Cow Corner

Why does depression keep surprising us?

Cow Corner

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Harmison and Flintoff in 2007

Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport explored the phenomenon of depression amongst sports stars, highlighting a problem that blights people from all walks of sport — champions and vanquished, happy-go-lucky types and introspective stars alike.

It was powerful, and it was honest. But it should not have been a surprise.

Why is it one?

It's nothing new. Depression in sport is long-known, and in cricket in particular it is, sadly, an entrenched problem.

More than a decade ago studies revealed that the suicide rate in cricketers in Britain was 75% higher than the average rate of suicide in men in the UK. Since then, we've seen the stress of international cricket take a very public toll on Graham Thorpe, Marcus Trescothick, Steve Harmison and Michael Yardy to name just four. Now Flintoff has shed a little light on his own personal struggles during the ill-fated 2006/7 Ashes series, culminating in an infamous escapade at the World Cup involving booze, pedalos and a rescue at sea.

Sports stars are people, and people are prone to depression. According to the Office of National Statistics, around 8-12% of the population suffer depression in any given year — as Flintoff drily observes in his documentary, that's statistically one member of every cricket team. Must it really still shock us?

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Morgan: A beacon of empathy

The trouble is the way that players are viewed.

You only have to look at Piers Morgan (unfortunately, Cowers adds), who made a pantomime villain's appearance in Flintoff's documentary.

Having read through some of the tabloid write-ups of his pedalo episode in 2007 for the first time, Flintoff asks former Daily Mirror editor Morgan about the way the media treats sports stars. Morgan peddled the line that he didn't believe, at least at the time while he was editing newspapers, that it was possible to be an England international and be depressed.

"I don't think the media should have to worry too much about how they report sports," Morgan says.

"The rewards are massive, and the downside is occasionally you get a headline you don't like.

"I don't think most sports journalists or news journalists or editors of newspapers really cared that much about the sensitivities of highly-paid sportsmen.

"Our view then was that if you're called to play for your country at sport, it's such an incredible privilege and honour that to actually claim to be depressed because you're having to stay in a five-star hotel while you're playing cricket for England is ridiculous."

The cliché that sports stars are living the dream, that they deserve no sympathy because they are doing what they love and being amply rewarded for it, simply doesn't wash. Of course there are perks — but there are also potentially numbing pressures, and even if you avoid those there's no reason why even the happiest of sporting lives means you escape demons in your personal life.

Not armed with all the information, and following a media which often displays Morgan-esque levels of sympathy, fans often fail to see their sports stars in these human terms.  Harmison on away tours, for instance, attracted dismay from supporters at times, ridicule at others. 'Homesickness', as it was routinely branded, was not a good enough reason to not be the bowler he had shown himself to be in the past.

As outsiders looking in, however, supporting and agonising in equal measure, it's usually very difficult to see the reasons behind losses of form. Was Harmison, we wondered, simply not playing well, or working hard enough? Perhaps just being soft? Seriously suffering emotionally, maybe? The lines between those possibilities are blurry enough for the sportsman himself, let alone us. We are guessing when we try to interpret what we see on the field, like the opening ball of the 2006-7 Ashes, which Harmison bowled straight to Flintoff at second slip.

That's perhaps part of the problem, of course — we are outsiders looking in. Gone are the days when we see the England cricket team in the pub after a game and can have a chat with them, and can truly think of them as being just like us. Football went down that road long ago, rugby is following.  If you only see them on television or hyped up in the media, at some point, even just a fraction — they become dehumanised.

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Hatton floored by Pacquiao

But they are still like us, and they are prone to those same weaknesses that we, or people we know, suffer from. Ricky Hatton admits that he got terrified walking into the ring on the nights of big fights. Graeme Dott was reduced to a quivering wreck in matches in the year when he was the reigning world snooker champion. Wimbledon hard-man Vinnie Jones felt suicidal at times when his team-mates were looking to him to keep the side's morale up. Flintoff broke down in tears to his father at a time when he was star player and captain of his country.

Their weaknesses should elicit some sympathy and understanding from us. Hell, it should also inspire us to know we might be able to scale some of the heights they've reached in our own lives, too.

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