A couple of sporting events in the past week gave reason to ponder the prevalence of mental health issues in professional sport. The first, oddly, was the AFL’s national draft. The second, more obviously, was Jonathan Trott’s departure from the current Ashes series due to a “long-term stress-related illness”. While I do not pretend to be an expert in the complex world of human mental illness, I retain an amount of personal experience with depression and anxiety. This, alongside my vast and varied knowledge of all things sport, makes me feel as able to comment as competently as any other in the mainstream media.
The AFL’s national draft might seem, at first glance, to be a very strange place to be concerned about a person’s mental welfare. But an article by Tim Boyle in Fairfax Media’s The Sunday Age entitled “Pull The Strings” highlighted the strange and brief world of a professional footballer. Boyle regularly writes excellent articles and this was no exception. Boyle was drafted by Hawthorn and at the end of his first season an older player retired. The older player told his team-mates to enjoy playing AFL while it lasted as “these will be the best days of your life”. But with a limited experience of life, Boyle rightly points out “how could he have known this”.
AFL draftees are thrown into a world in which many of them will not make the grade. Those that do are ‘rewarded’ with a ‘career’ that lasts about a decade. A small proportion survive longer and go on to make a genuine career in the industry. Despite the slim chances of life-long success, the teenagers who are drafted rarely opt out. As Boyle says “you don’t have to think about accepting a spot on a playing list”, you submit without question. In doing so, they submit to a footballing life where they are incredibly unlikely to succeed. Cue anxiety issues. By accepting a spot on the list, they also forgo a great many opportunities that are available to other young men. Cue jealousy and regret. With much time to ponder their own career and the things they have forgone, mental health issues can often arise.
It was interesting to read about the choice that Jarrod Dalton made. Dalton, when faced with an opportunity to be placed on Collingwood’s rookie list, decided to say no. With his partner pregnant and mortgage repayments to be made, Dalton believed that by pursuing an AFL dream he would rely to heavily on his family. There was no guarantee that he would be successful in the AFL, so Dalton continued to work as a carpenter to build a better life for his family in the long-term. While Dalton is not immune to pangs of regret and mental health issues because of his decision, one would suggest that he has made a rational and intelligent decision that has placed him in good stead for the future.
Jonathan Trott’s failure to perform in the first Ashes Test in Brisbane seemed to facilitate his decision to fly back to England due to what has been reported as a stress-related illness. Much has been made of Australian opener David Warner’s remarks that Trott’s first innings dismissal was “weak”. Many comments have swirled around Mitchell Johnson’s bowling in that he targeted the body of Trott, exposing a weakness and a fear. Well-meaning commentators wrote emotionally-laden articles deploring the existence of sledging and encouraging cricket administrators to remove its existence lest it have an impact on the mental health of participants.
I have no doubt that it was a fraught choice to return to England and Trott should be lauded for publicly deciding to place his mental health first. However, I would be extremely surprised if much of what the Australian team did during the Test had an impact on Trott. I don’t pretend to know what Trott is suffering or thinking, but personal experience tells me that depression exists without the existence of external factors. Certainly events can have an impact on a person’s mental health, but a distinction should be made between a reasonable, healthy response and a mental illness.
There is little point attempting to ascertain the factors involved in another’s mental illness. The components involved are varied and complex. One could ponder the state of their own mental well-being for a lifetime and be no closer to understanding their own cerebral disposition. Such are the vagaries of the human condition. With this in mind, perhaps we should leave Trott to find his own reasons and solutions.
Society has come far in the recognition of mental illnesses, but there still exists much naivety and simplistic thinking about what is clearly a recognised health problem. A curious aspect of Lance Armstrong’s admission that he took performance enhancing drugs is how little mention has been made on how this induced the development of testicular cancer. Certainly some comment has been made, but contrast this taboo with the wild opinions and assumptions being made about Trott’s illness. If Trott had contracted cancer, how many comments about the impact of his lifestyle would have been made? How many articles concerning the long periods spent in the sun would have been written? How many opinions expressed about his diet and drinking habits? Again, perhaps it would be best to allow those with a mental illness to seek help without the scrutiny of the ill-informed.
