The Hidden Side Of Sport.

The Hidden Side of Sport.


I have summarized this documentary which deals with depression in sport.

This documentary was screened recently by BBC Knowledge and it featured Andrew (Freddie) Flintoff the former England Cricket Captain.   Flintoff interviewed several top sportsmen who have suffered mental problems during their sporting careers.

Andrew Flintoff.

Any top player experiences the highs and the lows of winning and losing and these feelings are often dismissed as, “just part of the game”.   However, these conflicting emotions can sometimes become too much for the athlete to cope with and can cause deeper psychological problems.

It is estimated that 1 in 10 sportsmen in Britain suffer from some varying levels of depression; described in this program as a psychological injury which cannot be seen.

The England fast bowler, Steve Harmison, related how his depressive condition manifested physically by making him panicky and sometimes struggling to breath, among other physical symptoms.

Steve Harmison.

There is an assumption that because top players are earning a good living by playing their sport that they are happy and contented.   This program exposed this assumption as a myth.    Flintoff admits that even as England captain, playing at the peak of his career, he went through a period when he wanted to ‘pack in playing’.   He relates that during a test series in Australia that he felt so low that he did not want to get out of bed on the morning of a game.   Even though he did not realise it at the time this was due to depression.   It was also revealed that though it is normal to feel bad and reclusive in defeat, to a player suffering from depression this can be the case even after a victory.

Neil Lennon the current Celtic Manager spoke about a period in his playing days when things were going well for him, yet he got up one day and he, “didn’t feel right.”   This was the onset of a period of depression which Lennon described as not purely being a mental affliction, and suggested that there could be a genetic element to it.   He was told to treat his depression as he would an injury and to take time out in order to recover; unfortunately, he wryly commented, he took his depression on holiday with him.   In his capacity as Celtic Manager, Neil Lennon has noticed that young players can also suffer the effects of stress and depression; fortunately, he is now in a position to recognise the symptoms and offer help where needed.

Neil Lennon.

It was acknowledged by several of the interviewees that there is an amount of shame involved when admitting their depressive state.  Footballer, Vinnie Jones carried the reputation of a ‘hard man’ throughout his career, and he made the point that, as the captain of a struggling team (Wimbledon), the difficulties involved in admitting to his teammates that he was depressed and couldn’t carry on.   At the time he couldn’t bring himself to admit his ‘weakness’ and carried on regardless.  Jones admitted that at one stage, after he felt that he had disgraced his family by his actions, he was so depressed that he took his shogun into the woods with the intention of ending it all.

Vinnie Jones.

Individual sportsmen can be particular vulnerable to depression and often have no avenues of support, this was illustrated by ex-World Champion snooker player, Graeme Dott.   He was the top of his field when depression hit him; he felt that he couldn’t control himself; began to cry during one competitive game, and symptoms of paranoia began to manifest as he believed everyone was talking about him.   Dott’s form slumped from first in the world down to fortieth; he wouldn’t talk to his wife and spent hours sitting in one place.   Initially, he didn’t realize that he was suffering from depression, but when he was diagnosed he took medication in order to “feel normal”.   When he came off the pills he felt himself falling into a “horrible state” and, at the time of this interview, he couldn’t envisage himself coming off medication in the foreseeable future.   Interestingly, Graeme Dott’s depression hit him whilst he was at the top of his game, and World Champion of Snooker.

Graeme Dott.

Another individual sportsman interviewed by Flintoff was ex World Champion boxer Barry McGuigan.   McGuigan felt that he carried the hopes of, not only his native Ireland, but the whole of Britain when he went into fights.   Fortunately for him he had good support systems and could talk to his family when he felt particularly low, however, he knew of many boxers under pressure who did not have support systems in place.   These fighters often realize that they need to talk to a counsellor but they don’t do it because they are afraid to own up to their fears.   McGuigan goes on to point out that even though these boxers are as ‘hard as nails’, they need psychological support, but often they do not get it.

Barry McGuigan.

Flintoff built up a persona of being unflappable, and therefore, when he felt to be under psychological pressure he couldn’t talk about it, even to his teammates.   People have the perception of him as self-possessed and confident cricketer, yet when he returned to his room each night the situation was very different as he tried to come to terms with his anxieties.

As a young player, Flintoff was advised by his coach not to put his helmet on until he had walked out on to the playing pitch.   This was to convey the idea that he was full of confidence, by giving the impression that he owned the stadium, however, Flintoff admits that this was not the case, and he felt as nervous as the next man.   Within himself he did not feel in control of the situation, but he put on a front in order to mask his real feelings.

