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Mental Health & Sport

Who do we want our sporting people to be? Inspirational, enthusiastic heroes? Or do we just want them to win?

These were the types of questions being discussed at an event on Tuesday night in Dublin to highlight mental health in sport.

The event called ‘Over the Bar’, aimed to put the spotlight on mental health issues among sports people. It took place as part of the First Fortnight festival which has been running in Dublin since 2012 with the aim of challenging mental health prejudice through the creative arts. This year for the first time the festival included a focus on mental health and sport.

Hosted by Jim Carroll, Irish Times journalist, the panel included Liam Moggan of Coaching Ireland, Richie Sadlier, former Irish soccer international and current RTE pundit and David Gillick, 400 meters gold medal winner in the 2005 and 2007 European indoor championships.

As well as challenging sports fans to examine what we value in the sports people we admire and the teams we support, the panellists described their experiences of addressing mental health issues they faced in a professional sports world. Richie Sadlier began describing the dressing room of his former club, Millwall. ‘It was a fun, competitive environment but if you started talking about your feelings or feeling down or negative, you’d be mocked, not understood. You’d be giving a coach a reason not to pick you’.

He went on to say. ‘The most important thing to a team is the next game and you’ve got to demonstrate that you have what it takes, you’ve got the mental strength. If you have it you’ll be picked. The coaches are the last people you’d tell if you were struggling’. ‘You get respect for playing through pain and being tough and that’s for injuries you can see, if it’s an invisible injury, there’s no room for that’.

Sadlier described watching different team mates at different times face issues such as the death of a family member, cancer and marital problems. He said the response to any of these situations was ‘mock the guy, make it fun and get him training, so how would you open up if you were struggling  in an environment like that?’.

David Gillick described his experience, ‘In eight years I’d no injuries and one day I’m out running and I got injured. I was away in the states on my own dealing with it myself. All I could think was” the Olympics, shit, the Olympics”. I fell into a very negative hole even though I had a year to go to London and I found myself lost .I had physios but the mental injury was deeper. I was ringing my family telling them everything was great’.

Both Sadlier and Gillick discussed their experiences of struggling and keeping silent in a  professional sports world where the criteria you’re judged on is the measurable; where is the team on the table, how many caps or  goals  have you had, have you run a distance in a better time. Sadlier explains ‘that’s what it becomes about, you are judged on a 90 minute performance, people’s focus isn’t what you might be going through in your life, its about your performance and clubs see players as units, to sell shirts and tickets’.

Liam Moggan of Coaching Ireland discussed the role of the coach in an athlete’s life. He said ‘there’s a spiritual and emotional element to sport. The technical, tactical and physical are taken care of by the training but the coaching of someone is different’. He said ‘coaching is about helping people to develop their skills to become people. The tools that help you compete best are the tools that help you best in life’. In this sense Moggan explained, we can push a simple definition of sport, the performance, to include the values of someone reaching their potential, whatever that might be. He said ‘the best coaches believe in the journey, it’s more complex than just the performance’.

In the 2012 Paralympic games Hussain Omar Hassan, a one armed man from Djibouti battled to finish the 1500 meter race. He had sustained an ankle injury earlier in the day but wanted so much to take part and represent his country, he decided to run. Liam Moggan described being in the stadium as the 2nd to last runner passed Hassan and the crowd realised he still had 2 more laps to go. Moggan said as Hussan passed each section of the crowd they stood and cheered him on creating a slow powerful Mexican wave willing him to the finish. Moggan said he could feel the tears come into his own eyes as he watched Hussan digging deep within himself to finish the race and when he looked around he saw Sebastian Coe with tears streaming down his face, shouting support for Hussan. Hussan finished the race in 11 minutes, 23.5 seconds, the slowest ever run witnessed in a major championship, however Moggan said the pride, courage and determination of the man were heroic and he said this kind of thing is happening in clubs and teams all over the country everyday and should be valued.

A recent study carried out in Limerick revealed that the most influential person that young people see in their lives is their sports coach. Liam Moggan said ‘coaches teach discipline, punctuality, fairplay, respect, how to get on with people, life skills’.

So where should the conversation on mental health and sport go from here?  Richie Sadlier maintained that Gary Speeds death by suicide in 2011 had a big impact on people. He said ‘people think it’s not possible to be suffering if you’re doing what you love and you’re successful at it’. However, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) now has a confidential counselling service that players can use without having to go through their managers.  The GAA have introduced a similar service, however David Gillick says people have to take the risk to talk.

Both Sadlier and Gillick agree that the governing bodies and associations in sport need to start to listen. Sadlier says ‘people love headlines about sports people having bad days, but there is no point in sports people speaking out if nothing gets done. It’s not mollycoddling, it’s helping people develop’. Gillick maintains ‘people’s attitude has to shift to a holistic view of a player’s life, not simply his athletic performance and there needs to be systems in place to support people who do speak out’. Both men asserted that people, sports fans, also need to examine their attitudes to sports people’s performances, especially when they have a bad day.

Pundit Arena, Susan Clarke.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.