Depression, the silent killer in sport

Adulation, fame and fortune are often the flipside to the mental demons sports stars face as they strive for ever-higher levels of success, a phenomenon sometimes made worse by retirement.

In the highly rated HBO series 24/7, which chronicles the training camps of some of the greatest boxers of the modern day ahead of their superfights, narrator Liev Schreiber delivers a poignant line about the brutal business that is the pugilist’s art. 

“It’s been said that in this ring, the truth will eventually find you. For Floyd Mayweather Jr and Ricky Hatton, the moment of truth is looming,” Schreiber crackles as he warms to the task of the closing sequence ahead of the December 2007 showdown. 

The compelling backdrop is provided by some exceptional footage of the respective training camps and the unerring talent of two men at the absolute peak of their power. They lace their final statements with rapid-fire combinations, a final dose of self-belief. It is a mesmerising final montage. 

Folk hero vs trash talker. Good vs Evil. America vs Britannia. 

“Across a combined 81 professional fights, they have found only victory. On Saturday night, the truth will find them,” says Schreiber. Of all the sporting pursuits, boxing still ranks as the loneliest of them all. It taxes the body like nothing else and tortures the mind – even in victory. At the highest level, it truly is prizefighting, but it is a prize that comes with a hefty price. 

Downward spiral 

On 7 December 2007, Hatton walked into the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, United States, as a gladiator with an army behind him. He was on top of the world, but his 10th-round knockout defeat at the hands of the greatest defensive fighter in history started a downward spiral from which Hatton never quite recovered.

There were further damaging defeats, including a brutal second-round obliteration at the vicious hands of Manny Pacquiao. Hatton, who used to walk the streets of Manchester in the United Kingdom like a Robin Hood of sorts, cowered into the quiet corners of his mansion. He fell out with those around him as he sank into depression.

“They say dreams come true, and mine really did come true. I’ve filled out the Manchester Arena, seen my name up in lights in Las Vegas. Liam Gallagher of Oasis, carrying your belts in,” Hatton reflected in a documentary on mental health for British television channel ITV.

“But once that dream is over, once you’ve experienced that high of being so loved by so many people and winning world titles, and people see you walking down the street and say, ‘There’s Ricky, walking down Las Vegas.’ Once that is gone, it is a very difficult thing to come back down to Earth,” admitted the now retired Hatton. 

“I think the lowest point was when I got beat by Pacquiao. It was an absolutely devastating defeat. I was walking down the street and thinking everyone is laughing at me,” he said helplessly. 

“I fell out with Billy Graham, who was not only my trainer but my best friend. And then I fell out with my mom and dad. So I thought to myself, no best mate, no mom and dad, I’ve got no boxing no more, what is my point of being here on planet Earth?”

When the bright lights dim

The vacuum that comes with the end of a sporting career, the fast shutdown of the bright lights, hits people in different ways. For some, the real world is too real. It’s too lonely and they are too far out of place and touch with their new reality. Like many who have suffered in silence, Hatton questioned his existence once his name was no longer in lights. 

“Several times, I tried to commit suicide. I kept doing it and doing it for months and months, and then I realised that I can’t do it. I don’t have the strength to do it. Then I thought, I’ll drink myself to death. So I just went on a drinking binge. Constantly, every day, all day. And then, obviously, to keep yourself drinking more, I started taking drugs. The drugs would keep me awake, so I could drink even more,” the champion revealed of his private turmoil. 

It is a grim reality that millions of fans neither see nor can fathom. With all that money, all those memories, they ask, how could any top athlete ever feel inadequate or surplus once their glittering careers are over?

“It doesn’t matter how many people I fought in the ring, or beat in the ring. When that little man pops on your shoulder and starts whispering in your ear … I couldn’t cope with him. I had to go and speak to somebody. For me, a former world champion, to go to someone and say, ‘Listen, I’m crying every day. I don’t know what is up with me. What do I do?’ That took more courage than I ever showed in the boxing ring,” said Hatton. 

Sport teaches us that you shouldn’t show weakness, that you should hide emotion and put on a shield of bravado to defy the enemy. Often, when boxers are caught by powerful punches, their go-to bluff is to smile against the grain of the would-be grimace. Dare your opponent to hit harder, because the sledgehammer wasn’t enough to hurt you.  

Hatton took severe punishment in the ring in the name of entertainment. But he found that the more intense pain came when the punches stopped and the silence that suddenly surrounded him was landing the blows.

The loneliest team sport 

A growing list of sports stars has come forward and discussed the self torture they went through during their careers, as well as afterwards. We are only privy to these stars in the ring, on the field or court, but there is often another world of horrors that they mask.

English cricket enjoyed its most significant moment when the England team lifted the Cricket World Cup for the first time in July 2019. The sense of relief and elation was tangible, as a lifetime of hope finally came to being on 14 July at Lord’s. Cricket has its own fickle relationship with mental challenges, as it stands as the loneliest team game in the world. 

For all the camaraderie of the changing room, bowling and batting in particular are still individual challenges. Suicide used to be a common trend among cricketers as the net of mental claustrophobia closed in on fragile minds. It is a game that haunts for hours on end, and the statistical frankness of its assessments play on the mind long after stumps have been called for the day. 

“Cricket has this dreadful, hidden burden,” David Frith, the former editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine once told The Guardian newspaper. 

“The nature of cricket is such that it tears at the nerves. Half-hearted cricketers are extremely rare. This game gets a grip on people such as only religious fanatics might recognise. There is a compulsive nature to the game and an inherent uncertainty which could damage the soul.”

Before the 2019 Cricket World Cup, English cricket’s proudest moments were centred around The Ashes. These meetings against Australia often bring out the best in players and the class of 2005 is still lauded for a summer that captured the imagination of a public desperate for a good story.

Beyond that, some of the same class went on to win the 2010-2011 Ashes in Australia, making their own history. Barney Douglas directed a fascinating sports documentary labelled The Edge, which went behind the scenes with that side as they prepared to go to Australia. It is riveting viewing, honing in on the inner workings of the English changing room, as well as the very real human emotions of the men tasked with putting their names in the history books. 

What lies behind 

The series took a heavy toll on South African-born Jonathan Trott as the relentless pressure and his deliberate style of batting and concentration eventually manifested itself in a breakdown. The bubble that sports stars exist in is exposed, and the inherent dangers of them not having a much-needed release for that ever-mounting tension and expectation is depicted in the manner of Trott’s breakdown midway through the series.

At the time, he was labelled as soft by the Aussies. There was little mind paid to the silent anguish he was going through. At the height of that team’s success, there was little in the way of time-outs given. They were expected to grind obliviously on, their mental wellbeing cast aside. 

“This was a team that was a product of a distant era, driven and prepared to sacrifice. And that’s not always a good thing as we learn,” Douglas said of the film. “For me, it [The Edge] really represented a point in time when players realise their great dreams and glories are behind them. What did it [the success] mean? And does it even matter at all? To hear men talking so openly about their vulnerabilities made it a film a lot more important than just cricket.”

Some English players, like South Africa-born Kevin Pietersen, admitted to hoping an injury would take them out of the picture for a few months. The pressure was relentless and The Edge carefully exposes the cranking up to that inevitable explosion. 

The human mind is not built to relentlessly withstand the mental punches that elite sports throw at it. There is a breaking point. The perks of being at the top of a sport are evident: fortune, fame, adulation and doors that open for those who reach these heights.

But the perils are not as easy to see, or acknowledge. Crippling self-doubt, self-loathing, depression and a sense of doom often arises. And ironically, it is when careers end that many sports stars need attention and affection the most.

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