Thursday, 31 March 2011

Turn That Frown Upside Down: The psychological strains on the modern day sports star

Having taken a not so well-earned break from my ‘work’, I read a piece on the BBC Sport website about Andy Murray’s visit to 5th Street Gym in Miami. Murray was invited along to the iconic boxing gym by David Haye, who is currently in training there. Amidst this relatively uninteresting article, the question was raised as to “how Murray's tennis benefit from the boxing experience?”

This question was posed to Murray and answered with predictable dullness. Critics have been once again challenging Murray’s mental strength as he appears unable to play his best tennis on the biggest stage yet this was not touched upon in Jonathan Overend’s piece.

The Scot’s lose in the final of the Australian Open seems to have triggered somewhat of mini crisis. He has since flopped out of the Miami Masters - having lost to a qualifier for the second straight tournament, this time in the form of Alex Bogomolov Jr - and is now looking for a new coach prior to the French Open.

This is not, however, a post about the fortunes of Andy Murray. I simply don’t care enough about him to write anything like that. This is, rather, a look into the old clichéd ratio between the importance of mental to physical strength within sports (90% mental, 10% physical and all that guff). The other news from last week of Michael Yardy’s battle with depression adds a further, deeper dimension to this debate.

Yet the point remains largely the same. That is the great importance of being able to cope mentally with the strains and pressures that come with being a sports star in the modern day. Lambasted by sections of the public as being overpaid men 'just playing a game', it is all too easy to overlook the seriousness of the psychological effects of playing sport at the highest level.

Naturally those playing any sport at the highest level are gifted with both physical and technical attributes that allow them to excel beyond the average man. Furthermore, they are then of course trained and conditioned to optimise this gift. The issue then lies in the mind. To revert back to my opening example, so as to make it appear slightly relevant, a boxer can have excellent reflexes and being in superb condition but that can only carry them so far. As Murray illustrates, having the technical talent to beat an opposition counts for nothing if you cannot utilise or optimise this talent.

To be successful, whether it is in an individual or team sport, you must execute what you have been trained to do but under immense pressure. This may be taking a penalty, bowling a delivery to land on a precise area the size of a post card or it may be hitting a backhand winner down the line all with millions watching intently. The mind must obviously be able to cope with the pressure if the body is to perform effectively. Nerves, doubts, fears and pressures can cause the slightest variations in usual technique and execution that can lead to errors.

‘Clutch’ performers, as the Americans call them, build reputations as being able to perform at the key, decisive moments. An example being Kobe Bryant who is renowned as being the go-to-guy when a basket is needed in the last seconds of a game. Generally speaking, the top sportsmen are just that because they have the ability to perform under pressure. Such an ability comes with specific coping mechanism in such moments and often an unfaltering confidence in their own ability.

Andy Murray, the evidence thus far in his career would suggest, is yet to develop these mechanisms. He usually looks visibly tense and nervous in the big games and his play reflects this. When he is losing he struggles to find the calm self-belief to gather himself and instead becomes very animated and vocal at his own frustration. This is not meant as a criticism of Murray or any other supposed ‘chokers’ in sport. I get sweaty palms during a penalty shoot out on FIFA and struggle to hold my nerves so would not have the audacity to preach at them for losing their bottle.

The case of Michael Yardy exemplifies how constant exposure to these strains can have a far more detrimental effect on a person beyond simply their performance in any given moment. This is coupled with the difficulties of living away from home for extended periods of time. Sub-par performances, an unrelenting schedule of high intensity sport and critical media attention, one can understand why there would be serious physiological side effects for sports stars today.

While many eagerly wait to criticise any mistake they make, both on and off of the field of play, sports stars battle against both the opposition and their own mental demons. It is easy to forget or underestimated the severity of the strains placed upon them and even easier to fail to sympathise with people earning the amount of money they do to do a job that most of us ‘would give our left arm to do.’

Yardy’s admission of his problem and the subsequent ignorance in the comments from Geoffrey Boycott highlights both the nature of the difficulties sports stars face and the all too common reaction to them. In the seats of the stadiums, through the screen of the television and within the words of the press, there can be a tendancy to become overly critical of modern sports stars. We expect too much of them as people and as athletes. In doing so the humanistic nature of sport is diluted in our assumption that these people are in some way super-human because of what they can do in their respective sports. The truth is that through the technical and physical gifts they possess, they are exposed to strains, pressures and expectations that are almost unparalleled in any other profession.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please…


  1. A very interesting article which touched on some important issues.

    I would, however, be at pains to make the distinction between a failure to cope with high levels of stress and someone suffering from depression, an illness in its own right, not necessarily triggered by the pressures of being a top sportsman.

    I found myself listening to talkSPORT a couple of nights ago and Stan Collymore was discussing his depression in light of the revelations of Michael Yardy. Collymore, using the example of his own career along with those of Neil Lennon and Marcus Trescothik, talked very openly and candidly about his struggles and the lack of support he encountered. What became abundantly clear was that the lack of sympathy for psychological illnesses was present within the game as well as amongst the general public (highlighted by Boycott's comments). He explained how former-Villa manager John Gregory had told him depression was 'the 90 year-old woman living alone in a council flat' (or something to that effect).

    People don't consider sportsmen and women to be immune from cancer or heart disease so why is depression any different? The attitude of Boycott is typical of a general ignorance.

  2. Well, there are more things that sports stars have to swallow now that before but at least there are more help know to endure those things.


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