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45 Minutes That Changed My Perceptions Of Sport

45 Minutes That Changed My Perceptions Of Sport

Ever since I watched the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico as an 8 year old boy I`ve been passionate about football, it`s always been my sport.

Nobody in my family ever liked football, so I guess that at 8 years old, by comparison to most fans, I was a bit of a late starter. But once I took the bait I was snared forever. After brief flirtations with Bradford City and Everton I became a fully fledged Gooner after seeing them lose the 1988 League Cup final. Oh how different my life would have been had Arsenal actually won that day. I`m probably the only Gooner in the world grateful for that defeat.

I`ve always liked to watch other sports such as Formula 1, rugby or a bit of Snooker, but only as a casual observer. But then in 2005 I injured my back at work and had to spend a few weeks at home.

With little else to do I switched on the tellybox and started watching some cricket (The 2005 Ashes series to be precise) in the feint hope I might find some small amount of enjoyment, or at the very least be put to sleep for a few hours.

Instead what I found what an enthralling contest from start to finish, seemingly played by gentlemen, in a great spirit in front of an amazing crowd. I was transported back to 1986 all over again and fell in love with a new sport.

One of the stars of the show was a certain Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff. A huge beast of a bloke committed to his sport, with a drive to win and a passion for his country. He played his part to the best of his ability, giving his all but never overstepping the boundaries of respect between the Poms and the Aussies.

Indeed in one of the greatest sporting gestures of all time was an incident involving Freddie and fellow pace bowler Brett Lee. In the test match at Edgbaston the Austrailian bowler had dragged his team to within inches of a momentous victory with a mammoth 43 run knock, only for the Aussies to be undone by a Steve Harmison beauty with only three runs needed. As joyous celebrations erupted in the stands and on the field, Flintoff`s first action was to console the battling Lee who`d put on such a brave effort. Flintoff became an instant legend to me.

This playful, mischievous, driven, passionate, honest and committed sportsman was an inspiration to us all. Yet he carried with him a darkness he`d hidden from the public eye.

Last night (11th January) a program aired on the BBC entitled "Freddie Flintoff: The Hidden Side of Sport". In the show Fred talked about his own fight against depression as well as getting to know the stories of depression from sportsmen such as Vinnie Jones, Ricky Hatton, Graeme Dott, Neil Lennon and Steven Harmison.

Big, tough guys with vivacious personalities one wouldn`t think it would be possible for them to have any reason to be unhappy, right? They`re at their top of their fields, they`re richer than most of us can ever hope to be and they have all the fame anyone could ever crave.

But they were/are depressed, almost suicidally so in the case of Vinnie Jones.

I was almost embarrassed to think about my opinions of sportsmen over the years. Shouting obscenities at players and referees from the stands, and justifying these actions with the thoughts that millions of pounds or hundreds of adoring fans should be more than enough to cancel out any abuse they hear on a day to day basis.

However hearing the deeply personal stories of these people we`d always considered unflappable, I`ve had my perceptions changed forever.

During the 45 minutes or so the program was on air I reflected on my own personal battle with depression I`d had over a number of years, the feeling of despair, abject failure and complete lack of desire to do … well … anything, and how tough that would be to cope with whilst being in the public eye on a daily basis, whilst having 30,000 people hurl abuse at you and having your every move scrutinized by the press.

Sure the millions of pounds in cold hard cash would make that massively easy to cope with if you were sound of mind, but trying to live with that and also with depression? I`d take complete anonymity every time.

Depression has long been considered a sign of weakness, when in reality it is a simple chemical imbalance in your brain, the inability to think in a way that benefits your body or is caused by a series of uncontrollable events in your life that seemingly becomes too much to bare.

Looking at the causes, is it possible to protect a human being from depression with money, fame or fortune? Of course not.

So maybe it`s about time we started being a little more thoughtful to our sportsmen and women? When was the last time you got on the back of Andre Arshavin or Mouranne Chamakh? Maybe giving some audible groans or shouting at them to "get a f*cking grip" or maybe even telling them to ply their trade elsewhere?

