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Stress in sport – is enough being done to help athletes?

Ashley Wootton, a solicitor at Thomas Eggar LLP, discusses an important and often misunderstood issue in sport and in the workplace: mental illness.

4 December 2013 Michael Long

Jonathan Trott's surprise withdrawal from the England Cricket team and his decision to take a break from cricket after suffering from a stress-related illness has highlighted an important and often misunderstood issue in sport and in the workplace. Mental illnesses such as stress and depression can affect people in very different ways. How individuals are treated and supported by their clubs, associations or employers after raising the issue will have a direct impact on how well those individuals can recover. 

Stress in sport

On the face of it, athletes are no more prone to stress than the next person – but they do put themselves in situations that are more likely to cause mental health issues. Psychological stress is defined as a relationship between person and environment that taxes their resources and endangers their wellbeing. It is hard to imagine an environment more pressured than sport, particularly at an elite professional level.

There is competition from other players (and the worry that a team place may be lost if you are not the best); pressure from bosses; long tours away from home; a need to balance home life with work life; fans' expectations; big game stress; and of course, pressure these infamous perfectionists place upon themselves.

Round-the-clock media attention and the ever increasing commerciality of sport (and growing amounts of money at stake) only serve to add to this pressure cooker atmosphere. After all, if sponsors have paid money for a particular footballer to wear their products or a club has signed a mega-bucks contract to secure a player, they are likely to feel under pressure to turn up and compete, no matter how bad they feel.

Although a certain level of stress can be beneficial – by upping adrenaline and increasing focus – sustained anxiety and the problems it often leads to are certainly not.

Potentially devastating effects

For example, it may result in athletes lashing out aggressively, their sleep being disturbed, engagement in risky behaviour such as drinking and drug-taking, absenteeism and poor performance. In the long term, prolonged stress can cause significant risks to health, including bowel problems, skin disorders, heart attacks and sexual dysfunction, and even lead to suicide.

Professional sportsmen and women could suffer for longer with their stress and depression because they are less likely to seek help. This industry is notoriously macho and admitting an issue is perceived to be difficult for fear of being dropped by managers and ridiculed by teammates.  It is taking that first step to admitting there is an issue that is often the hardest to take.

Trott is not the only athlete to have eventually revealed the extent of his problems – although the relatively short list of those who have spoken out suggests many more are bottling it up.

Luke Sutton, former Derbyshire and Lancashire cricketer, director of Activate Sport and non-executive director of Thomas Eggar's sport and leisure team, recently spoke of his experience of mental health issues during his career: “I have firsthand experience of battling with mental health issues as a professional cricketer and, in the end, it forced my retirement from the game.

“The toughest aspect of it was actually admitting that I needed help. I was a leader (captain of the club), owned my own business and saw myself as a strong person. Suddenly I wasn't being able to cope and it was very confusing and lonely. I operated in a high performance environment and did so well, so how was I going to put my hand up and say I was struggling? I would be seen as weak by teammates, opposition, media and the public; so I said nothing.

“In the end I let things deteriorate to such an extent that it reached a complete breaking point. Mental health is still misunderstood by many and it is important that we speak to raise greater awareness so that someone else down the line doesn't take as long to ask for help”.

Fellow cricketer Marcus Trescothick was forced to retire from international cricket in 2006 because of a stress-related illness, snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan revealed he once rang The Samaritans before a big competition and boxer Frank Bruno had to be sectioned after suffering from severe depression a few years ago. The sad death of Gary Speed, a well known footballer who committed suicide at 43 after apparently battling depression for years, demonstrates just how serious depression can be.

Younger athletes also at risk

Perhaps because of our hyper-connected society, including direct comments made possible via Twitter and other sites, stress in sport does seem to be turning into a growing problem, with research suggesting it may be occurring at a younger age too.

Earlier in 2013, a study at the University of Leeds looked at 167 junior football players in eight academies and centres of excellence across England. They found that up to a quarter occasionally reported 'burnout', while one per cent admitted it was happening to them frequently. The authors said the stress of trying to meet extreme expectations and the fact that very few academy attendees ever 'make it' past regular culls is exacerbating this problem.

Who is responsible?

All sporting bodies at every level are required to ensure that their athletes are both mentally and physically fit. Many professional bodies do now employ sports psychologists. However, mental health problems can be notoriously difficult to spot, so it may be that qualified clinical practitioners are necessary throughout the industry. Sport's governing bodies, clubs and associations may find more of an onus on them to have support networks available to at risk athletes. From an employment law perspective, employers have a duty of care towards their employees, which would include professional athletes, and those employers must ensure that suitable steps are taken to minimize work place stress where possible. 

Stress and depression is obviously not confined to the sporting industry. However high profile cases like Jonathan Trott do help highlight the issue and gives clubs and governing bodies the opportunity to review their practices and procedures to see what more can be done. 

Ashley Wootton, Solicitor, Thomas Eggar LLP

Ashley Wootton

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