Being a fanatical sports fan for more than two decades now, one simply could not digest the fact that a talented player like Bernard Tomic could actually suggest that he is not interested in playing anymore and that he couldn’t care less if he lost in the first round or fourth round of a Grand Slam.

Now, my comment that Tomic is a disgrace to sport was met with a massive outburst from many knowledgeable sports fans. The subsequent comments on the thread made me wonder if I had perhaps missed the larger picture here – could there be a mental side to this whole episode? Was I also one of the many who believed that sportsmen were different from the rest of us and would not face motivational challenges?

For years, depression was something no athlete could talk about openly. Societal rejection, the fear of being judged, and a potential threat to their career were some of the reasons that kept people from coming out and talking about their mental problems.

The moment Tomic made the statement, his racquet sponsorship was withdrawn. AFP

Sports and depression share a long, sad relationship. A number of suicides in first-class cricket had prompted the historian, David Frith, to pen two books on cricketing suicides – By His Own Hand and Silence of the Heart. Peter Roebuck, one of the finest cricket writers, wrote in the foreword to Frith’s book Some people have predicted a gloomy end for this writer. It will not be so.”

Shockingly enough for someone who made this claim, Roebuck committed suicide in 2011. Roebuck makes an interesting case for a study. He was a good first-class cricketer – honest, hardworking but not talented enough to make people sit up and take notice. He tasted a lot more success during his years as a journalist.

Despite many such cases in cricket and other sports, it is impossible, perhaps, to trace a pattern. The encouraging aspect, in recent times, is that players such as Marcus Trescothick, Jonathan Trott, and Michael Yardy have spoken up about the mental challenges in sport. Should we take this as a sign that sportsmen have become more open and that society will perhaps understand them better going forward? Not yet. However, with some help from research, we may be able to identify some recurrent themes that lead to loss of motivation, and eventually, depression.

Sport can be a lonely journey

Yes, there are team sports. There is camaraderie, bonding, travelling together, and a lot of fun. But, ultimately, when it comes down to performance, the elite athlete is suddenly all alone. A player’s performance is being monitored by everyone around including the media. People in regular jobs often worry about their performance during their appraisal cycles but not otherwise. Top athletes have no such luxury. Every “rest” day is a test and every game is a major examination which they have to ace. According to a recent study, athletes in individual sports tend to fall into depression far more often than those in team sports.

Pressure to perform

The moment Tomic made the statement, his racquet sponsorship was withdrawn. Imagine a situation where a leading athlete thinks about opening up about his struggle with depression and the lack of motivation to play. The fact that society will look down upon him and that every major income source (including sponsorship) might end will hold them back. It is incredible to see how some of them manage to brave the weight of expectations and still continue to excel. A few unfortunate ones, however, buckle under this pressure and suffer a major dip in form and performance.

No escaping the rigour

Often, elite sportsmen begin training from the age of four or five. In certain sports, such as tennis, it is common to find players pushed into high-quality, demanding training academies well before they are strong enough to hold a racquet. Imagine that when the player has just turned 20, he/she has already played 10 hours of tennis every day for almost 15 years. Pause for a second and let that sink in. More than 45000 hours of the sport already before the age of 20. However, professional sport guarantees nothing. It takes a lot just to stay alive in the race. Just to remain competitive, a player has to engage in an extraordinary, energy-sapping fitness and practice routine.

Consider the curious case of Novak Djokovic. The Serb willed himself to the No 1 spot in the hugely competitive men’s game and went about crushing every major record. Suddenly, when everybody was anticipating how far he could go, Djokovic’s world came crashing down. He lost early in Slams, parted ways with his team, brought on board a new celebrity coach, suggested there was nothing wrong with him (which nobody believed) and then took an even longer break.

When everybody was anticipating how far he could go, Djokovic’s world came crashing down. Reuters

Players often tend to believe that they should keep going as long as their physical state allows them to, considering they have a short shelf life as an athlete anyway. However, the stress accumulating over the years tends to strike hard without prior notice and sends their careers spiraling on a downward path. Recovery from mental “lows” and challenges can be a lot slower and complicated than from physical injuries.

What does the research say?

Male athletes mirror what happens in traditional societal contexts. Women are far more forthcoming when it comes to accepting their challenges with stress and other mental issues they face. Society has conditioned men (more so, male athletes) to believe that any manifestation of emotion will be construed as a sign of weakness. In this in-depth and interesting study, the authors have tried to identify multiple patterns by studying the lives and careers of elite/competitive sportsmen. This provides an insight into the factors that precipitate depression and the symptoms that most likely suggest how and when the disease emerged. While the study has focused on male athletes because of their low willingness to speak up, many factors are also applicable in the case of female athletes.

A common theme found was an obsessive love for sport and an almost “unhealthy” association with it. Almost all athletes identified with such behavior and felt that they had not been able to shift focus to anything else during their time in elite sport. The other major factor that almost all athletes outlined is “extrinsic motivation”, “peer acceptance” and “self-worth conditional on results”. This does indicate that most athletes judge themselves by what others (coaches, fellow players) think of them. Many of them start playing and performing to get plaudits and positive feedback from others.

It has been well documented through research that “extrinsic motivation” negatively impacts mental health and performance. Two other factors that most athletes mentioned were “an obsession to win” and “emphasis on hiding frailties”. While the urge to win is perhaps the most essential component of competitive sport, it can just as easily turn into a major handicap. Heavily focusing on the result takes the joy out of the process and impacts performance. Athletes have been taught to shut out expressions of negative emotions, displays of weaknesses, and act tough. This has often proven to be the undoing of many athletes as the bottled up emotions tend to find their way out sooner rather than later.

How does depression typically manifest itself in athletes?

Many athletes have suggested that they start finding training and playing a drag and tend to go through the motions. Some have suggested that they believed sport was the only “escape route” from the monotony. Athletes experienced a serious loss of self esteem and worth but could never quite bring themselves to discuss this drop in performance with their coaches or sponsors since the impact could be extremely adverse. What the athlete had become (because of depression) was orthogonal to every belief and value that had been instilled when he became an elite sportsman. By continuing to play, the athlete was trapped in a vicious circle – play badly, lose motivation, feel more depressed, under-perform again and so on…). More often than not, the ramifications were felt in other aspects of life too.

Few athletes cope with this challenge well. Fewer still, manage to come out of this phase successfully. This discussion may or may not apply in the case of Tomic, but is certainly something numerous elite sportsmen go through every day. As fans, we can perhaps do well to understand these challenges and try to be supportive in every manner possible. Athletes themselves need to realise that they are normal human beings too and that such mental challenges are common in every field. Given that mental coaches and psychologists are readily available nowadays, athletes must not shy away from seeking help. And finally, it is crucial for the media and sports federations to work together and foster an athlete-friendly ambiance that judges less, supports more, and reduces stress in the high-pressure world of elite sport.