of not being able to maintain current levels of success – it can become, for some young men, unbearable. The feeling is: I can’t be what they think I am, or what they want me to be, I can’t bear to let them down. It feels like a loss of control over your own development, your own abilities, maybe even your own private aspirations. You start off wanting to be successful at your sport, your job, your studies and you end up carrying the hopes and expectations of everyone you meet in your day to day life,

Like all high level international sports stars, Jonathan Trott is at the other extreme of this pressure. To an extent, he is cocooned from the fans and supporters and their expectations, he lives in an expensive bubble, a repetition of training, travel, playing and analyzing. He is surrounded not by admiring friends and neighbours, but by team mates on the same treadmill – all of whom appear to him to be coping, and by an inquisitive and often overbearing press, who want quotable quotes and controversial predictions. They expect him to have inspiration when it’s all going right and explanations when the wheels fall off. The joys of sporting success – mastery of your craft, the highs of victory – can be lost in the need to move on, maintain the levels, seek improvement, and meet the requirements of team, media and sponsors. Those closest to you in family and friends can be physically distant for much of the time, and you may find yourself unhappily emotionally distant when they are physically present.

Of course, many sports stars flourish in such an atmosphere, they relish constant pressure and challenge – it’s part of what has brought them to their position of excellence. For others, it’s an unwelcome and unexpected part of success or talent, an uninvited guest at what was supposed to be a celebratory party.

When depression hits, it can be impossible to share the feelings. You may feel ungrateful – you are successful and popular, how can you tell people you’re unhappy? Friends have bigger and more obvious troubles than you, it would be selfish to share your feelings. And then, of course, there is the seemingly unbreakable link between being a sports star and exhibiting machismo.

As a teacher for nearly 40 years, I became aware of mental health issues in young people – particularly males; on more than one occasion my career was touched by tragic suicides.

What did I learn? Did I become an expert?

Of course not.

I discovered that expecting to be able to detect depression was a mistake. No matter how vigilant, you can’t always expect to detect ‘the signs’; there is not a ‘type’ who may succumb to depression, nor are the trigger points necessarily obvious. For all these reasons ‘treatment’ of mental illness is not an obvious solution; it may be managed or assuaged but not necessarily ‘cured’.

What I did see in many, though not all, of those with mental health issues, (and they were mainly, but not exclusively male), was anger. Like the illness, the anger could be directed inwardly or towards others, it could be specific or generalized. Often it led to challenging behaviour, frequently it scared the perpetrator as much, if not more, than the victim. It was anger born from a thousand different frustrations, incomprehension, a feeling of ignorance or powerlessness, the suspicion that everyone else had it sorted, or an inability to understand where this blackness came from.

Family, peers, activities, lifestyle or personal history could be responsible. Sometimes it was a physical, chemical imbalance, sometimes it seemed to be, at least to inexpert observers, almost completely unattributable. There are many reasons for anger amongst young males in Scotland and Ireland – social and economic, all linking with the psychological impulse to self hate, to struggle in confusion, or to choose isolation, often disguised by apparent social easiness. In the absence of any other release, self harm – emotional and physical, violence, nihilism and substance misuse all play their part in promoting this unhappiness, and impacting on those around the victim.

You would expect trouble when all of these impulses are combined with the competitive masculinity of sporting contest – whether it’s team based or individual. When performed in good mental health, sport can be an ideal release for emotions and ambition; when it mixes with personal challenges, it can be an awful mixture.

It should be noted, though, that academic competitiveness, dedication to the arts, peer popularity and many other spheres which are important in young people’s lives can be as much of a trigger as sport.

The danger is that forceful aggression is being seen somehow as a means of demonstrating strength and confidence, when, in reality it is a sign of weakness. The language and messages to be seen on teenagers’ social media sites often display a horrifying lack of awarenesss of impact.

Sportsmen, being in the public eye, tend to attract high level attention when their mental health problems are known, but really they are only the visible tip of a lethal iceberg. All of us can be affected by mental health issues, one in three or four of us will be. Sport, however, occupies a prominence in our psyche which sometimes borders on the unhealthy but could therefore be used, perhaps, as a means of promoting better mental health. Certainly regular exercise is helpful, but, the manner in which the media leads us in our reactions to sportsmen’s troubles could be crucial. And the media have played their part in the situation we have today.

Sport sells, and sponsors underwrite sporting success. In a sense, sports stars have become the moving advertising hoardings for a variety of products; the pressure is on the broadcasters, in particular, to provide thrilling and controversial ‘do not miss’ coverage. It’s in the nature of sport that it cannot always be riveting, so other ways need to be found to attract the viewer, even when the game is lacking in incident or atmosphere. Increasingly, fouls, altercations, sledging, and rule breaking receive as much playback, if not more, as moments of skill or individual ability.

Any young person watching coverage of “The Battle for the Ashes” could be forgiven for believing that the ability to stand up to foul mouthed abuse and physical threats was at least as important as technical ability with bat or ball. And it takes two to tango. Those who sledge will only do so if they gain a response. At times we see professional sportsmen acting like primary school children, facing up to each other, offering threats, calling names. The effect of this can be seen at any children’s sports event as kids mimic their heroes.

If this was merely grown men acting embarrassingly, it could be tholed, albeit with some regret. However, it promotes a faux macho sheen to sport which adds to the pressure on those who take part, and on those who emulate them. Furthermore, by highlighting such scenes, the media fuels the belief that you have to be ‘tough’ to succeed. What a stupid comment is the almost universal “It’s a man’s sport!” – seldom accurate and frequently unhelpful. We need to escape from using sport as a substitute for our emotions and see it as a release for them.

Nobody is denying the strength of purpose and commitment needed to attain success at the highest sporting level, but it should be remembered that sport has been played for centuries without the need for personal abuse or denigration being an accepted part of the approach. Not so long ago, accepting victory or defeat with good grace, and respecting one’s opponents was an integral part of most sports. It was seen as a mark of maturity. But, of course, there was far less money at stake then.

Cricket has a reputation for being linked with depression. David Frith has written on suicides in the game and there have been several high profile casualties in recent years. It may be that the game attracts a certain type of personality; it may be to do with its particular combination of team and individual, social and reflective involvement. Thankfully, various organizations seem to be taking this on board.

Ultimately, however, whether depression is sports related or not, it is an increasing danger, particularly to our young people, and the question is what can be done to minimize its effects.

As I said, there is no sure ‘cure’ but there is much that can be done to encourage an end to the isolation of those who are affected in this way. They must be encouraged to share their feelings, and examples of sharing and talking are crucial. In the aftermath of Niall Donoghue’s death, a number of Irish sports stars talked of their struggles with stress and depression as part of general concern and shock at what had happened. The cricket world has also spoken up in the wake of Trott’s revelations.

Making discussion of mental wellbeing a ‘normal’ part of young people’s dialogue is crucial. Schools have their part to play and so do sporting organizations – so do the sports stars who are role models and so do the media who choose how to promote their ‘product’.

What a huge boost the nation’s mental health consciousness would receive if sport stations, instead of highlighting unpleasantness and macho posturing between players, pulled their cameras away and promoted organizations like SAMH or made points about mental health and the need to talk.

The sledging received by Jonathan Trott in the current Ashes series was not responsible for his current problems which pre-dated it by months of not years; it did, however, promote an unhealthy atmosphere of threat and aggression above and beyond the cricketing competition. Sportsmen will always seek a competitive edge but the promotion of non-sport related aggression as part of our games is surely not the way to go.

We need to get the message to our young people, whether involved in sport or not, that the real bravery lies in sharing not sledging.

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