The mental health of athletes - psychology of sport

The mental health of athletes

We look at 'The footballers’ guidebook' and see what it means for mental health in sport

By Liz Lockhart

Athletes are looked upon as gladiators, titans among men and the very idea that they may suffer from poor mental health is unthinkable.  Or is it?

The stress of optimum performance coupled with a celebrity life-style can, and does, often prove too much.  Living under such an intense spotlight inevitably causes some sportsmen to feel overwhelmed.

Well known athletes with mental health disorders

Nov 27th 2011 - RIP Gary Speed

Frank Bruno:

One of the first top sports personalities to appear in the press with a mental health disorder was Frank Bruno.

When the boxer Frank Bruno was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, the press ran the headline ‘Bonkers Bruno locked up’ and, given this attitude, it is unsurprisingly very rare for sportsmen and sportswomen to ‘come out’ about mental ill health voluntarily.

"Talking about mental-health problems has traditionally been one of sports’ great taboos," Comments ‘Clarke Carlisle, the professional Football Association chairman.

"Many players may not actually recognise what it is or know how to seek help." He concludes.

Robert Enke

It was well documented when the Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide in 2009 having been depressed since the death of his two-year old-daughter.

David Beckham

Other sportsmen have recently been quite open about their various mental health disorders.  David Beckham came out about his OCDs in 2006.    According to the Daily Mail he said the condition leads him to count clothes and place magazines in straight lines and symmetrical patterns.  He also said that one of the reasons he keeps having tattoos is that he is addicted to the pain of the needle. 

Alan Quinlan and James Wade

Uncovered magazine reported on Alan Quinlan, the rugby ace, opening up about his depression and also about the torment of depression endured by the darts superstar James Wade. Theses are just some of the sports starts who have more recently opened up about their battles with mental illness.

Breaking stigma

Because these athletes are at the top of their profession it is hoped that by being open about their various mental health conditions it will help towards reducing the stigma and shame, which is too often associated with mental health disorders.

After-all this once again goes to show that mental ill-health does not discriminate and effect only the most deprived or uneducated, as it once was portrayed. It indeed effects one in four of us, no matter our background, intelligence or talents.

Revealing Interview

Gabriele Fantelli (Uncovered magazine’s chef and nutrition expert) has been a professional volleyball player. He played in the A league (the premiership of volleyball), as well as for his country (Italy) for ten years 1989 – 1999.  His insight into the life of a top athlete demonstrates just how stressful and pressurised the world of sport can be. 

Psychological demands

Gabriele told us that the psychological demands of a professional sports person are huge. 

"It can’t be any different; there are too many people to impress, watching and judging every little move.  Too many people that need to be made happy and not all in the same way which makes it even more difficult.

‘Ultimately, professional sportspeople are a business asset that belong to somebody who has invested money in them and they need a return’ Gabriele tells us.

Gabriele went on to say that players could almost be compared to a coffee machine.  "You buy it and you expect it to perform efficiently every single day, rain or shine, with only the occasional clean up and change of filter.  Unfortunately, people are a bit more complicated than a coffee machine – it would all be so simple if all sportspeople just needed the occasional clean or change of joint.

"This is actually no laughing matter, there has been many times when I really felt like a coffee machine" he added.  

"It didn’t really matter how I felt or what I wanted.  It didn’t even matter if I was physically fit enough to stand.  I had to perform and perform well, there was no other option."


"Ronaldo, one of the greatest footballers of all time, reportedly had a nervous breakdown during the 1998 World Cup Finals.  He was not fit to play the final and he was not on the starting line-up.  But rumour has it that NIKE, one of his personal sponsors, made a phone call to the bosses of the Brazilian national team and, what a surprise, Ronaldo played that game.  What those silly little men did to that young man was really just painful to watch" Gabriele said.

"On a positive note, the mind of an athlete  is open to new things and it can be trained.  In my sports days I learned to be confident, determined and to keep my eye on the target, blanking out everything else, not stopping until I reached it" Mr Fantelli concluded. 

The words of Gabriele speak volumes as to the pressures of professional life as a sportsperson and clearly demonstrate the strains placed upon them.

‘The footballers’ guidebook’

A report in the Guardian tells us that at the beginning of next season payers in the four divisions will be issued with ‘The Footballers’ Guidebook’, which looks at the stressful situations that professionals face and suggests ways to handle them.

It goes on to say that the concept was devised by the Professional Footballers’ Association, in conjunction with the Football Association, and it has been brought to life not only by the author Susannah Strong but by Paul Trevillion, the legendary comic artist, whose strips within the booklet highlight various scenarios, from the depression that an injury lay-off can cause to the incomprehension and anger of retirement.

Several players have admitted to having a problem and have gone public over depression including Paul Gasgoine, Andy Cole, Neil Lennon and Stan Collymore.  Each is quoted in the guidebook.

It is worrying that many cases of mental ill health go unreported by sportsmen and in some cases relief is sought through drink, drugs, sex or gambling all of which can lead to further mental disorder.

"The attitude is so often ‘pull yourself together’." Gordon Taylor, the PFA’s chief executive says. "When Stan Collymore sought specialist treatment for his depression, Aston Villa wanted to sack him."

"A football dressing room is a bit like being in a barrack room in the services.  It’s about not showing mental weakness.  Players have to put on a show but it’s the ducks on the water, they might look cam on the surface but, underneath, they are paddling furiously.

"We are trying to change things and create an atmosphere of solidarity... Not to make players with these problems the object of ridicule but to appreciate their qualities and to want to hold them together for the sake of the team" Taylor concludes.

Pressures of success

We see pictures of athletes enjoying a celebrity life-style, out on the town, mixing with the ‘beautiful people’ but we rarely stop to consider the downside to the pressure that comes with success.  Players must feel dreadful ‘lows’ when they are not selected and a huge emptiness when they face retirement.

Most athletes have a short career span and the question of what happens to them once they are no longer at the top of their game must cause them anxieties.  Pressure to constantly perform at their best and sometimes even when injured must cause immense stress.

The message, which must reach the ears of sportsmen and women at all levels in their game, must surely be that they need to recognise when they are having difficulties.  To seek help without fear if they feel the need for it, and to realise that their mental health is as paramount as their physical health.  You can’t have one without the other.

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