One article in particular was able to tread the fine line between psycho-analysing Trott and commenting on the prevalence of mental illness amongst cricketers. The Age‘s Greg Baum wrote an interesting article entitled “Cricketers break the silence on the problem of depression that has struck down so many”. Leaving aside the verbose title, Baum highlights the difficulty of attaching success and happiness to a game in which batsmen only get one chance. This point could be expanded to those young men about to enter their first AFL club. The danger of attaching life-long happiness to the whims of a game of sport should not be lost on participants. Sport, in its very nature, is built around luck and chance. The insularity of professional sport seems as though it could be a fertile ground for a few more stress-related illnesses.
“Pull The Strings” by Tim Boyle in The Age
“The Other Side Of The Draft: The Man Who Said No To Collingwood” by Michael Gleeson in The Age
“Cricketers Break The Silence On Problem Of Depression That Has Struck Down So Many” by Greg Baum in The Age
For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114.
During the winter, Daniel and I bought a UCI licence so that we could race in sanctioned bike races. We had our eye on road races just north of Melbourne. But family and other commitments meant that we could never simultaneously get a spare Saturday morning to make the trip. As the weeks went by the licence was beginning to look like an expensive folly. With the heat beginning to rise from Mrs Bugler and the weather also warming, my attention turned to summer criteriums.
Crits have a reputation as being risky races. A group of cyclists lap around a closed-off street circuit at average speeds of close to 50km/h. Circuits are typically about 1km in length. The corners can be quite tight and the riders often have to take risks in order to win. Intermediate sprints help keep the pace up. The speed, ability to see riders each lap, and increased likelihood of accidents makes for a great spectator sport. As a cyclist who had only ever entered a couple of alleycats and the Melburn Roobaix, I wasn’t particularly confident.
Melbourne’s most popular summer crits are held by the St Kilda Cycling Club. I rode down to the Port Melbourne circuit on a Sunday morning to watch the first of the series. A Grade cyclists zipped by at unfathomable speeds and I was impressed by the power they generated out of the corners. The noise their bikes made as the cyclists stood and pushed through their cranks added to the experience. It didn’t, however, fill me with confidence about joining them.
My unused licence continued to burn a hole in my pocket so I decided I had better use it at least once. The Wednesday evening following the Melbourne Cup was quite warm and seemed perfect for a ride. Hawthorn Cycling Club holds their criteriums not far from home on a closed-off part of the Yarra Boulevard nicknamed the ‘Teardrop’. It is so named because of its shape. The course is more technical than most because of the hairpin and is made more difficult because this corner is at the bottom of a hill. Cyclists have to brake hard coming down a hill, negotiate a tight corner in a pack, then stand and accelerate up the hill again. Not the easiest of crits, especially for a novice.
Originally I planned to enter the D Grade race beginning at 6pm. But a slight delay in leaving home meant that I had to enter a later race. A and C Grades ran concurrently beginning at 6:40pm. I went with the C. I was most nervous as I registered, hoping that the marshal wouldn’t quiz me about my experience. I was half-expecting to be told to go home and come back for E Grade in a few weeks time. With an air of experience I asked to enter and nary a question was asked. Moments later I had my race number and was pinning it on my jersey.
After the B and D Grade race finished, we all rode onto the circuit for a warm-up lap or two. I had ridden the Teardrop before so knew what to expect of the road. With few surprises on the circuit, I spent the time casing my opponents, silently hoping that the majority of them were in A Grade. I spoke to another rider and, after establishing that he was an A Grader, asked for a piece of advice or two.
