Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses worldwide and in recent years the affirmation of depression has increased within the elite athlete population. Despite the alarmingly large amount of athletes acknowledging their depression, a lot remains unknown about their true experiences and why it occurs. Robert Enke’s suicide, Kelly Holmes act of self-harming, Frank Bruno being sectioned and Marcus Trescothick’s “shameful” departure from the world’s most renowned cricket tour, due to panic attacks and “clinical depression”, are just a few key moments within elite sport that act as a cruel reminder and demonstrate just how little we know about depression in elite sport.
Despite our knowledge on depressive criteria, prevalence and treatment, a great deal remains unknown about this phenomenon in relation to elite athletes. Previously, involvement in sport has been identified as positive and beneficial for self-esteem, anxiety and stress, to name a few. Further to this, there has recently been a growing interest in literature demonstrating how sport can improve symptoms of mental illness and increase general mental health, with a clear focus on depression.
So why are so many elite athletes experiencing and admitting to depressive episodes, symptoms and other stress-related illnesses. In truth, a lot remains unknown; one question to explore is; can it be created from sport itself? Career termination has always been perceived as a significant milestone in a retiring athlete, given the significant influential role of athletic identity. Other transitions experienced throughout an athletes’ career have recently been referred to as “critical moments”; for example, being dropped, injured, relocating or even being promoted to team captain. With this in mind, can sport actually enhance stress levels due to the additional stressors that athletes’ encounter, like those identified above? Recent research suggests this can in fact be the case. For example, a high-performance sport in a competitive setting is suggested to cause distress. Furthermore, the likes of post-injury depression can occur after sustained absence due to injury.
Elite athletes are stereotypical viewed to be “living the dream”; traveling the world, playing sport for a living, staying in 5 star hotels and all whilst earning money for a living. However, as international cricketer, Marcus Trescothick explained, “ demands of playing every northern hemisphere summer at home as well as every southern hemisphere summer on tour, meant we now spent almost 12 months a year living out of suitcases and in hotel rooms. Of course the lifestyle was considered luxurious, our every off-field need was catered for by a solid back-up staff including a doctor, nutritionist, sport psychologist, etc., we were very well paid for our efforts and it beat real work any day. … That, coupled with the four-wall fever that can strike you when you are stuck inside a hotel bedroom complete with en-suite bathroom for days on end prior to moving onto the next one, was simply not a natural way to live. It creates extraordinary strains for the players not to mention their wives and families.”
Another question to consider is; is it simply that elite athletes are human beings after all and therefore are just as likely as the next best person to acquire depression? Sport psychologists today, arguably more than ever are supporting athletes on issues and concerns outside of the “typical” sport environment. It is imperative as an applied psychologist to view the athlete as a person, before the athlete. Most importantly, we need to continue to move forward and remove such stigmas attached to mental illnesses to positively encourage athletes to acknowledge their symptoms, act upon them and take a step in the right direction toward recovery. With further support to the players, families and their clubs, we will hopefully begin to understand further why depression in elite sport occurs and take an important step towards prevention
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About Sophie Walton
Having been a high performing Rhythmic Gymnast and a sports coach to a variety of abilities, ages, cultures and backgrounds, this has significantly shaped who I am. These experiences greatly influenced my academic choices which led to studying Sport (BA Hons) at Durham University. As my knowledge of sport psychology grew, I soon realised how much influence it had on my own career as a gymnast and a coach. This led me to further pursue my academic studies, graduating with an MSc in Sport Psychology from University of Roehampton and embarking on the BASES SE Accreditation pathway. I have had experience with GB Rowing, Professional Football players, Junior GB Volleyball athletes, research, publications and more.