McGuigan agrees and states that all boxers attempt to put on this bravado, but it is purely a front for their feelings of fear, and they often question themselves “what am I doing here?”

Flintoff reflected on how some of his ‘off the field antics’ have let down not only teammates but his family and friends, and because of this he had feelings of embarrassment and shame which contributed to his depressive state.

Piers Morgan.

The Jounalist, Piers Morgan, spoke of a brutal relationship between the press and sportsmen.  He commented that if a player is selected to play for his country, and accepts all the benefits, privileges and fame which go with that selection; it then seems ridiculous to talk about being depressed.   Piers Morgan could not grasp the concept that if you were playing for your country at sport that you could become depressed.

Predictably Vinnie Jones goes on the attack by accusing journalists of being jealous of sportsmen, and alleges that they have never done it themselves (top sport) and they sit up there drinking their wine and criticising the people who can.

Piers Morgan, unsympathically, urges sportsmen under pressure to, “get over it if you don’t want to do it.  I would take any crap from the tabloids in order to walk out at Lords, or play up front with Robin Van Persie”.

Vinnie Jones retold of an instance in Dublin when he felt that he had let everyone down and it hit him so hard that he took a gun up to the woods with the intention of ending it all.   He felt so degraded, and every bit of pride went out of him.   He questioned why the people closest to him in his life needed put up with him; his wife, his kids, the club…   He talked himself out of suicide by suggesting that it would make things worse for his wife, kids and friends.

Piers Morgan, admits that since he left the cricket media he has reviewed his views on depression in sportsmen.   He has realized that even though top sports people are charismatic figures, they are also human, and have to put up with injuries, stresses and tensions and worries that their careers can be terminated at any time.   He added that there are more suicides for ex-cricketers than for any sport in Britain.

Flintoff and Jones agreed that during the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a huge taboo surrounding depression in sport.   Jones commented that it was not recognised; “the managers and coaches were not trained in that stuff.   If you were bottom of the league and one of the lads said ‘I’ve got depression’, you’d smack him on the side of the head, tell him to pull himself together’”.  Jones went on, “depression was ignored; it would have been taken as a weakness    If you’re in the trenches you need the characters to stand up, and if I turned around and said, I’m depressed, how would that have gone down?”

Flintoff agreed, adding that if he had owned up to his depression it would have sent shockwaves around the dressing room.

Steve Harmison was hammered for years by the press, but continued to go on tour, even though he was suffering from depression.   This compounded his problem but no-one, including Flintoff, really understood his depression and therefore, he continued to play rather than pulling out.

Flintoff questions himself that he failed as a captain because he did not recognise the problem with his friend and teammate.   However, he was also at a low ebb personally, and didn’t recognise what others were going through because he was battling depression himself.   He had become someone who wanted to hide away in his room and began drinking more than normal, as an escape.

On the field Flintoff’s self-talk was: “I have had enough of this, I want to get away.”   He admits that he didn’t know what was happening to him, and he had no-one to confine in.

Ricky Hatton.

Former World Champion Boxer; Ricky Hatton was also interviewed and confesses that after a World Title fight, in which he was knocked out within two rounds, he cried and cried and it took four months before he could bring himself to watch a tape of the fight.

Depression struck him during his fighting career as he realised that his career was coming to an end and believes that his depression was triggered by boxing.   Hatton was a very proud fighter and to be knocked out inside two rounds made it very difficult for him to come to terms with his capitulation in this manner.   He started to drink more alcohol, which in turn multiplied his problem, making him feel like he was on; “a runaway train.”   He continued to fight even whilst he suffered from depression because he found it very difficult, especially as a boxer, to go and ask for help.

Flintoff admits that during his career he never wanted anyone to think that he could be ‘got at,’ but commented on how Sports Psychology has helped him to front up to his nervousness; he also acknowledged that he often felt out of control.

This documentary informed its viewers the importance of the recognition of psychology in modern in sport, and how it should be incorporated into training programs.

Andrew Flintoff visited Arsenal FC  who run a community program; ‘Imagine your goals,’ to help people to combat stress and to cope with life in general.   This program has shown that by playing football, purely for fun, has improved depression and increased confidence in many participants.   The program takes sport back to its basic form and reminds us why we got involved in the first place.

The documentary concluded with Flintoff’s final comments; “I don’t have to pretend that I’m someone that I’m not; it’s time for me to be myself.”