Physical fitness is a basic requirement for achieving goals in the world of sport – but mental strength is also essential.
It is a lonely experience being a sports person suffering from common psychological problems. It can affect an individual by destroying their self-esteem and self-confidence, leaving them with no place to turn. Where can an athlete go when playing sport is not the answer?
It is still unusual to admit to psychological distress in any sport.
As performance and mental resilience have always been intrinsically linked, mental deficiencies are never revealed. Competition is founded upon the survival of the fittest and therefore to reveal a destabilised mind is to gift the opponent with a perceived advantage.
Sport and exercise are proven solutions to many deteriorating states of mind. Yet talking about mental health as sports people is equally as important.
We have been blessed in the 21st century with courageous individuals speaking openly about their difficulties without fear of judgement. Indeed some of the most prominent exponents of mental health awareness have been sports people.
Public personalities such as Conor Cusack, David Gillick, Maurice Shanahan and Jack McGrath, to name but a few, have all revealed their inner torment with mental health.
At amateur club level, supports for such initiatives may be quite thin on the ground. Therefore, it is imperative that local, everyday sports people can show some leadership as much off the field as on it.
Often it can be difficult to encapsulate verbally how one feels internally for others to interpret. A unique medium of expression can often unlock a lot of that trepidation and emotion.
Shane Kenny from Kerry and Eoin O’Mahony from Galway are two such examples of young GAA men being proactive.
As escorts from the 2015 Rose of Tralee Festival, they began, along with the support of their fellow Roses and Escorts, a mental health awareness and fundraising campaign for Pieta House. It is called “Unmask For Pieta”.
Each participant is required to create a unique piece of physical art work to try and aid their personal explanation of their fears, anxieties or experiences of depression. This is created in the form of a mask, which by bravely revealing itself, prises open the gateways for mental health to be discussed and normalised.
Shane plays club football with Churchill in Kerry. He suffered a bereavement in his family with rocked his core values – one of them being GAA.
“I was so passionate playing for my club. Football generally makes up a lot of the subconscious thinking in Kerry people.
“It was the cornerstone of my mood. If we won, I was elated. If we lost and I had a bad game, I beat myself up and it rocked my self-esteem. I’d pressurise myself into performing better but when you don’t get the breaks a lot of self-doubt crept in to all aspects of life.”
He continued: “Then my mother died when I was 19 and football became irrelevant. I lost interest in my passions and I seriously contemplated giving up, wondering why GAA should matter anymore. That void or feeling of emptiness due to depression inside you is crippling.
“You are depending on managers and team-mates to believe in you when you can’t believe in yourself. You are demanding performances yet you can’t find the motivation or fight. It’s a helpless environment when you have nobody to confide in. I trusted lads in the dressing room but not enough to speak openly about how I felt at the time.”
He went on: “I got counselling eventually and it made a massive difference. I am back playing now and enjoying a sport which gives me the chance to express myself and let off some steam.
“It’s a mundane story but entirely relatable to the majority of amateur sports people like me. Talking is crucial. I used the Unmask campaign as a medium to introduce my story to others.”
O’Mahony was a former Galway minor footballer from Salthill/Knocknacarra who won an All-Ireland in 2007. Although a man of ever solid convictions and self-belief, he knows about the anxieties, frustrations and stresses induced by high level competition on his personal life.
Missing out on an opportunity to play in the final was one of those.
“While I was absolutely delighted to win, it really nagged at me for years after and affected my confidence going forward. It took me a while to get over it. Anybody that plays sport knows it’s not the same unless you’re on the pitch playing. It remained a big regret.”
He eventually found solace in some universal advice:
“A few years after, we were preparing for a final with my club and they got a guy in who had worked psychologically with the Irish boxers at the Olympics. He said something that I took forward more so in life than in sport – ‘Control the Controllables’.
“Basically don’t worry about things you can’t control. This is the way I live my life and think others should too. As I was at a good senior club, I wasn’t always guaranteed my place, which I spent a lot of time worrying/ getting anxious wondering would I be picked in my teens and early 20s. I couldn’t control what management did though.
“In life, you can’t get people to like you. You just have to be yourself and the rest will follow. You can only control how you act or behave.”
We all know someone who could do with “Unmasking” in life, whether they be sporting enthusiasts or not. It’s time that we show solidarity with these individuals and be the difference that we want to see in society.
A public display of masks shall take place from 17th – 23rd August at the Rose Hotel Tralee during the Rose of Tralee festival.
To support their “Unmask For Pieta” campaign online, check out: https://www.facebook.com/unmaskforpieta/. You can follow the initiative on Twitter via @unmaskforpieta.
Online Fundraising Page: https://give.everydayhero.com/ie/unmask-for-pietahttps://give.everydayhero.com/ie/unmask-for-pieta