Mental health in sport matters.

The recent two wins, one loss and two draws that the new All Black’s head coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane have led their side to is the worst-ever opening five matches for a new All Blacks coach. While these results seem black and white to your average fan, it’s the result of those losses that really takes it’s toll when the cameras have stopped rolling.

To all the fans who simply congratulated Argentina for some quality footy last weekend: that’s all that we need right there.

A slump is always needed to create success. Any professional sports team will come through slumps like those before them and new legends will be forged again.

But it takes time. It takes courage to confront norms, make changes, stick your neck out. It often doesn’t work, and you get poor results. Then, you adapt, adjust and overcome. While it is easy to appoint blame for the losses, it is a timely reminder to fans that professional rugby players and coaches are people too and should be treated with empathy.

Sport can be a high-risk cocktail of youth, fame, money and pressure. But the rise of social media trumps them all. There is always a frenzy of social media and journalistic activity that comes with professional sporting matches.

The ease with which news spreads and repeats, and criticism, rumours and toxic comments gather momentum is psychologically scary and the potential damage to the mental health of athletes and coaches through these social media platforms is a big concern.

An entire 80 minutes of rugby is not the doing of one man. It never is. Yet, we try and find the fall man every time. Why? Is it because it’s easy? Because we “need” answers? Targeting and scapegoating at the expense of someone’s mental health is never ok.

What those ‘critics’ need to remember is that you are talking about good people. Everyone on this earth has a talent. Sam Cane’s and Ian Foster’s talents aren’t any more special than others who you pass on the street, but they are certainly more recognisable and measurable.

In sport, a player can be out for months with injury – the media release is sent and no questions are asked. With mental health, there’s no press release, and no questions answered. 

Often when a player is struggling with their mental health it’s hidden, the topic brushed under the carpet because, once exposed, the athlete is viewed as “damaged goods”.

While there have been discussions around opening up about mental illness, the fact remains that high performance athletes or their employers rarely speak out publicly and instead choose to create an unhealthy cone of silence.

There’s that perception that if you suffer mental issues then that is a sign you are weak. While Unions are trying to strongly encourage people to talk about vulnerabilities as a strength rather than a weakness, by in large people still view it as one if you have an issue around mental health and not a physical one.

There is a societal shift, albeit slow, around understanding mental health issues, which has made it less daunting for athletes to come forward about their own. But we still have a long way to go.

An All Blacks environment is no different to society in general. If we looked at percentages we would have the same number of people suffering the same sort of issues in general as society. They manifest in very different ways – there’s no one size fits all.

A 2014 study from the journal of science and medicine of sport surveyed 224 elite Australian athletes and found 46.4 per cent were experiencing symptoms of at least one mental health problem. These included depression (27.2 per cent), eating disorders (22.8 per cent), general psychological distress (16.5 per cent), social anxiety (14.7 per cent), anxiety (7.1 per cent) and panic disorder (4.5 per cent). Injured athletes had higher levels of depression and anxiety.

There’s a ring of truth to these numbers.

Sport, in New Zealand and globally, tends to tiptoe around mental illness. When athletes hurt themselves physically they are well cared for — everyone gets it. But with mental injury there’s uncertainty, fear and often a lack of funding. So mental struggles often don’t get the care and attention they need. In turn, kiwi athletes will open up about mental health issues only if the circumstances support it.

Sadly, there are polarising attitudes to mental health and diversity issues. If you think your mental struggles will be seen as weakness why would you speak up? It could compromise selection and leave you isolated.

A lack of examples of high profile athletes speaking out during their careers shows there is fear of risking that next big contract, and also fear of a negative public response. Athletes are often afraid of a negative response from media outlets speculating on salaries or public perception about how someone who appears to have it all can be down in the dumps.

It is so important for sports role models to lead the way in speaking out about mental illness, because Kiwis hold sport in such high regard. All of us have mental health, both as a positive asset and sometimes as a mental health problem.

The brutal world of sport would have it that when you lose form – you lose your place in the team, or your place on the world ranking plunges.

These players are thrust into environments that are quite abnormal. There are high expectations and high stakes, there’s heaps of scrutiny and that adds to the pressure that can just build up, and if it’s not released it can impact on the coping mechanisms the individual has, and obviously manifest itself into mental health issues.

While I am no expert, I know that the magic is in the whole person and not just the rugby part of the person.

The aim should be to create a well-rounded athlete as there is so much more to life than just winning a game. It’s important for athletes to develop a context around what they are doing and knowing that sport is just a part of their life, and not their whole existence. Some are John Kirwans of this world and like to talk about it and some aren’t.

Imagine if we got to the stage when we were comfortable with any athlete saying I’m having four to six weeks off to deal with anxiety issues they’re having, just like they would a hamstring injury – if it becomes so normalised that it’s something that people struggle with and there’s a system to help you deal with it and get you back.

That is the issue around your whole life being built upon achieving to the highest levels, in a way nothing else will compare with. If you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people cheering for you, people wanting to take photos, and then you crawl into obscurity – you can’t replace those feelings.

There are people in high performance sports advocating that athletes be well-rounded people, which is a positive start. But there also needs to be a public shift. We as New Zealanders celebrate their successes as our own, but we also need to care for them, and keep in mind the sacrifices they’ve made, and the struggles they face. It’s everyone’s responsibility regardless of a win or a loss.

Then hopefully it will make us all in this world strive to be kinder.

No one wants to suffer. We all want some form of pain to stop. We want a way out. But even when the house is on fire and there is nothing but a cup of water in your hands to help you, you will still tell yourself “you can do this”. But you can only fight for so long and maybe eventually you reach a moment where you give up. And it only takes a moment – a comment, a snicker, an action. Then it’s too late.

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