Posts Tagged ‘Depression in Sport’

Trouble in Shangri-La

May 8, 2017

I’m writing this in Mental Health Awareness Week, 2017. Many stories have emerged in the press etc recently of sports people suffering from depression and other mental health issues. Go back on this blog a few years and you’ll find that I was part of that gang too. It’s an area of my life I don’t revisit here very much now, but it’s part of me that never goes away, and probably never will. Depression was such a huge shock to me that I was, frankly, in denial for quite a long time.

In the twelve months or so period during which severe depression steadily established its grip on me, by some standards I had “no excuses”. Life was sweet in many ways. I was in my early fifties, and my training as a sprinter in Masters athletics was paying off. I was a regular finalist in World and European Masters competitions; I had very narrowly missed out on a medal in the last World Masters sprint final I’d raced in; and I was holder of three world gold medals from relay events. I was also in the world top ten for my age category, free from illness, and the back injuries that had plagued my life for the previous 15 years were apparently under control.

I had (and still have) a happy home life. I had a satisfying job, albeit with lots of anti-social hours. I had hobbies, and a sense of humour. And depression knocked me sideways nevertheless.

In my sporting life, I can’t say I felt unhappy in the accepted sense, but in a number of respects, I was unsatisfied. I was training hard and regularly, but one consequence of those frequent anti-social work hours was that I found it impossible to commit to training with a group of other athletes, or a coach. I just couldn’t guarantee to be there for any given session. I needed to grab opportunities to train when I could, and that usually meant solo.

I think I’ve always been a pretty self-critical person. Often that’s been with good reason. I don’t like just to think or imagine that I can do better; I like to set myself on a trajectory I think will lead me to “better”. And over time, I’ve come to realise that being your own control-group, only hearing your own voice as encouragement or criticism, only seeing yourself in the gym mirror, etc, can all be part of quite a dangerous cocktail. With no one to tell me what my sessions looked like and being largely dependent on how they felt to me, for feedback, there was usually only one answer to sessions that didn’t feel hard enough: try harder next time.

I wasn’t short of encouragement, from work colleagues, from my sports masseur and chiropractor particularly. My GP was (and still is) very supportive of this older athlete’s activities. Yet, there came a point when, with hindsight, I can see that diminishing returns set in. The harder I trained, the worse I seemed to perform. What I was doing and experiencing seemed to be lacking any “cause and effect” (as in “do A, and B should eventually happen”). And it seemed to me my options were limited to a single way forward: train harder still.

The nature of situations involving diminishing returns is that they quickly, and often stealthily, develop into downward spirals. I freely admit I missed all the indicators. No matter how untypical I knew I was for my age, my (then) 55 year-old body wasn’t made of Kryptonite, of course. It began to creak at the seams. Niggling injuries wouldn’t go away. Efforts to work around them simply meant less specificity in training, and eventually meant niggles just spread to previously healthy parts of me.

The expression I think I used most often, in my self-talk, was that training was beginning to feel less like something I did for sport and more like “beating myself up”. There is something relentless and deeply disturbing about self-harm. You eventually reach a point of paradox, where the activity that causes the harm actually begins to look like the way out. I lost several things going into and through severe depression. One was my sense of proportion – my sport was exactly that – sport. Not life or death. Yet I acted much of the time as if it was. I lost my coping strategies. I couldn’t cope with conflict or disappointment in particular. My mother died during this time. I simply couldn’t engage with that on any level.

An answer would have been to take a complete break from sport. However, to me then, that would just have smacked of squandering the effort I’d been putting in, and brought with it the certainly I’d just end up needing to do more, and harder, to “get back in”. So, the cycle of abuse continued. Until, that was, sitting in my hotel room one evening, while away on a trip to race in Europe, I was inwardly berating my day’s performance (despite having won two races and come second in the other!), and it finally dawned that I had completely lost the plot.

A few days later, I said this to my GP. After some standard diagnostic tests, he said to me “These suggest you are suffering severely from depression”. Depression? Me? Antidepressant tablets? Me? I went into further denial for a while, but did lots of reading about what depression is and how it works on you. Eventually, I had to concede that my GP was right, and I started taking the pills that had meanwhile been sitting untouched on the beside table.

There’s more to it, of course, than I can or choose to include in a single retrospective blog. Learning that depression was an illness, not a failing of character, was crucial. Being open about it to others was also quite important. Surprisingly so, given how dishonest I’d hitherto been with myself. The pills worked for me, and despite a few adventures in the process of coming off them, there came a day when I didn’t need them. In the intervening period to date, I’ve fallen back into depression’s clutches a couple of times, largely because old (bad) habits die hard, and depression is a stubborn bastard.

