Legends of athletics, football, and cricket speak about how being at the top of their game took its toll
From coping with injuries and illness to dealing with abuse and allegations, sporting stars have spoken about the mental toll that elite-level sport brings in an online event hosted by the World Innovation Summit for Health, Qatar Foundation’s global health initiative.
The webinar – Mental Health & Sport: The Challenge of Balancing Risk With Reward – saw Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Dame Kelly Holmes, former Liverpool and England footballer Robbie Fowler, and Wasim Akram, the ex-captain of Pakistan’s cricket team, reveal the pressures that being at the top of their sport created and the personal turmoil they suffered.
The event – which also featured Professor Claudia Reardon, who specializes in sports psychiatry and co-chairs the International Olympic Committee’s working group on mental health and elite athletes – was organized by the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) to highlight how mental health issues can affect anyone, and the importance of seeking help when they arise.
In a discussion moderated by BBC Sport and BBC News presenter Dan Walker – viewed by over 10,000 people from 62 countries – Dame Kelly spoke about how she suffered a serious mental breakdown during her glittering athletics career after “one injury too many”, and turned to self-harming. “I looked in the mirror and hated everything about myself, including my body for letting me down,” she said. “That day, I became a self-harmer.
Having the mental issues I have had, and learning to deal with them and talk about them, is perhaps one of the greatest successes I have had
“I self-harmed once for every day I had been injured, and I hid it because I had never known of anyone in my network dealing with the problem I had. Half of me was dying, and half of me was living for my dream, because I had a World Championship to go to, and that kept me going. I won a silver medal, but nobody knew what was happening with me. I just had to stay focused on my dream and hope that would keep me going.
“Eventually, I decided I needed to talk about it to show people that, even when you have a dark time, you can come through it. As a sportsperson, you are not superhuman, and when you are struggling, ask for someone’s help. Opening up to people has helped me deal with my life and realize that none of us can be anything more than we are.
“Having the mental issues I have had, and learning to deal with them and talk about them, is perhaps one of the greatest successes I have had.”
If there are mental health consultants around a sporting team, they can help. But players have to accept they need help to start with
Akram’s cricketing career saw him become one of the best bowlers of all time, but he told the webinar that while captain of his country, his teammates – and friends – rebelled against him, and he and his team were accused of deliberately losing a World Cup final. “Now, there is a lot more awareness of mental health, but when I was in my mid-20s and became captain of a cricket-mad country, I was lost,” he said.
“When my team said they would not play under me, that was a dark time. Imagine playing in a team and not speaking to anyone in it for a month and a half. The culture in Pakistan was that we are mentally very tough and we didn’t talk about mental health. It took me two years to come back from it.”
At 29, Akram was also diagnosed with diabetes “while at the top of my game”, which he said led him into a three-month period of depression. But he added: “It was my fight and I had to deal with it – what I learned was how mentally strong I am and how important it is to think positively about myself and the people around me.
You work so hard to get to the top of the game, and one injury can almost stop your life – it’s so tough
“If there are mental health consultants around a sporting team, they can help. But players have to accept they need help to start with.”
Fowler, who was 26 caps for England and is still regarded as a Liverpool legend having made his debut for the club as a teenager, said: “To be a top sportsperson, you have to have tunnel vision about what you do and put everything else aside, and as I got older I maybe struggled with that – if I didn’t like what I was doing, I could never come out and say it, because I felt that lots of people would give anything to be where I was.
It’s very hard to have a game-face on the field, then step off it and say something is wrong and reach out for help
“Although I’ve now retired from playing, at times people will still say horrible things about me on social media or bring up something that happened 10-15 years ago. That matters from a mental perspective, and it’s why I’m quite a private person because I want to keep my family away from that. As sportspeople, we have to learn to adapt to the society around us.”
Fowler also spoke about his own experience of how the specter of serious injury haunts sportspeople and can affect their psychological health. “I missed out on World Cups and European Championships because of injury and could not get my head around that,” he said. “You work so hard to get to the top of the game, and one injury can almost stop your life – it’s so tough.”
According to Professor Reardon, athletes speaking about their own mental health issues can “demystify and destigmatize” the subject. “There has been less stigma in recent years, but sport is still one of the final frontiers when it comes to mental health,” she said. “It’s very hard to have a game-face on the field, then step off it and say something is wrong and reach out for help.
“There is also still a perception that athletes are relatively immune to mental health struggles, when they are just as likely as anyone else to suffer from depression and anxiety. When problems happen in sport, and it is someone’s livelihood and identity, it can be traumatic and simply compartmentalizing the problem is not a sustainable way of addressing it.
“Mental illnesses are real, they are treatable, and I just hope and aspire for us to get to the point where seeking treatment for these kinds of symptoms and disorders is as normal as seeking treatment for any physical health condition.”
WISH 2020 – the latest edition of WISH’s biennial international health summit, which will take place virtually from November 15-19 – will include a focus on sport and health, as well as on mental health. For more information, visit www.wish.org.qa