The Last Taboo: Depression in Sport

by Absolute Thai Football

Five years ago most Thai footballers went about their daily lives unnoticed. Wages were pitiful. Players supplemented their income, lead frugal lives or gave up the game. Today several Thai Premier League players have star status, but do they have the tools to cope?

We all mythologise sportsmen. Broadcaster Matthew Syed in the excellent documentary, Freddie Flintoff Hidden Side of Sport feels we assume success, money and acclaim bring happiness, certainty and fulfillment. That assumption is a myth that we, the audience, need. A release from our humdrum lives, we project our frustrations and expectations onto these high achievers, loading them with all our shortcomings. Something has to give.

Former England cricket captain Flintoff explores the paths of his depression. An alpha male persona, like former Wimbledon and Chelsea player Vinny Jones, this added burden can be crushing. Changing rooms, “look around to see who you want in the trenches….If one of the lads turned around and said “I’ve got depression” you’d smack ’em round the side of the head and say “pull yourself together, curtains.””

The former England cricket team psychologist, Doctor Steve Bull adds:
“The world of high performance sport is not a particularly healthy one. Train, play travel. You are focused almost to the point of obsession about sport. Your total sense of personal identity is from your sport. When results drop then it’s a challenge to that personal identity.”

This paralysing pressure was meat and drink to tabloid journalists. Former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan feels, in those days, “to claim to be depressed whilst staying at a five star hotel and playing cricket for England seemed ridiculous.” Now, according to Morgan, the press have “grown up a bit,” but Jones feels the vitriolic articles are fuelled by the jealousy of writers who never made it in sport.

Flintoff discusses the seductive sway of alcohol with former world boxing champion Ricky Hatton. Like Flintoff, he looked to it for escape but found it compounded his condition. The added shame of his drunken behaviour pushed him deeper into the pit. For Hatton it caused memory blanks, for Flintoff the loss of his England vice captaincy. Alcohol in this world is the cork popping sign of success, the currency admirers spend on you but also poison to your performance and personality.

Depression in elite sport is the last taboo. The pressure that lead to Justin Fashanu’s suicide in 1998 after revealing his sexuality have lessened for gay athletes, but mental health issues are taken as a sign of weakness, a disease that could “infect” the rest of a team. There is help,though. The Arsenal in the Community Mental Health Project uses sport to tackle depression, rather than marginalising or denying it. The project accepts its debilitating effects as a way of treating it. As Thai football continues to grow, let’s not assume that the mind doesn’t matter. A hamstring pull will heal, but a mental scar is carried for life.