With increasing expectations and pressure to be at the top of their game, individual sportspeople are hit the hardest when it comes to mental health issues. Is there more support now than before?
By Nick Said
Mental health in sports has become a hot topic after some high-profile incidents in recent years in which competitors at the very top of their game have taken a step back in order to safeguard their own well-being.
It begs the question, are we putting sportspeople under increasing pressure with our demands as fans over their performance, or have these issues always been there and it is simply a case of individuals being more willing to talk about, and confront, their fears?
Rugby players Michael Hooper and Sbu Nkosi, swimmer Michael Phelps, gymnast Simone Biles, and tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, among many others, have all admitted to mental health issues in the last few years.
Their troubles are the tip of the iceberg, but instead of enduring their inner struggles, they have chosen to speak out and take a step back from their sport.
Dr Jannie Botha is a world-renowned psychologist who has worked with a number of sports teams and individuals to help them deal with the scrutiny of being in the public eye and always under pressure to perform.
He has been contracted by South African Rugby and the Blue Bulls, local soccer sides Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns, as well golfers, and Olympic medal-winning athletes and swimmers.
“People are now more open when it comes to speaking about how they feel,” Botha tells FORBES AFRICA.
“In the past they had to simply survive in their ‘bubble’ and the environment they were in, where they were mentally not well but couldn’t do anything about it.
“They were seen as such heroes that they felt they couldn’t show emotion. A ‘cowboys don’t cry’ kind of
thing. But that was the past, it has changed a lot.”
Dr Botha believes individual sportspeople are hit the hardest, often without the support around them to see them through the tough times.
In a team environment there is often a shoulder to cry on.
“There is a difference. In an individual sport, my mental capacity is my own support. In a team environment, my mental capacity is my teammates’ support,” he says.
“You can hide it much longer in a team situation and endure it for much longer with teammates around you.
“You can function much longer in a team sport because your team carries you, but for individuals, there
is not that support, so it is more severe.”
Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka has been one of the most high-profile individuals to speak out in recent times, saying she struggled with constantly being in the media glare.
“I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and have had a really hard time coping with that,” she said last year.
“It was important to me to be public because I think it gives me clarity. Just saying out loud that I’ll take a break and I’ll come back when I am truly in love with the sport and I know what I want to do here; it gave me time to reset myself.”
Hooper, one of the leading stars in rugby and long time captain of the Australian national team, quit the side abruptly while on tour in Argentina last year, saying he needed a break from the sport just hours before he was due to play.
“I’ve been playing the game for a long time, had some great changes in my life and there were a lot of things running through my head showing up in Argentina, and Argentina wasn’t the place where I needed to (be to) sort these things out,” Hooper later said.
“I wanted to be around family. I wanted to be in a place where I could put the time in to those things that I needed to put in. As a younger man, I viewed asking for help as, I guess, a bit of a weakness. You want to feel like you have it all worked out and I certainly didn’t.”
Hooper returned to the side months later, but Dr Botha says the player’s feelings are typical.
“The problem is that because in a sense they believe they live in a bubble, which the media creates for them, they struggle to function in normal life. That bubble gives them a bit of security, even if it is false.”
Dr Botha adds that with players expected to perform weekly in what has turned into a 12-month season, both in individual and team sports, that pressure builds.
“The expectations (from fans) have not changed, even though the seasons have got longer,” he says. “They are playing all year round now and the public does not see that, they just want performance week after week. It has changed the dynamics completely.”
South Africa had its own recent case of a player withdrawing from the public eye when Bulls wing Sbu
Nkosi went missing for three weeks, leading to such alarm that a missing person case was opened with the police.
He was eventually found at the home of his father in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province and said it had been a build-up of mental pressure over time that saw him take his leave of absence and cut himself off from the world.
“It’s just been a whole lot of mental pressure. It’s been building up for a couple of years now,” he told Sport24. “I was just trying to keep myself calm. That’s been a battle. I’m at a point where I need to prioritize the person before the rugby player.
“I just needed time. I’ve basically been curled up in a ball with my dad, and he’s been managing my mental state daily.
“I’ve had plenty teammates and I can tell you, not everyone is okay. It’s a tough environment.” But Dr Botha does believe that sportspeople are at least receiving more support than a decade ago. “There is much more awareness, I can see that in the last 10 years,” he says. “Especially in team sports, there is much more focus on helping people in need. Most of the big teams have psychologists working for them now and that is a big positive.”