To many on the outside being a top flight athlete is a dream job.
All they see are the success stories, the travel, the winning, the sponsorship deals, the adoration of many young fans even the girls. What they do not see is the hard work that goes in to maintaining that level of success, the pressure and fear of letting your team mates down, those you love, who will cop abuse for your failure, and in some cases the very real fear of letting your country down. It is only now that we are beginning to hear of the many mental issues that athletes face.
Yet there are also physical ones too. Some athletes push their bodies to breaking point. So desperate are they for perfection and that extra second of pace or power, that they push their bodies to breaking point, and injuries start to mount up. Some are encouraged to play through those injuries “for the good of the team,” others play on out of fear of losing their spot in the side, and the possibility they may never regain it.
Professional sport has become a far more high pressure environment than it was 25 years ago where players played hard and partied hard, and probably enjoyed themselves a great deal more. They were not necessarily as fit and toned or careful in regards to what they ate, but there was an enjoyment to playing. Let us not forget the dreaded skin fold test was a relatively new thing back then and no one had heard of an ice bath.
We have had Australian Kookaburra Simon Orchard – also a co-host on NTFS – write and subsequently speak out about his anxiety issues. Since Orchard put down his feelings in his blog, Irish Hockey player Paul Gleghorne found the courage to open up about his suicidal instincts.
On his Blog he wrote “One day, I had had enough and I decided I was finally going to end the pain. I went to visit the cemetery where my mother (who passed away when I was 16) was buried. As I looked at my mother’s grave, it brought back memories of how hard she battled against cancer, how she just refused to give up.”
“With tears in my eyes, I decided that I wasn’t going to give up either. I went home and sent myself an email to remind me to make an appointment with my doctor the next morning. I view that moment as the defining moment in my life (so far).” He added.
We rarely think of the lot of a coach, but in the same article in the Indian Express, Great Britain and England coach Bobby Crutchley talked about having to break the news to a dedicated and proud young athlete that he has not made the squad for a major tournament, and the effect his decision can have on that player and how he feels seeing the player break down. Former England Manager Glenn Hoddle was very quick to highlight this as the hardest part of the job, and at club level having to tell a young player that he was being let go. This in some ways can be worse than firing someone in an everyday job as you could be destroying not only their career, but also their dream.
Many who have been in that situation will tell you that you simply want to get out of the room, yet the coach is trying to soften the blow and keeps talking. It is not a pleasant experience.
It was interesting to read in this same article on Orchard’s plight his captain Mark Knowles quoted as saying “Professional sport is around 60 percent psychological and 40 pc about skills and other things, if you control the mind off field, you will be able to control the ball on it.”
One man who is going to put that to the test is former England Cricketer Monty Panesar. Panesar has spoken out recently about the paranoia that not only threatened to finish his career but also destroy his life.
The spin bowler is seeking a return to the first class county cricket circuit and aiming for an international recall next winter. His goals are now very personal, but they are equally important.
Panesar has highlighted how a lack of confidence forced him to withdraw into himself and then alienate those closest to him. He hopes that his issues will help others who find themselves in the same position, where their talent may outstrip their self belief. In his case a player with low self belief but an abundance of talent, a lack of belief in his ability in a game situation shown by a captain would have had an even bigger impact.
Panesar has been quick to acknowledge those who have helped him through this period of his life, people who did not let him suffer alone. Neil Burns the former Somerset wicketkeeper is one such person, who now acts as his mentor and works with a psychotherapist, psychiatrist and hypnotherapist. The key they claim is having Panesar focus once more on simple virtues, and be honest about his vulnerability.
These athletes are not weak, as they may have been portrayed in the past, they are human. They like us worry about job security, and their futures when they retire. In 99% of cases athletes are soon forgotten once they hang up their boots and the next generation steps up. Unlike most of us their job is to represent the dreams of thousands, and their country, to do us all proud, and that is a huge burden to carry. Some are happy with that responsibility, to others it weighs heavily; after all they simply want to play and excel in a sport they love.
Professionalism, and in some cases money, has brought a new dimension to modern sport but not everything that comes with it is good. We should never forget that those we pay to watch live or sit and watch on television are human like all of us, they have mums and dads, brothers and sisters, partners and children. They bleed like you and I, they cry too when hurt. So let us no be so quick to judge, let us try and temper our criticism and our expectations with some reality.
For every Panesar, Gleghorne or Orchard there will be another ten athletes suffering in silence.