Sporting Success Can Be Depressing

For many people it’s hard to imagine how, after achieving sporting goals including Gold, that athletes could ever be unhappy. What is often the highlight in an athlete’s career can also mark the beginning of the lowest point as an athlete comes to grips with a life where the rewards are not so significant.

The road to sporting success is paved with exhilarating highs and devastating lows. This can be particularly strong in Olympic sports where so much focus is put into an event that occurs only every four years For most of their life, potential Olympians are singularly focused, nothing else matters but getting that Gold Medal. There is often not a next time, there is only one time; it is a one shot deal with their entire careers on the line. Not everyone can win Gold on the big day.

Athletes are regarded as Gods. We place the hope of the nation on their success and they are faced with enormous pressures to not let their country down. That moment is the height of the career where they are treated like Gods on the Mount of Olympus playing for the fate of their kingdom. When they win the gold we treat them like celebrities; we throw them parties, we put their faces on cereal boxes but eventually life returns back to normal.

But just what is normal when sport is over? And how do you return to it when you’ve just been treated like a God?

Depression among athletes, upon retirement, is a well-recognised problem and can be accentuated by disappointing results or a career prematurely ended by injury. Few athletes consider life after sport. In fact, in the “normal world” most athletes are strangers. They have given up normalcy for the chance to live the dream. Everyday tasks we take for granted have been traded in for training.

When sport is over, that is the end of a lifetime of ambition. Even winning the gold can be correlated to a low in an athlete’s career because there is nowhere left to go- there is nothing left to achieve. Life as that athlete knew it- is over.

Many successful athletes suffer from depression because of the inability to transition to a more normal lifestyle. In March of 2009, Olympic Gold Medalist, Australian Diver, Chantelle Newbury checked herself into a Psychiatric Hospital after she made her second suicide attempt. By all standards she is a monumental success having earned her country a Gold Medal, yet she has no life balance.

In April, Jobie Dakja, an Olympic cyclist took his own life unable to cope with the depression and the struggle after being expelled from the Athens Olympics and then suspended from his cycling, his life’s passion.

Depression is not limited to life after sport with cases of several experiencing depression through their sporting career. Some of it is psychological and some of it is chemical with overtraining linked to depression. Concussion has also been shown to increase incidence of depression, a problem for contact sports such as football and ice hockey.

Perhaps what makes it worse for athletes is that there is an expectation that everything is wonderful in the life of sport. There are accolades and special privileges, but for some this can cause psychological pressure. Andrew Johns is an Australian football player that found the pressure of celebrity overwhelming leading to drug abuse and depression.

Adding to the problem is that athletes often do not seek out help, preferring to put on a brave face than show signs of weakness. Olympic swimming champion, Petria Thomas, felt hopeless and had lost her passion and focus prior to winning her first Olympic medal back in 1996. With pain in her shoulders, Thomas declared “In a sense, swimming is all I felt like I had in my life.”

This one-side devotion to sport can both be the cause of their greatest success and their downfall. Though there are many factors contributing to an athlete’s mental pain, the important thing is that athletes realise they are not alone and seek help. As we suffer more and more fallouts from our countries top athletes we will be forced into a position to recognize the need for mental health support and to nurture a better life-career balance for our sporting heroes.

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