IN the Irish News newspaper a couple of weeks back, Cahair O’Kane wrote a brilliant piece on Oran Sludden, one of the most talented young footballers in Tyrone, but who already had three cruciate knee ligament operations by the age of 20.
Sludden told O’Kane about the after-effects of being isolated from football, and how it sent his life into a downward spiral of drinking, gambling and depression. There was so much darkness in Sludden’s life that in the space of six weeks between Halloween and early December 2019, he attempted suicide twice.
As with so many young GAA players, Sludden needed football or hurling, because it was such a central pillar of his life. And when he didn’t have football, his demons started to get the better of him.
Sludden drank to numb the pain. He gambled to try and distract himself but his knee injuries were the root cause of a depression that threatened to consume him.
After his second suicide attempt, Sludden attended a cognitive behaviour therapist every week, which changed his way of thinking.
“He has taught me that mental health doesn’t define Oran Sludden, and not to dwell on the past,” said the young Dromore man. “He also changed my outlook on the pressures of the GAA, which played with my head at the worst of times.
“I’m a lot healthier now. There was a time when I could see nothing other than football. I’d have been planning everything around it. I’ve completely changed my outlook on football. I’m happier.”
That danger of a sport, especially an amateur sport, having such a defining impact on so many young people’s lives was reinforced in another excellent interview recently on a similar subject by Eamon Donoghue in the Irish Times.
Former Offaly footballer Nigel Dunne told Donoghue of the personal impact of a Leinster championship defeat to Wicklow in the 2018 championship.
Dunne, who had been taken off in the first half, returned to the field after the interval and missed a crucial penalty. Reports afterwards claimed that Dunne had an altercation with management at half-time and had driven out of the stadium.
“I left my job because of it,” said Dunne. “I was working at the front counter at the Credit Union and I literally could not stomach talking about football anymore after that.
“That’s all people coming into me wanted to talk about.”
The incident in Portlaoise had a major impact on Dunne’s mental health over the following eight months. When he sought help, and stepped away from football, Dunne found a new clarity in his life.
“I stopped identifying myself as just a footballer,” he said, “as then I was associating my happiness with football. I was Nigel Dunne the footballer, and if I wasn’t doing well at that, I was nothing. So, when I stopped doing that I found that everything got a little bit better. I actually have a balance now.”
Finding that balance is critical because experts say that the dynamics of modern sports provide an especially dangerous landscape that fails to prepare athletes for long-term physical and psychological health.
Players are often pushed beyond their limits, especially in trying to recover from injury as quickly as possible. The pressure to recover leads many athletes to experience chronic pain, which researchers say can make them especially susceptible to depression.
Players have their identity so wrapped up in their sport that the pressures and emotions can play into the fallout when a trajectory doesn’t go as planned. Then there is a pressure to maintain an outward appearance of everything being fine when everything often is not.
In 2017, the International Olympic Committee held the first-ever consensus meeting on mental health for elite athletes. It led to a 33-page report published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine that sought to address the chasm between athlete physical health and mental health.
The services are far better now than in the past, while sportspeople, especially GAA players, have become more vocal about the challenges they’ve faced, including issues with mental health.
That openness has made the subject far less taboo than it was deemed to be for too long.
“I hate putting a label on whatever it was, or is,” said Dunne in that interview. “Like, I would’ve always felt that mental health stuff was for attention-seeking and weak people. But I was completely wrong.”
The current climate has put everything into clearer perspective, but mental health has never been more important to focus on. The disappearance of sport has left a huge void in everybody’s – players and supporters - lives. Nobody knows if there will be a championship this year but it’s still important for players to try and maintain their routine in the best way they can in such trying circumstances.
For players used to the camaraderie and brotherhood of the dressing room, social distancing has the potential to leave many of those players feeling isolated for more reasons than just following proper protocol.
This crisis extends far beyond sport, but it has also given everybody a chance to reset, to reboot, and to refocus. With everything having slowed down, people have more time now to focus on their physical and mental health.
And it has given elite sports people that opportunity to find a better balance in their lives. Especially when so many of those players’ identity is wrapped up in their sport.