By Nicko Place
It used to be that athletes were Gods. Distant super beings who performed astonishing feats of physical prowess on the sporting stage as we mere mortals cheered and marvelled.
Today, an evolution has occurred so that footy players, Olympians, cricketers, and other sporting heroes can more readily admit when they’re fragile, not coping or even mentally ill. Which is a fucking relief for the rest of us who sometimes struggle to even get out of bed, let alone try to win gold on any given day. It turns out we’re not alone: even our heroes and heroines have to fight their emotions and their minds.
Former Sydney and North Melbourne footballer Wayne Schwass has been a trailblazer on this subject for years now, offering his long battle with mental demons as a way into sparking conversations that need to be had, especially among middle-aged men who are ‘expected’ to be successful and feel shame if they aren’t coping with life.
Schwass has gone from strength to strength in his mission to speak to anybody – but especially men – who might be silently suffering mental illness. From an astonishing Instagram post last year that stood premiership glory on its head (see pic) to his foundation and regular posts (PukaUp) urging followers to work towards mental health, he’s an inspiration.
But happily, he’s not alone. In fact, this is a topic that feels like it’s building; something I’m all for as athletes and coaches find more acceptance in admitting they are struggling with the pressure and anxiety of their fishbowl world. Really, when you think about it, the focus we all put on sport is ridiculous. ‘It’s a game’, right, and yet … we all take it far more seriously than that. In fact, what was the quote from Bill Shankly? ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.’
I love my footy deeply, and my NHL and tennis, surfing, boxing and other sports, but I would respectfully beg to differ.
Happily, in recent years, athletes have been more free to stop away when not coping with the mental pressure. Social media has been a huge and horrible factor in sports people (and actors and other celebrities) suffering under the mental disintegration of a thousand anonymous keyboard warriors tweeting hate and ridicule. More and more, we see leading sportspeople step away from their career to recover, to clear their heads, to escape the blowtorch either of public attacks or their own anxiety and performance angst.
Even this week in the AFL, when Eagle Andrew Gaff broke an opponent’s jaw with a sickening punch during what can only be described as a mind-snap, there has been a solid undercurrent of concern for the previously squeaky clean and reasonable Gaff, and his mental health under the harsh spotlight, as well as for the poor Docker victim who is currently only able to eat through a straw.
Today, we had another headline: that master coach Allan Jeans was secretly suffering from anxiety when he attempted to coach Richmond in the AFL in the early Nineties, back in the now glorious Tigers’ dark days (of which there were many). The article labels Jeans’ fight to coach while battling mental illness as heroic, and I guess it was. But it was also sad that he had to struggle through the whole season without just being able to admit to the world that he wasn’t coping, and step away to heal.
For all of the problems in today’s world, it is much easier now for a man to stand up and say: I’m not coping. I Thi k that’s a great advancement.
There is much less judgement, and much more support and care available. For athletes and for us.
If it happens to be you who isn’t coping, who is feeling the weight of the world, who knows your mental state and/or emotions aren’t right, don’t be shy.
Let the world into your struggle. It will be okay.