Depression And Sport

Aug 19, 2014
Tagged with: Depression And Sport

Robin Williams’ recent suicide has brought the topic of depression and mental health once again into the public sphere. Like Williams, many other comedians, both past and present, have suffered from depression and psychological demons. Indeed, while they appear bright and invincible onstage, behind closed doors many of these professional funnymen often struggle with self-loathing and the tragic spiral of self-destruction.

Depression – one of the world’s most prevalent mental illnesses – is also common amongst elite sportsmen and women, as well as college athletes.

Over the last two decades there have been numerous top-level athletes who have publically disclosed their difficult struggles with depression, including the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, GB Olympic middle distance runner Kelly Holmes, and England batsmen Jonathan Trott. As these recent high-profile examples illustrate, there is still a great deal unknown about how – and why – mental illness affects elite level athletes. Although there have been numerous studies on depression, the way it affects sporting stars remains worryingly unaddressed. Moreover, this phenomenon is almost at odds with the received opinion, via numerous studies, that sport, going to the gym and keeping fit is the perfect way to combat – and prevent – depression, anxiety and stress. So, the question remains: why is this issue so common?

Though this topic has not been thoroughly addressed in literature, there are some avenues which we can begin to explore. Firstly, there is the nature of competitive sport itself to consider. In addition to the distress caused by the intense theatre of sport, which is often exacerbated by public scrutiny, the significance of numerous career milestones – and with it identity – is undoubtedly a cause of anxiety. For example, retirement, promotion, demotion, injury, relocation – all of these issues have the ability to enhance stress rather than relieve it. Indeed, the last example, relocation, has been cited as a cause of angst and depression for many elite athletes.

Although the general perception of professional sportspeople is that they stay in luxury accommodations in some of the finest cities of the world, living from paycheck to paycheck, the reality is often quite different. Despite impressive five-star accommodation, being away from family and friends – especially children – for long periods of time can put a professional sportsman or woman under an extreme mental strain.

Finally, remember that although we like to put them on a pedestal, our sporting heroes are actually humans, just like the rest of us, and humans experience depression. As a consequence, these elite level athletes should be treated as human beings, and not as invincible sporting heroes.

By exploring some of these issues, I hope that we can begin to address this topic with the attention it deserves, and that, with support, more elite level athletes can confidently come forward with their inner demons and take their first steps on the road to recovery.

Have you experienced a link between depression and sport?

Do you have any thoughts or comments on the issues that I’ve touched upon?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!


Do you have any thoughts or comments on the issues that I’ve touched upon?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

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Author: Henry Croft

  • bobl07

    The most difficult time for me was when it was time to leave the event. When you have put so much time and effort to reaching your goal of a Paralympics. The goal was met, you won a medal and then back to the real world. It left me feeling a little sad.