We re-assembled at the bottom of the Teardrop where the race announcer explained the format – A Grade would take off first and ride for 40min plus 3 laps, while the C Grade would take off moments later and ride for 30min plus 3 laps. The A Graders took off while we got additional instructions. Marshals would ride with us at times to make sure we were doing the right thing, We were to keep left and sit up when the A Grade lapped us. We were not to pedal through the hairpin lest our inside pedal hit the ground and cause an accident. Finally, and least applicable to me, we were not to take our hands off the bars to celebrate should we win. With that we set off.
My strategy was pretty simple – hang on to the lead bunch for as long as I could. This was especially simple at the start when there was only the one peloton. I successfully negotiated the hairpin a couple of times and quickly settled toward the rear-end of the 40 riders. Shouts of ‘keep left’ arose and I was again amazed at how powerful and fast the A Grade riders looked as they zoomed by.
My plan evolved as the race unfolded. I quickly realised that the bunch strung out as we climbed the hill then re-formed as we braked into the hairpin. The speed was gradually increasing and if there was a split, I didn’t want to be at the back and miss the lead group. I tried my best to weave closer to the front, but every time my concentration lapsed I realised I was toward the rear of the field.
About 20min in, I began to feel the pinch. In retrospect part of this was not knowing how the race would unfold. I didn’t quite know how much to push myself and how much I needed to keep in reserve for the final laps. I continued to do my best to cling on.
We crossed the line again and the call of three laps to go was heard. I doggedly tried to hold the wheels of the lead bunch of about 20-25 cyclists. I kept waiting for a break but it never came. The pace continued to rise and when we got the bell, we all wound up for the final 1km effort. We were all strung out going down the hill before braking into the hairpin. I tried my best to select an appropriate gear then stood and did my best to sprint uphill to the line. About 20m in front of me a rider crashed and a couple of us swerved around him. Thankfully the pace wasn’t too high because of the hill.
It was hard to know, but I think I finished about 15th. I spoke to the guy who finished 2nd after the race. He said that to win you had to ride near the front for most of the race. The tight course means that it is hard to overtake and to come from 20 back at that speed is almost impossible. To my mind, this seems like a good sporting contest – to win you have to do the work toward the front of the pack, you can’t sit in the slipstream and hope to fly by with fresh legs at the end.
My strategy worked reasonably and, as a novice, I was pleased with how well I managed to stay with the bunch. My 15th wasn’t because I was faster and overtaking, but more due to attrition as riders became fatigued and gradually dropped away. Inevitably and immediately I thought about what I would do differently if I did it again. Obviously my licence would become less of a financial folly, but the challenge would be to ride closer to the front. As the noise from the A Grade peloton reminded me, to ride harder and faster makes the summer crits a lot more risky.
Ange Postecoglou farewelled Melbourne Victory on Friday night with a 1-0 defeat of his former club Brisbane Roar. Postecoglou was hired by Football Federation Australia to coach the nation’s Socceroos. Faced with a choice of coaching Australia or one of Melbourne’s two teams in the A-League, Postecoglou did not hide his ambition. But Melbourne Victory were not enamoured by the loss of their coach only three games into the 2013-14 A-League season. The resulting negotiations between Australian soccer’s governing body and its largest club left much to be desired. As did the visible response of the Melbourne Victory.
Postecoglou’s qualifications for the role of head coach of Australia are sound. In only eight complete seasons coaching in Australia’s national leagues, the old NSL and the A-League, Postecoglou’s teams have won the championship four times. He won his first championship in his second year of coaching at South Melbourne. In addition, Postecoglou coached Australia’s youth sides for over six years. Oddly, this national team experience almost counted against him as it was a period in which he had comparatively limited visible success. The only other query on him was his limited international experience – less than one year of coaching in Greece’s third division. But his subsequent success at Roar, where he won two championships in three seasons, made him highly sought-after. Enter Melbourne Victory.
