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How Mind Games Can Threaten Lives and Careers

By: | Fri 02 Nov 2018 | Comments

LEXI THOMPSON stunned golf followers around the world when she admitted that she has been struggling with mental health and body image issues. The American is one of the most successful women golfers on the planet. She is also beautiful and has posed for countless photographs in which she has seemed to be more than happy to show off her figure. On the face of it, she has got the lot.

It turns out that it has all been a front, and that in her private moments she has faced the same self-doubt that most of us have to address at some point in our lives. Lexi proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that money and success do not and cannot guarantee you happiness. And she is not the first athlete to discover that life can throw up some demons.

When he was just 22 years old, Australian golfer Steven Bowditch, put on his heaviest clothes, jumped into a swimming pool and tried to drown himself. It came after 12 nights without sleep. His girlfriend at the time pulled him out and resuscitated him.

Bowditch’s battle with clinical depression eventually become public and well documented. Initially he suffered crippling headaches, sudden nosebleeds and severe insomnia. Doctors even feared that he had a brain tumour before diagnosing depression.

But the diagnosis didn’t solve anything. He drank to self-medicate and felt helpless. He even disliked being a golfer. He once told of walking down a fairway and envying a guy on his patio cooking a steak on his barbecue. 

Life for Bowditch reached rock bottom until, 13 years after turning professional, he won the Texas Open and a cheque for $1.2m. Bowditch used that victory as an opportunity to speak out about his own struggles and about mental health in general. He is now a spokesman for Beyondblue, an Australian anti-depression initiative that raises awareness of anxiety and depression. Beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett said: “Steven is yet another example to anyone who experiences depressive or anxiety conditions, that by seeking professional help and staying focused you cannot only overcome your own struggles, but can rightly be called a champion. His success on the PGA Tour shows that with the appropriate support, people with depression or anxiety are capable of achieving the extraordinary.”

Depression impacts everyone differently. There are no quick fixes and no formulas that work for all. The key is to recognise that you need help. Bowditch admitted he needed help; he sought it  and that’s what saved his life.

It is surprisingly common in professional golf. But then again, why should golf be different from any other walk of life?

Johnny McDermott won the US Open in 1911 and 1912 but his career was over at the age of 23. And after a series of personal, financial and professional mishaps, McDermott had a breakdown and spent most of the rest of his life in institutions.  And what about Bill Rogers, briefly the best golfer on the planet? In 1981 he won The Open and a total of seven tournaments around the world. But then his game went into a tailspin and in 1988 he walked away from the PGA Tour for good. He admitted that he had burnt himself out and the harder he tried the worse his game became, and that is when serious depression set in. Rogers realised that golf had caused his black moods and quickly worked out that the best solution for him was to stop playing.

Between 2008 and 2012, Yani Tseng was arguably the best woman golfer in the world. By the age of 22 she had already won five majors; by the age of 23 she had won five majors and 15 LPGA Tour tournaments. But then her game fell off a cliff. Swing gurus began to analyse her technique but the bottom line was that Tseng hated being in the spotlight, hated having to sign autographs and hated being feted as a superstar. As far as she was concerned, she was just a golfer.

In his excellent autobiography, Between The Lines, ex-Manchester United player Michael Carrick talks about depression. It is interesting to note that he waited until his playing days were over before going public. There are those who who will have little sympathy when they read that losing the Champions League final in 2009 caused him to enter a dark place. There are those who will say it was only a game of football and that he was well rewarded for playing. Very well rewarded. But those same people would do well to ask themselves how they might feel if, at the pinnacle of their professional career, they were given the opportunity to achieve something they had dreamt of all their lives and fell flat on their face.

Yes, it was “only” a game of football. But it represented the highlight of Carrick’s career. Depression affected him badly throughout his career, even to the point where he made it clear that he didn’t want to be chosen for England. 

And then there is Clarke Carlisle, former chairman of the PFA, and a man who will tell you that he is lucky to be alive. In December 2014 he stepped out in front of a 10-ton truck with only one thought in his head. "I was intent on taking my own life,” he said. Incredibly, he survived. It was a turning point in his life because it represented the moment when he had to admit that he had a serious problem with his mental health. But his depression continued and three years later he was reported missing.

Carlisle was eventually found wandering the streets of Liverpool "wondering what's the best place for me to die. I was thinking about a responsible way to die. It was that procrastination that allowed a couple of passers-by to intervene," he said. He has since addressed his issues and is having ongoing treatment. 

Various studies have shown that top sportsmen and women are more susceptible to depression than the general population, and it is not difficult to understand why.  They have to perform at an incredibly high level, day in day out, week in week out, month in month out, year in year out. And they have to do so in front of an audience that will judge them vocally without stopping to think about the impact that ongoing criticism will have upon their lives. Even the strongest of individuals would struggle to keep themselves on an even keel in those circumstances.

How sad it is that so many professional athletes feel unable to admit their problems while they are still playing. In the case of footballers it is quite simply because they know that opposition fans would give them an awful time. 

The likes of Carlisle, Thompson, Bowditch, Carrick and many, many others know that they face an ongoing battle that will probably be with them until the day that they die. Thankfully, there is a growing awareness about mental illness and its effects. What we need from the paying public is a better tolerance. If more sportsmen and women felt able to talk about their problems while still at the peak of their powers, it would raise the profile of the entire issue and lead to more “victims’ coming forward for help.

For more information on mental health in the UK, visit Mind or Mental Health UK. For those struggling, consider the Samaritans for support.

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