The week following the passing of my friend and former rugby colleague Dan Vickerman was both mournful and reflective. Many articles have come out regarding the implications of suicide and depression among professional athletes, even prompting several fellow rugbymen to step courageously forward and share their own struggles both during and post career. It also pleases me to see a number of high profile individuals come together to spark campaigns of support, encouraging sufferers of mental and emotional anguish to speak up seeking help.
However, I can’t help feeling that many of the points being raised and calls to action in the name of suicide prevention, still fail to address a deeper issue and in my opinion the most important with regards to mental health problems in elite athletes, especially upon retirement.
This is an issue close to my heart, because I am seven years into my retirement after a 12 year professional rugby career. While I am fortunate to say that I have managed to navigate my way around any cause for deep depression, I have certainly stood at the edge of the slippery slope into those depths.
The dark period I refer to occurred shortly after breaking my neck in a professional match in France, from which I was extremely lucky to walk away, but it ended my career and left me with an arduous road to recovery. I was wrought with fear and uncertainty, and immediately felt a loss of identity, causing bouts of depression and anxiety that led to excessive alcohol consumption as a coping mechanism.
I was definitely comforted however, by the fact that I had saved enough money, combined with a career ending insurance policy to not have immediate financial concerns. But it was the lack of identity factor that lingered, and which I believe is a deeper, often neglected layer when considering causes of depression for retired athletes.
Athletes are often warned of the potential hardship associated with retiring from sport. Perhaps they are not as readily and forcefully communicated as they could be, but there is by no means an absence of information. From early in my career, I received plenty of advice from various sources about preparing for life after sport, such as the need to consider having a career back up plan and even some form of financial safety net to endure the inevitable decrease in salary. I felt that Rugby organizations and player unions for the most part were considerate of player welfare in terms of physical care, nutrition education, media training and networking opportunities to cultivate business relationships which could become useful both during and post career. I even recall a member of the police department giving a presentation to the team about legal implications and appropriate action when confronted with compromising situations in public bars. Players also had access to sports psychologists to coach them on how to develop their mental skills in order to optimize performance on the field.
But among all the tools provided to the players to ensure we performed and behaved up to expectations while being clever with our finances, in hindsight there was a glaring omission. There was no form of emotional intelligence or self-awareness education, in a unique environment of extremes that can provide great joy and opportunity, yet can also lead you down a dark alley.
Let me explain further...professional sport can develop an unhealthy relationship with the ego. There are not many professions where tens of thousands of people turn up to watch you “work”, children wait for hours just to get your autograph or shake your hand, and you see your face in the newspaper or on TV on a regular basis. Let’s not forget the free products, VIP access, the recognition from strangers, police escorts to games. etc. etc.
It’s quite easy for players to become attached to exterior sources of validation, and even addicted to the hedonistic perks that come with this newfound status and increased wealth. What’s worse, is they also tend to define themselves by it, even developing a sense of entitlement.
I myself battled with this notion throughout my career, which in some ways was my eventual saving grace. What I mean is that I was never completely comfortable with the ego boosting spoils and often didn’t feel deserving of them. While I enjoyed the challenges of building character, pushing my body to the limits and the intense camaraderie forged with team mates in high pressure situations, I was still searching for my purpose, and never fully understood what it meant to play sport for money. Even now I am still transitioning, or in life coaching jargon, searching for my “why”, and I do believe that my self awareness and curiosity about emotional development has made it easier to detach myself from the professional athlete identity, and I have learned to enjoy the journey of reinventing myself.
For others, this is not necessarily the case, especially for the Dan Vickermans of the world, who played on a much bigger stage than me for a decade, exposing him to even greater highs, which can lead to crippling lows when those highs become a thing of the past.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting this was an underlying reason for Dan Vickerman’s decision to take his own life. Rather, I am theorizing that this may be the case for many high profile athletes and am merely using Dan’s tragic circumstances to raise awareness of these possibilities.
So yes, there needs to be a more concerted effort in creating a safe environment for those suffering from mental illness to talk about their problems, but I am proposing that there should also be an educational component involving emotional intelligence and mindfulness. Where players are introduced to and encouraged to contemplate topics such as:
- Positive and negative aspects of the ego and self esteem.
- Seeking self worth and validation from within and not exterior influences.
- Considering and possibly re-evaluating ones metrics for success.
- The stigma of what it means to be a man in the intensely aggressive contact sport environment.
- The origins and management of fear based thoughts.
- Humility, gratitude and the art of giving.
In the seven professional organizations for which I played, there was not one which properly assessed or provided extensive coaching in the above subjects. Most coaches were well versed in character building, leadership skills and enhancing team culture, but rarely did they communicate lessons about vulnerability, emotional attachment and self-identity, and neither is it necessarily their job.
Just as our physiotherapists and trainers prescribed "prehabilitation" programs to help us avoid physical injuries, why shouldn't the same be done for the mind?
I believe there are a number of ways organizations can introduce some of the aforementioned topics. For example:
1) Yoga classes – not only is it great for prevention of injury and increased movement potential, but classes which include the spirituality element can start players on a positive path to self awareness, the mind-body connection and the meaning of happiness.
2) Player led discussion groups – one hour per week can be devoted to talking in groups about various topics pertaining to the emotional aspects of being a professional sportsman.
3) Influential Guest Speakers – Several motivational speakers were invited to talk to my various teams throughout my career, but it was almost always in an effort to inspire us to win the big important game that weekend or pull us out of a form slump. Why not have leaders in philosophy and/or mental health address the team?
4) Book or podcast of the week – why not have players taking turns in recommending their favorite audiobook, podcast episode, or even just movie scene which provides insight into mastering our thoughts and emotions (perhaps combine it with point #2). My life turned around when my teammate Xavier Rush recommended I read “The Power Of Now” by Eckhart Tolle and set me on a relentless crusade for self-growth. With regards to regulating our thoughts and emotions surrounding fame, fortune and happiness I also recommend the following, to name just a few:
5) Meditation – This is becoming increasingly mainstream, with many leaders in business acknowledging regular meditation practice as a key to their success. Professional Rugby can be a highly stressful vocation, therefore calming the mind and achieving clarity should be just as important for athletes as lifting weights, and will also benefit the process of approaching retirement and beyond.
6) Volunteer work – It is wonderful that teams can be seen devoting their time for various charity work within the community, such as visiting the local children’s hospital or attending fundraising events. But I feel it would be even more beneficial for the player’s personal growth if they tried to also give back with total anonymity, rather than under the guise of a celebrity, or just fulfilling an obligation as a contracted player.
By incorporating such practices into the team’s regular playing and training schedule, the issue of mental health management will be seen as more “normal”, and hopefully will result in players being less reluctant to express their own struggles. Furthermore, it will cultivate a more informed, empathetic audience upon receipt of those difficult, vulnerable confessions.
Another huge factor that I haven't addressed and should not be discounted, is the correlation between head injuries and depression. However, I will save that can of worms for another discussion and give it the proper attention it deserves.
The passing of Dan Vickerman has left us all in a state of shock, sadness and in search for answers. We must not let the death of Dan, and the many before him under similar circumstances be in vain. Let us keep discussing, but more importantly implement measures that empower our elite athletes to take control over, and comfortably communicate their thoughts from a stable place, rather than letting it become a desperate plea of hopelessness, or in my young, fallen friend and colleague’s case, irrevocably worse.