Acing depression

This time next week, many of us will be glued to the TV on Sunday evening waiting to see who will be voted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2010. I worry sometimes about this award as many winners in the past  don’t seem to have much of a personality but perhaps I expect too much.

As an avid sports fan I have spent much of my life competing at various levels in a number of sports and  I am very competitive. Too competitive. I find failure incredibly difficult to deal with, and put too much pressure on myself to succeed. If you expect too much, you are frequently disappointed. The more you want to succeed, the more effort you expend trying to meet your goals. Unfortunately, I could not cope with this pressure mentally or physically and did not fulfill my sporting ambitions although I came close on occasions.  Disappointments which I still have to live with on a daily basis. My son Will has inherited these sporting genes and I now find it hard to stand back and not live my youthful ambitions through him-it’s hard.

As we know, depression can take over for no apparent reason, it just does, but I can also understand why sportsmen and women are prone to suffering from depression despite having monumental sporting talent and apparently having the world at their feet.

In his book, “Acing Depression-A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match “, the former US Number 1 tennis player Cliff Richey describes his clinical depression; “It lies at you 24/seven that nothing is worth doing. It’s a bully because it comes at you when you’re in a weakened condition.”

I can identify with that as I’m sure many of you can. Depression is rife amongst sportsmen and women and Cliff is one of those brave personalities who has admitted to his illness in order to educate others and help fellow sufferers come to terms with their illness. A brave move indeed.

Cliff Richey and his book ACING DEPRESSION

It is good to hear personal stories from high-achieving sportsmen about their experience of depression  because it makes you realise that it doesn’t matter whether you are an Olympic Gold Medallist, World Number 1, a multi-millionare or apparently unbeatable in your chosen sport, depression can take hold and make your life a misery without warning, and without discrimination. It doesn’t care who you are. You are just another victim to be gobbled up in an endless black pit of despair and despondency.

So what do other sports stars say about their experiences of depression?

Neil Lennon: Footballer- “It’s a bit like walking down a long, dark corridor never knowing when the light will go on.”

Paul Gascoigne: Footballer- “Everywhere I looked life seemed to be full of problems and they were just going to go on and on. It was never going to get any better.”

Frank Bruno: Boxer- “It’s like a kettle. If it’s a kettle, you turn the kettle off, you know what I mean? I wish I could put a hole in my head and let the steam come out. The steam was getting so high and the pressure was just getting a little bit much for me.”

Graeme Obree: Cyclist- “When you’re depressed, everything becomes distorted.”

Obree attempted suicide four times after suffering from repeated bouts of depression. He first tried to kill himself at the age of 19 by sniffing acetylene gas.

Dame Kelly Holmes: Athlete -“I became depressed and I cut myself with scissors and stuff.”

Serena Williams: Tennis Player- “I went through depression. I never even talked about it to my Mom. No one knew I was in therapy, but I was. I was so close to my sister.”

Serena suffered a slump in form and bouts of depression after her eldest sister Yetunde was killed in 2003.

Marcus Trescothic: Cricketer-“I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat properly, I couldn’t drink and, obviously, being in India that was a big problem. It quickly manifested itself after two or three days, after telling someone, ‘I can’t stay here any longer.’ My first reaction was, ‘I’m ill, I’ve got cancer or something.’ ”

Marcus talks about stigma

John Kirwan: All Black’s Rugby Player-“It just comes on you and it squeezes everything. Your heart races, you panic.”

Sol Campbell: Footballer- “People like to put people in little boxes and if you don’t fit you’re odd. But they don’t really know anything about me.”

Dean Robertson: Golfer- “Depression is an illness that can affect anyone.”

Sadly, not all sportsmen survive their experience of depression and end their lives prematurely. Robert Enke, German national footballer, David Bairstow, the England wicketkeeper, and Justin Fashanu, the football centre-forward, all took their own lives whilst suffering with depression.

Brian Moore writing in the Telegraph following  the BBC TV programme “Inside Sport” on depression last November said “We need more…. brave athletes, more discussion and less cynicism. It should not be thus, but if well known figures can be used to alter our attitude to mental illness then thousands of ‘ordinary’ people who suffer similarly might find the courage to ask for help.”

Hear. Hear.

I for one am looking forward to reading Brian’s own book called ” Beware of the Dog” which has recetly won him the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2010. Brian’s second autobiography details his experience of sexual abuse as a child and his subsequent battles with his low self esteem as well as outlining the highs and lows of his sporting career. It should be an enlightening read.

I have also read Andre Agassi’s “Open” and John McEnroe’s ” Serious” both of whom have fought their demons over the years and am fascinated by their honest and open approach.

Let’s hope that whoever wins on Sunday does not experience this beast of an illness but instead remains successful and most importantly, happy with their lot.

Useful links

Depression Alliance
Samaritans; Men on the Ropes

John Kirwan talks about his depression
Brian Moore-Beware of the Dog


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