IN the first chapter of his book ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’, former Cavan footballer Alan O’Mara described what it was like to stand in his local pub in Bailieborough, surrounded by his closest friends yet feel completely alone.
O’Mara was embarrassed and ashamed for feeling down. He wandered away from the party, out of the town, drifting deeper into the darkness and cold. Every step O’Mara took seemed like another step away from the anxiety and pain.
Full of alcohol and hopelessness, O’Mara was questioning the purpose of his life. Suddenly a car came towards him.
“I clearly imagined throwing myself in front of the oncoming car and letting it knock me out of this world,” wrote O’Mara. “I wasn’t dreaming or, more accurately, having a nightmare. Jump. Bang. Gone.”
The guilt and helplessness that brought O’Mara close to death steered him on a slow, solitary but relentless climb away from the edge and back up the cliff face.
O’Mara returned to counselling and began to understand his depression. Being more honest also helped him figure out himself. Football was a massive part of his life but O’Mara was too dependent on the game.
“All the other stuff needs to be in a good place so that when it comes to football, it’s just an expression of yourself,” said O’Mara.
O’Mara’s honesty amplified the whispered conversation about mental health and wellbeing to reach a national audience. One of his key messages was the importance of having a balance but that balance has been knocked sideways now for many elite sportspeople.
In a recent survey by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), almost a quarter of current and former professional players said they were depressed or had considered self-harm during the coronavirus pandemic.
The data also showed that 69% were worried about their future career or livelihood; 72% were regularly aware of feelings of nervousness or anxiety.
The absence of routine and structure was clearly an aggravating factor. So is fear of the unknown. Outside of the highly-paid elite, many players are anxious about their livelihoods, especially with some clubs furloughing players and deferring wages.
Yet the PFA also found that the emotional stress was linked to more than just financial stress. “There are also health issues,” said Martin Bennett, the PFA’s director of player welfare. “If we do go back to the season, can it work? Will it work? What about my family? All these sort of ‘what if?’ questions kept coming up.”
Last week Ulster and Irish rugby player Jordi Murphy admitted how unsettling he is finding that uncertainty.
“Not knowing when things are going to be back has been tough,” said Murphy. “I [have] definitely felt a bit anxious the last while, which is a feeling that I have never really had before.”
GAA players livelihoods aren’t at stake like in professional soccer or rugby, but it would be foolish to assume that many are not beset by the same worries and concerns. Particularly when the structure and routine players are so accustomed to has been torn to shreds.
Players are desperately seeking a return to action but there are clearly health issues for many too, especially players living with older parents, grandparents or siblings, or parents with underlying conditions.
That ‘what if’ adds to the uncertainty, which can fuel anxiety. In the current crisis, that also extends beyond the playing field, especially when that need for a balance has been destabilised for many players who may have lost jobs. For young players just finished college and seeking employment, their future job prospects may be far bleaker with an impending massive global recession.
The flipside to all of this though, is that the elongated break has also allowed players to slow down, to mentally and physically reset, to recharge.
For the first time in most inter-county players careers, they have had a chance to reassess the direction of that career, and to plan more strategically for the next stage of that career, a luxury most players never get from the break-neck pace of the GAA season.
Players are in incredible physical shape, but, not having any defined date when there might be a return to action is still adding to the mental frustration.
As in anything new, even in a pandemic, the novelty soon wears off. Players want structure. They yearn for routine. They crave social interaction, especially the camaraderie of the dressingroom. When players retire, that’s always what they always miss most.
Other recent figures, and personal stories, have highlighted the rise of players mental health issues in Australian Football League (AFL).
In a documentary a couple of years ago, most of the AFL captains featured revealed their self-doubts and crippling anxieties.
The majority were natural leaders and some of the finest players of their generation. But they all touched on similar themes – the grind, the criticism, the anxiety.
Former St Kilda player Danny Frawley admitted recently that it took him four years to open up about his hidden battle with depression. Frawley now hosts SEN’s ‘No Man Should Walk Alone’, a show that tackles men’s health, including addiction.
“The pressure that these guys are under, mentally, is far greater than at any other time in AFL/VFL footy,” said Frawley recently. “The competition needs to be aware that this landscape is a beast moving very, very quickly and you’ve got to keep ahead of it.”
That principle applies to every level of elite sport. And an awareness of it, amongst and around players, needs to be greater than ever now.
Talk. Ask. And listen.