Since their existence began in 2004, Melbourne Victory have been one of the strongest clubs both on and off the field in the A-League. That Melbourne is a sporting city is highlighted by the fact that Victory consistently sets records for attendance and membership. In eight completed seasons, Victory have won the A-League premiership twice. But after a disappointing 8th in 2011-12, the most powerful soccer club in the land went on the hunt for a new coach. They tabled an offer to Postecoglou which saw him break contract and leave Brisbane. This despite the Roar being champions and finishing runner-up to eventual premiers Central Coast Mariners that season. To say this left a bad taste in the collective mouths of Brisbane Roar would be an understatement. Meanwhile, it further augmented Victory’s belief that they were more important than other clubs and crucial to the A-League’s success.
When German Holger Osieck was sacked following drubbings from Brazil and France, a chorus of voices rose up cheering on the cause of an Australian as head coach of the Socceroos. The search quickly narrowed to a choice of three – Central Coast’s Graham Arnold, West Sydney Wanderers’ Tony Popovic, and the favourite, Postecoglou. As Postecoglou continued to firm, and was subsequently offered the role, the response from Victory was lamentable.
There was precious little from Victory’s head office that cheered on the fact that their coach was about to realise a dream and a life achievement by becoming coach of Australia. There was nothing mentioned about the reflected glory on Victory due to their coach being head-hunted by the Socceroos. Instead, Melbourne Victory bleated about being ‘compensated’ by FFA to the tune of over $1million. A veiled threat of standing in the way of Postecoglou’s departure also emanated from Victory headquarters. While it is incredibly tough to replace a coach a couple of games into the beginning of a season, Melbourne Victory did not seem to appreciate the irony that the man who broke contract to join them for a better offer was repeating history.
Apparently Victory’s marketing department missed the memo about being angry due to the coach’s departure. Prior to the farewell game they produced a sappy presentation that would have been more pertinent at Postecoglou’s funeral. The pre-match entertainment would have been more befitting of a favourite son rather than a mercenary who coached for little over a season.
The ear-bleeding noise that greeted fans before the game was crowned by an item that caused barely a murmur amongst the crowd. Apparently a boffin within the marketing department saw Liverpool’s fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the MCG earlier this year. Appearing on the screen and drowning out the actual atmosphere and chanting created by the crowd was a contrived attempt at atmosphere only a marketer could dream up. Complete with a bouncing ball signalling which word to sing, a karaoke version of “Stand By Me” played loudly and awfully. How hard is it to recognise that tradition is created by fans, not by a paid employee copying ideas?
For all the efforts of Victory’s marketing department, the game against Roar seemed to lack the mood generated at the rectangular stadium. The larger size of the Docklands stadium meant fans were somewhat removed from the on-field action. Victory had the better of the game early, but Roar often threatened on the counter-attack. Late in the half it was Brisbane who went close to scoring despite Victory’s possession. Goalkeeper Nathan Coe was called in to keep the score at nil-all. Not long after the re-start, James Troisi threaded a ball beyond the reach of Brisbane’s goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos to ignite the crowd for the only period of the evening. A visibly relieved Postecoglou hugged his assistant coach Kevin Muscat. Fittingly, Victory held on for the win allowing Postecoglou to leave in style.
Ange Postecoglou is likely to be an outstanding coach for Australian soccer. He has experience and intimate knowledge of the game through the old NSL days and the transition into the A-League. His teams have won titles and played a skilful and exciting brand of football. But concerns about representative football begin to mount when people and clubs within the game do not show the correct deference. Melbourne Victory’s petulance gives credence to the belief that the success of individual clubs and players is more important than the health of the game and the national team. In an angry speech, Victory chairman Anthony di Pietro said “Are we furious – the simple answer is yes,”
“Melbourne Victory is the jewel of the A-League. We are strong. We are successful.”
Representative sport is steadily on the wane while clubs gain greater power. AFL’s State of Origin is no more. Australian cricket is being undermined by the riches available in the Indian Premier League. In European soccer, players regularly ‘feign’ injury rather than take the field in their countries’ friendlies. Tennis’ Davis Cup is an on-going joke as players say no when their country calls. How long before the Socceroos sit below Melbourne Victory in the pecking order?