Of course it`s entirely possible that these two examples are just suffering in form, or indeed aren`t quite good enough to perform at this level (not that that is their fault either), but maybe just maybe, their lives aren`t quite as peachy as we`d all like to believe, and how is it going to feel to have people who wear the same colours as they do, shouting abuse at them simply for trying their best? And trying to cope with that on top of depression? That`s going to spiral out of control pretty quickly.

It`s all too easy to objectify these people as simple "sports stars", but they`re made of the same elements as the rest of us and are subjected to the same vulnerabilities. One only has to look in the direction of the tragic Gary Speed to see how badly things can spiral out of control when a person just donesn`t get the help they need.

If anyone would like to watch the program it`s currently available to watch on the BBC iPlayer. Part of the program also shows Freddie visiting the "Arsenal in the community" project, part of which is to help people come to terms with mental health problems through the medium of sport and just gives us yet more reasons to be extremely proud of our club.

Click here to join in the debate on the club forum.

Date:Thursday January 12 2012
Time: 11:59AM


Good post
12/01/2012 12:04:00
Thanks :)
12/01/2012 12:08:00
Excellent, thoughtful article - and very honest and brave of you to write it. I'm SO glad someone has picked up on this programme. I saw the first 20-25 mins of this and felt it should be required viewing for managers, players and especially fans! Fans tend to take the attitude that Piers Morgan took, but I agreed with Vinnie Jones about journalists and think that the same applies to a lot of footie fans. Influenced by video games, fans tend to think of players as cyborgs or machines, forgetting that they are just normal human beings with extraordinary amounts of determination and ability. They are also seen as representations of the ultimate in masculinity, which makes it harder for them to admit and talk about their feelings. It's no coincidence that young males are most likely to commit suicide. Well done rocky7 for drawing attention to this terrific documentary. I will make sure I watch the rest of it!
12/01/2012 13:39:00
A good read that raises some very valid points.
12/01/2012 13:44:00
Indeed FG - Freddie and Ricky Hatton made the points that in their respective sports they were reveered for being this happy-go lucky charcaters and the role-models and strengths in the dressing, making them less likely to come out and say "Hey, I need some help here". Whilst it's blindingly obvious that I don't hold any influence over anyone or am a rolemodel to anyone other than my son, I felt the same macho pride when I was suffering with depression that saw me leave it unchecked for years, and it nearly spelled the end of my marriage and ultimately of me. Sometimes you just need a gentle nudge in the right direction, sometimes you need more of a helping hand.

I'm not for one minute suggesting football stadiums should become sterile places where noone says anything for fear of pushing a manic depressive over the edge, let's just be a little more thoughtful when it comes to the things we say and do.
12/01/2012 14:09:00
A prime example of course is Frank Bruno. As ever, the despicable machinations of The Sun newspaper set awareness of mental illness back a decade. When Bruno was admitted for therapy for depression, they called him "a loony." Remarks they've never been held to account for because dribbling idiots keep buying their hate filled ****rag.
Little Dutch
12/01/2012 14:15:00
Rocky7, this also made me think of Gary Speed's suicide - a Wales legend with a lovely family and a bright future taking his own life. Just shows that happines comes from within. Also I completely agree that we could show a bit more understanding to our players. And LD, I'd forgotten about the Sun's treatment of Bruno, very pertinent example of the irresponsibility of the media. I don't know if you've seen the programme, but in it, Piers Morgan basically says highly paid international sportsmen can't/shouldn't be depressed because they are so privileged. Vinnie Jones (who I wish had been with Piers Morgan so that he could headbutt him) made a very valid point that sports journalists in particular are frustrated professional sportsmen and that is what makes them so unsympathetic or downright hostile to sports stars who suffer from the illness.
12/01/2012 15:17:00
sorry , should have said "to the idea that sports stars can suffer from the illness."
12/01/2012 15:18:00
Admire your openness too, Rocky7. We all have problems - why are we often so scared to admit them and ask for help? No shame in it at all.
12/01/2012 16:44:00
Thanks Rocky, for drawing attention to this program. The cause is a worthy one with the growing incidence of suicidal sportsmen which could suggest that perhaps we all could be a lot more considerate and sensitive to the emotions of sportsmen. Just as it was with Frank Bruno, wasn't it the prejudice (he stated he was already presumed guilty) by the media that hounded Justin Fashanu to his death?
12/01/2012 16:45:00
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