The AFL has had its share of mental illness in recent years. Hawthorn and North Melbourne tall forward Nathan Thompson was something of a pioneer in this topic when in 2004 he announced, whilst at the height of his physical powers as an AFL player, that he had been suffering from clinical depression.
This was a big story at the time, and Thompson rode the media wave with the look of a man on a crusade. He told us all he was not mucking about: he was serious and we’d all better take him seriously. This is an example of how sport, and the people involved in sport, can have a positive impact on society.
A decade on from Thompson’s brave announcement, with the mental health stories of Wayne Schwass, Brendan Fevola, Ben Cousins and others all having played themselves out in public view, the community’s understanding of mental illness has greatly improved.
Yesterday, as I drove home from work, I listened to the talkback on sports radio broadcaster SEN and was proud of our society for the loving embrace it sent him. There was not a single negative thing said about him, and it is a good representation of the change in attitude we have experienced towards this subject.
Everyone goes through ups and downs to varying degrees, and everyone sees people they know go through rocky times. I got to thinking about mental health issues I have experienced or witnessed in my own life. I don’t believe I have ever suffered depression, but I have experienced a time when my happiness was negatively affected by sport. This was in the last six months.
The cricket season of 2012/13 was a pretty good one. I played the year in the firsts as a wicket keeper-batsman and we lost only one game leading into the grand final. Of course, we lost it. Nevertheless, both grand finalists were promoted, putting our club back into the top division of the competition. From the outside all things looked rosy, but I didn’t want to play the next season.
At the start of our grand final season we had a new coach appointed at the club. We had made the semi final the previous year, and the club wanted to make the players more professional in their training and thinking. The coach they hired was a non-playing coach, a man whose brief it was to change the culture of the club.
He was into dossiers and attention to minute matters of technique that I had neither the time nor the patience to fix. I am an adult with a wife, a mortgage, a full time job and three children, the last thing I needed was a man assessing my every move while I tried to enjoy my leisure time. Very quickly I realised I would not enjoy my sport under his guidance.
Team wise, grand final aside, the season was a success, and while individually I had done ok, I just didn’t have the desire to subject myself to further critiques. Even if he wasn’t being negative, I couldn’t help but feel his presence as a critical one. My brother Marty was keen for me to go on, understandably wanting the club to stay up in the top level of the competition. Feeling significant obligation to my team mates, I agreed to play another season. This was a huge mistake.
If I’m having fun and feeling supported, my cricket can be pretty bloody good. If I can bat naturally and back myself, I can turn a match with my aggressive strokeplay. On the other side of that is the situation where, if I feel criticised or misunderstood, I can freeze at the crease.
I never expected anything of myself in footy because I wasn’t that good, so I just went out there and had heaps of fun. To this day, I could still play footy anywhere, anytime, with anyone and I’d love it. Cricket was different; I wanted to be really good at it. It meant a lot to me, and that could be my undoing.
After the first game of the 2013/14 season the coach sat us down in the rooms. He had been watching the 2nds while the first five of our wickets fell, but he still told us he’d seen the scorebook and seen that we’d all gone out caught, and had thus deduced that we were all stupid and could not read a pitch.
I felt like standing up and saying, “I can’t do this. I apologise for committing to something I can’t do, but I can’t play sport when it isn’t fun.” I didn’t though. I sat there and muttered and grumbled and went home via the ice cream shop. What then transpired was six months of the worst cricket I have ever played.
I didn’t want to be there, but felt that I would be considered soft or weak or selfish if I pulled the pin on the season. So I stayed and went through the motions, trying to motivate myself, but getting in a deeper and deeper rut the more that I failed. Some people would tell me they really wanted me to make runs because I’m good at cricket. They always seemed to have this really confused look on their faces, like they couldn’t believe what was happening. Others would just avoid me.
By the latter part of the season I wasn’t great company, and certainly wasn’t worth having in a side. I couldn’t have made runs if I had a two foot wide bat and no fielders, as I was mentally shot. Any given chance I would lash out verbally about the coach. Everyone knew what I thought of him. I didn’t like that I was so negative, I didn’t like that I wasn’t a good influence to the youngsters, I didn’t like that I was letting my team mates down with my woeful cricket, I didn’t much like anything.
Mercifully, the season ended and the clouds lifted. Within no time at all I was the same cheery bloke I was before the season. There was a slight regret that I’d allowed myself to become so bitter instead of simply being honest and saying I didn’t want to play, but mostly I was just happy that I got to stay home and play with my kids.
While thinking of depression, I am reminded of my brother-in-law, Anthony, who committed suicide in 2006, aged 29. Anthony was a classic example of a young man who was suffering severe depression but was undiagnosed and self-medicating.
My wife’s memories of him are that he could be caring, loving, funny and charming, but could also spend weeks at a time on the couch, listless. I was 25 at the time, and he always seemed sad to me; a smile on his face but a frown in his eyes. A Geelong fan who loved Gary Ablett, he was not, in my view, to be trusted. His drug use made him unreliable and dangerous. We should have helped him.
Anthony’s story is one that is all too common in society. A young person who doesn’t know what is wrong with him, searching failingly for a way to be happy. My story is but a trifling matter compared to Anthony’s, or even what Clark is going through now. It is still though, an example of how sport can trap people in unhappiness.
There is no doubt in my mind that Clark has done the right thing in walking from his career in footy. His life is the most important thing. I hope the AFL ensures that he is being given the support that all people should be afforded, that Anthony should have received. I hope that sporting environments in general make it easier for people to exit the environment should it be detrimental to their mental health.
The AFL could lead the way in this, as they have done in the past. It would be good to think that a process could be developed whereby a player could leave their club on the basis of mental health issues, knowing that they could return to the club when they have returned to health.
If there are players in the system that have concerns about the consequences to their career that a prolonged absence from their club in the pursuit of a full and meaningful recovery would have, then perhaps this setup would encourage them to take the necessary steps. People love their sport, but it is just sport after all. It is there to increase happiness, not stifle it. People – we - should look after those we love; we don’t need any more stories like Anthony’s.