The Mental Health of Sport

 

As Australia imploded when news of the ball tampering saga reached our shores I felt all the sadness, outrage and shock along with my fellow cricket enthusiasts. I watched the story unfold and grew increasingly concerned by the aggressive nature in which people were attacking their fallen heroes. I watched on social media as people labelled Steve Smith a “cheating w–ka” and ruthlessly tore into his partner and family. I cringed seeing the comments on Candice Warner’s social media calling her an “attention seeking materialistic cheater’s wife.” Despite all the open discussions in schools, workplaces and the media about bullying, everywhere I looked there were people clearly crossing the line to make deliberately hurtful and negative comments about another individual. As a GP, a health professional who deals with the consequences of bullying nearly every day in my clinic, I watched with sheer horror.

 

For me, one of the interesting aspects about the ball tampering saga was the subsequent discussion that flowed about the culture within the Australian cricket team and their antics on field – suddenly the sledging and, let’s be honest, bullying on field was being openly discussed. The footage of the former Australian captain Michael Clarke telling Jimmy Anderson to “get ready for a broken f—ing arm” was replayed again and again– overt bullying had somehow pervaded the “gentleman’s game” and now we were talking about it. And cricket was not alone – AFL, NRL, other codes were succumbing too.

 

I’ve intentionally delayed the release of this piece until the (saw) dust had settled from the ‘sandpaper saga’, because I wanted to talk about the much bigger issues that arise from such a horrific incident. Yes, the ball tampering is bad, but the bullying and lack of awareness for a fellow human’s mental wellbeing is worse.

 

As a GP I frequently encounter patients who are dealing with bullying in some capacity. It’s not just the school children you might be envisioning; of course, I see the 13-year-old girl who is picked on because she is “too hairy” and the 16-year-old boy whose friends suspect he might be gay so he is berated in the locker room when other boys are changing. But I also see the 42-year-old woman who is at breaking point, now afraid to leave the home and battling significant depression because of persistent subtle and targeted bullying at work. I’ve also treated the secretary who was deliberately excluded from social events, a clear message from her colleagues she wasn’t wanted – she eventually left after unsuccessfully trying to lodge a Work Safe claim for the damage done to her mental health by a workplace drenched in bullying. Bullying comes in all shapes and sizes and to me, a GP, bullying in sport is no different. We have seen bullying from spectators towards competitors (just remember the horrific racial slurs against Adam Goodes) and we’ve seen people bullied on various sporting fields across the country – from the MCG to the local footy field. At what point did we deem that “sledging” was acceptable? At what point did bullying become part of any game?

 

I frequently talk to adolescents alone as a GP; often their parents willingly leave the room when I ask so that someone else can have a crack at finding out what’s going on with their increasingly withdrawn and flat teenager. Adolescents often open up much more to a GP without their parent there. I always ask about school – do they enjoy it, have they got friends, do they play sport? I cannot tell you the number of times they disclose that are being picked on for some reason – be it their skin colour, sexuality, their parents jobs or their choice in clothing. My job is to provide support, involve adults (parents, the school) if physical or mental wellbeing is at risk. My doctor brain works on how we can prevent deterioration of mental health in an individual and keep them safe from ongoing emotional or physical harm, but, my soul is crippled by their pain, at knowing how much they dread going to school, leaving the safety of their parent’s car or the bus.

 

We know children who are bullied are more likely to experience anxiety and depression – so why are adults any different? Why do we assume that because a person has large biceps, countless bruises and a strapped shoulder that he or she is able to withstand persistent bullying on a sporting field? And, how can we expect our children to know what is acceptable and what isn’t if their sporting heroes reflect that bullying, sledging, putting down your opponent verbally is the norm?

 

We know that sportspeople are often reluctant to openly seek help for or discuss mental health issues – the rolled ankle, sore knee, torn hamstring will always take precedent. When Buddy Franklin took time off for mental health issues everyone watched shocked that an in-form player was sitting out the crucial stages of Sydney’s finals campaign. The truth is that mental health is potentially harder to recover from, harder to recognise and deal with than a knee reconstruction. I thought it was wonderful Buddy openly discussed his mental health issues and need to take time off football, but by the same token, the media storm that followed his openness further perpetuated the stigma that many males battling mental illness already struggle with. “A man admitting to mental health issues is a big deal, I can’t tell anyone” a young male patient recently told me as I suggested he was significantly depressed and should share this with someone to increase his support network; the Buddy attention highlighted that.  As a GP I agree that we need to talk about mental health more openly, but when it gets sensationalised it only emphasises the stigma in some ways. And on the note of mental health, as I watched the press conferences of the 3 players embroiled in the ball tampering saga I felt for them – yes, they had done the wrong thing, but was someone monitoring their mental wellbeing with all the negative media attention and overt bullying being directed their way?

 

Some argue that sledging is harmless and part of the game. Personally, I disagree. If someone were to come up to me at a cocktail party and comment on my race, husband, child or that I was “weak as piss” – I would most likely cry, loudly. To say that sledging is acceptable on any field is unacceptable.

 

I ask you to sit in my chair for one day – see the broken people who walk through my door; successful, well dressed, functioning people who will disclose how hurt they are by someone else’s careless words. I ask you to see with your own eyes the pervasive bullying that happens in countless workplaces across our country and the damage it really does to people’s mental health.

 

Bullying is bullying. Let us not blur lines accepting that some sledges are OK, but some go too far. We shouldn’t need to attack another human to win a sporting competition. We shouldn’t need to deliberately hurt a fellow human to help our team succeed. If you’re good enough, you’ll win anyway.

 

To put it simply, my soul would ache if my daughter was ever called names, put down for her sporting abilities or targeted for her choice in partner or sexuality. It would hurt me if it happened to her at school, on a playground, at work or on a footy field. We are all human, we are all vulnerable – bulging biceps, a 6 pack, a gold medal doesn’t change that.

 

Bullying is bullying – and I say no way.