MENTAL HEALTH AND ELITE SPORT IN WALES | SPORT FEATURE
Ben Woolhead looks at the taboo of mental illness within the world of Welsh elite sport.
The death in 2011 of Wales football manager Gary Speed sent shockwaves around the globe. That the popular former Premier League player suffered from depression, that he had sought to conceal it from even those closest to him and that he had done so successfully shone a stark spotlight onto a murky subject within the world of professional sport: mental illness.
Elite sport is characterised by chronic short-termism and extraordinary volatility and pressure – all largely a consequence of commercial imperatives and the financial rewards of success and costs of failure. Within this hyper-intense, hyper-competitive environment, the list of psychological stressors is legion: the eternal fear of sustaining serious, potentially career-ending injury; concerns over form, fitness and weight; deselection (or the threat of it); the culture shock of competing in a different country or at a different level; abuse received in person, in the press and online via social media; the weight of expectation from family, fans and the media; the requisite level of commitment and dedication (which involves continual self-sacrifice, restrictions on personal freedom, adherence to strict codes of conduct and constant surveillance/micro-management); so-called “transitions” or “critical moments”, in particular retirement (which often hits hard due the sudden loss of self-esteem/identity, competitive buzz/thrill, rigid daily structure and earnings). Add to those the sorts of concerns we all share – about finances, relationship status, sexuality (see Welsh rugby captain Gareth “Alfie” Thomas’ unflinchingly frank biography Proud) – and you have a recipe for poor mental health.
Studies have underlined the alarming prevalence of common mental disorders (CMDs) such as anxiety/depression and sleep disturbance among professional sportspeople. Why, then, do so few of them publicly admit to suffering from such conditions? Partly this may simply be because they’re unable to recognise the symptoms – a problem that awareness-raising programmes seek to address. Often, though, it’s because – despite some welcome advances in recent decades – mental illness remains stigmatised within the wider culture and within elite sport in particular. In the intense, tough, macho environment of football and rugby dressing rooms, it is often perceived as a form of “weakness” – as opposed to “mental toughness”, which is sometimes prized even more highly than athletic ability. Admitting to suffering from a mental health condition is hard enough; to do so as a professional athlete, for whom wellbeing is prime and whose success and self-image is contingent upon physical and mental strength, is potentially career-threatening. Little wonder that many sportspeople, not wanting to seem weak or high-maintenance, choose to suffer in silence.
It shouldn’t be that way. According to former Cardiff goalkeeper Seamus Kelly, now an academic in his native Ireland, football clubs have a duty of care to both current and former employees, but all too often “discard players once their value, in terms of contribution to results, diminishes”. For this article, I contacted four Welsh football clubs (Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Wrexham), the country’s four Guinness Pro12 rugby teams (Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets), Glamorgan County Cricket Club and Cardiff Devils Ice Hockey Team. Only Ospreys were prepared to divulge the provisions they have in place for meeting their players’ mental health needs. Given that clubs regularly trumpet their involvement in and sponsorship of grassroots community initiatives promoting good mental health and the fact that it’s good to talk, this silence seems puzzling at best, and hypocritical at worst.
Sadly, the story was exactly the same for the sporting authorities I approached: no replies were forthcoming from the Welsh Rugby Football Union (WRFU), the Football Association of Wales (FAW) or the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – organisations whose websites proudly proclaim their commitment to the cause. While the PFA have undoubtedly helped many troubled footballers, both past and present, there remain worrying exceptions, such as ex-pros Steve Harper, Leon McKenzie and Darren Eadie, all of whom have experienced mental health issues but have been left feeling let down by the one body specifically established to serve their interests.
So much for clubs and authorities. Dressing rooms should ideally be sources of support, and yet sportspeople are often reluctant to open up to teammates for fear of ridicule and victimisation that could worsen rather than alleviate the problem (whether or not that fear turns out to be misplaced – as it was for Gareth Thomas). Similarly, while the mental health charity Mind’s 2014 report Performance Matters stressed that “[c]oaches and managers need to understand the value of mental health and wellbeing, and be engaged in support of athletes, for change to happen at a club level”, recently published research by Seamus Kelly revealed that the exact opposite is very often true for football managers: “Results and player availability is all they think about.” Such is the unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the highly charged context within which managers of elite teams must operate, where the sack is only ever a few games away. Sport psychologists might be expected to offer help, but they too find themselves under continual pressure to prove their worth in terms of making a visible, positive impact on performances and results; it’s hardly surprising, then, that they tend to obsess over quantitative rather than qualitative measures and prioritise the effective functioning of the team over the mental wellbeing of any individual.
For the situation to improve, sport psychologists need to be able to practise a holistic approach (focusing on the whole athlete rather than merely performance metrics) and the notoriously closed world of professional sport needs to open itself up to researchers – after all, only with a better understanding of the nature, scale and causes of a problem can effective, evidence-based and precisely targeted solutions be identified. Steve Mellalieu, Professor in Sport Psychology and the Associate Dean for Research for the Cardiff School of Sport, argues for the critical importance of programmes that prepare young hopefuls for life as professionals, and existing pros for life after retirement – programmes that Ospreys already have in place – on the grounds that, when it comes to mental health issues, prevention is better than cure. Above all, pledges, rhetoric and fine words need to be more rigorously substantiated. While it’s certainly good to talk, it’s even better to act.
And yet, as long as the culture of elite sport continues to prize results and victory above all else – which, let’s face it, is something unlikely to change any time soon – then it’s hard to see how Gary Speed’s memory can be truly honoured.