I still have lots of questions and not as many answers, but if this blog has touched a nerve with you, I’d say: be self-aware, ensure you have “significant others” who are able to give you feedback, and be open, both with those around you and with yourself. Good, honest internal dialogue is key! It’s not about kidding yourself everything is ok really, it’s about telling yourself how you feel and making that all-important deal to do something about it that breaks the cycle that got you to here in the first place.

Tom

My title comes from a great song by Stevie Nicks (ex Fleetwood Mac)

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The Circle Game

March 31, 2015

I had my best track season ever (so far!) in 2009. I was 5th in the World Masters 100 metres and 4th in the 200 metres final in Lahti, Finland, missing the bronze medal in the latter by just two hundredths of a second, as the athlete next to me tripped and fell forward faster than he was running! A lot of work had gone into getting to those races. My blogs eventually came to admit that it was not all good work, because the expectations I’d placed on myself were huge, and I’d been beating myself up physically, and (particularly) mentally. Later, when the work got harder and the results refused to come in the winter of 2010, my slide into clinical depression was as rapid as it was unexpected.

The world has come to know that depression is an issue in sport, just as it is elsewhere in real life. I don’t recall us acknowledging that quite so much, even as recently as 2009.

Well, I’ve just had my most successful major indoor athletics season since March 2009. Back then, the European Masters Indoors in Ancona, Italy, were a vital part of my build up to the Worlds in Finland that summer. I’m newly back from the 2015 European Masters Indoors in Torun, in Poland. I ran my fastest 60 metres for several years in the heats, made the final, and got 5th place in it, in an even faster time. In the 200 metres heats it all just clicked perfectly into place. I ran my socks off and made the semi-final as second fastest qualifier of 18 top class Masters athletes. My heats time was half a second faster than I’d been running even a few weeks before, despite having had a worrying back problem just before leaving for Poland. Things went even better for me in the semi-final the following morning. Although it was my fourth race in four days, the chiropractic and massage experts of our British Masters Medical Services squad had kept me in great shape.

My semi-final time saw me third fastest qualifier for the final in a time I’d never have dreamed of achieving this winter. It was about 2009/10 that I last raced that fast. (Are you spotting a pattern here?) In Finland in the 2009 Worlds, there were several, myself included, I guess, who had just about placed a bronze medal around my neck before the 200 metres final had even begun. This time? Well, maybe once or twice, but I’d arrived at this point more surprised than anything (and anyone) else. I was just wide-eyed with amazement at what I was doing, and loving every hundredth of a second of it.

The 200 metres final happened in the evening of the same day as the semi-final. I’d had a massage, a meal, a sleep, and largely stayed away from my obligations as a photographer down on the track during the day. I was ready. I had a good lane draw, and the faster guys outside me. From the gun, the chase was on. I felt great until 150 metres of the race, when someone or something covered my thighs in lead. As the finish line loomed, I was in 4th place. On the line, I was pipped by a team-mate by four hundredths of a second. The qualifying rounds had taken their toll, and the times we both ran were well down. There is video of my race at https://t.co/gWYorQgQLi

Fifth place in two European Masters finals a few days apart? I’ll take that. I had no idea at all it was remotely in the offing when I travelled out to Poland. In 2009 there had been pleasure tinged with big, yet suppressed, annoyance, and lots more opportunity to turn on myself for having “failed” to get a medal. That was even despite our gold medal in the sprint relay a couple of days afterwards. This time around, for the me of 2015, there was joy. Apologies to those to whom I spoke in the hours after that race in Torun. I was on the verge of tears of pure pleasure each time. My face hurt from the smiles as much as my legs hurt from the races, by the time I got back to my hotel.

No beating myself up, no raking over the past training schedules for evidence of inadequacies. I’d rediscovered what makes a 61 year old man who has basically been a sprinter all his life carry on doing it. Fun. Pure, unalloyed FUN. I was not ” a better person” for success (such as it was) in Torun, just as I came to learn that “failure” (such as it seemed back then) in Lahti didn’t label me “a bad person”, except in a mind that had made itself literally ill with the unrealistic expectations it had stacked up. The me of July 2009 didn’t understand that. Depression is not about being “a bit sad” etc. It’s an illness that will eat you whole until you confront it and ask for help.

I did, when the alternatives became unthinkable. To those who helped, my delight at what I achieved in Poland last week is for you to share. Some of you will be reading this. You know who you are. Thank you.

Oh, and on the day after that 200 metres final, I led off a 4 x 200 metres relay squad that won a gold medal by a big margin. A number of friends commented that I seemed a bit happy on the presentation rostrum when we got that medal. Perhaps this blog goes some way to explaining.

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Hat tip to Joni Michell for the title of this blog. The reason I used it might be obvious, but in addition, you need to know that 200 metres indoors is raced as one lap of the track. As I write, Joni is, sadly, very ill in a Los Angeles hospital.