The death of former Australian rugby union Dan Vickerman (at the age of just 37) has once again brought the subjects of sport and mental health into focus.
It’s a sad reality that mental health is often only discussed in real detail when a tragic event propels the subject into the news, but the struggle for those affected doesn’t disappear at the end of the bulletin, or when the paper is folded and placed on the coffee table.
Dan Vickerman was a genuinely outstanding athlete. He was capped 63 times for the Wallabies; a tough, brave, uncompromising second-row; who worked incredibly hard to become one of the finest players in his position in the world.
Surely, no one as strong as Dan Vickerman could have mental health problems, right?
I’ve read numerous articles detailing how athletes (particularly in a team environment) can find it incredibly difficult to adjust to life after sport. The camaraderie, the years of training, the victories, the defeats, the highs and lows, the striving to be the best you can be–it feels safe inside that sporting bubble, but the only thing that’s guaranteed in the career of any person playing any sport at any level is that it will end.
And the bubble will inevitably burst.
Once you leave the field, court or whatever arena it may be for the very last time, there is no turning back. You can walk into the same dressing room and greet the same people that were your team mates just one week earlier… but it’s different. You can remain active in your chosen sport in numerous capacities, but the minute you cease to be a player… a competitor… it’s different.
You have your memories, photographs, press cuttings, maybe trophies and medals too, but when you wake up on the morning of a game and the realisation dawns that you’re not involved; in fact you won’t be taking to the field with your team mates ever again… that’s when the reality can hit home.
Some people manage the transition from sport to whatever lies ahead relatively well; but for others the effect can be far more traumatic. Mental illness in whatever form doesn’t distinguish between sports, between abilities, between achievements; you can have the most commanding physical presence, yet the human mind is still stronger.
The mind can take a simple thought and twist it into any number of negative outcomes. It can make you feel haunted by the past, and terrified by the future. It can strip away your strength, your belief, the opinion of your own worth or value, until all that is left is a hollow shell. It can send you into a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral, make you believe you are a burden to those who love and care for you the most, and that a life which might seem perfect to those looking in from the outside is totally meaningless.
Comparing the intensity of a forward battle on the rugby field to the challenges posed by mental illness may seem ridiculous–but much as you cannot overcome an opposition pack on your own, why shouldn’t you call on some help to tackle whatever demons there are hiding inside your head?
The answer is there’s no actual reason why you shouldn’t, but plenty why people don’t.
It might be the hardest step you ever take, but if you are suffering, don’t be afraid to talk… to a relative, a friend, a doctor, it doesn’t matter… just please talk. You are never alone.
My thoughts are with Dan Vickerman’s widow and two young sons, who must try and somehow come to terms with such a terrible loss. On the field, Dan was a fearless warrior; he was also a remarkably brave man in death. I salute you Dan… I hope the pain has ended.