Lend An Ear Sport – 6 issues that are a “Rising Problem” in Sport

Nov 29, 13 Lend An Ear Sport – 6 issues that are a “Rising Problem” in Sport

It`s no secret that over the last few years we have seen an increase in to the following problems in sport –



  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Burnout
  • Gambling
  • Psychology issues when injured
  • Retirement
The former World Champion and Irish Boxer Bernard Dunne has indicated that talking about these issues has helped him the most - Picture by www.rte.ie

The former World Champion and Irish Boxer Bernard Dunne has indicated that talking about these issues has helped him the most – Picture by www.rte.ie

“If you’re suffering, if you feel like your back is against the wall, just say it to someone, even the dog.” – Bernard Dunne – Irish Boxer and former World Champion

Cavan GAA Footballer Alan O`Mara has opened up about his battles with Depression - Picture by www.gaelicplayers.com

Cavan GAA Footballer Alan O`Mara has opened up about his battles with Depression – Picture by www.gaelicplayers.com

“The key thing for anyone who is feeling depressed is to always remember there is light at the end of the tunnel” – Alan O’Mara – Cavan Footballer


Niall Quinn, Jonny Wilkinson, Darren Sutherland, Neil Lennon, Andy O`Brien, Oisín McConville, Serena Williams, Andrew Flintoff, Gary Speed, Barry Mcguigan are just some of the high profile sports stars that have suffered from such issues as Depression, Anxiety and Burn Out which has unfortunately lead to some of them taking their own life and meaning that the illness had gone under the radar and been left untreated.

A Coach will always worry about his players, a physiotherapist will always worry about getting players back to full health, but does anyone ever ask how the Coaches, Physiotherapist and all the Back Room Staff how they are doing.

Let’s face it, no matter what route we chose to take in life we all need someone just to listen to us from time to time. From researching a lot of sports athletes and people working with in sport who have suffered from such problems as depression and anxiety, the main resource that they all needed at challenging and dark times was somebody just to listen to them. Talking about these issues seems to help them more than anything else.

As sport can be a very egotistic venue to be involved in, it can become a very lonely and isolated place. When a Player, Athlete, Coaches are succeeding and winning it`s easy for people to get right behind them and celebrate with them. But when things are not going so well, people just don`t want to have anything to do with them and simply want to forget about them. To me this is totally wrong.

From my experience in working and coaching in sport I have seen this a lot over the years where after winning a Match everything is great and people support you but if you lose or things are not going right, these people are nowhere to be seen on Monday morning when players, management and backroom staff are back in doing a training session.



In Irish sporting culture it is great to see such players as Alan O`Mara (Cavan Footballer), Conor Cussack (Former Cork Hurler), Jason Macinteer (Former Ireland Soccer Player) and Brent Pope (RTE Sports Rugby Pundit) coming out and opening up about their problems with Depression and mental health as this can give a lot of hope to other sports players and athletes who have or still suffer with these demons. But I think it`s important that we just don`t feel this is associated with players and athletes only. You only have to look at people such as Gary Speed who was the manager of Wales Football Team at the time when he decided to take his own life. It is sad to think that Gary Speed felt he could n`t open up or talk to anybody about the issues he was going through at the time before his untimely death. I think the biggest problem comes when looking from the outside in, these people would seem that they do and should have everything a person needs to make them happy and content in life. However I think we do forget that these people are humans like us all who were also born with feelings and emotions. They can easily make a mistake like any of us can but because of the career they are associated with, they are left wide open to be finely crucified with criticism.

It is important to note that depression affects different people in different ways and not everyone has the same symptoms. People within sport are no different as with it comes a high degree of stress and the ups and downs associated when winning and losing is regularly part of daily life.

I wanted to high light symptoms associated with this illness but it is important to note that you don’t have to have all of the symptoms to be diagnosed with depression. However, having a few of these symptoms for more than a couple of weeks is a sign that you may be depressed.

Main symptoms –

Low/sad, irritable or indifferent mood

Loss of interest and enjoyment in daily life

Lack of energy


Physical symptoms –

Fatigue and reduced activity

Disturbed sleep or excessive sleep

Changes in appetite and weight

Loss of sex drive

Unexplained aches and pains,

e.g. headache, backache

Changes to the menstrual cycle


Other symptoms –

 Poor concentration or reduced attention

Difficulty in making decisions


Restlessness, agitation or anxiety

Low self-confidence and self-esteem


Alan Quinlan (Former Munster and Ireland rugby legend) indicated through his work with www.leanonme.net that taking action and control is his biggest advice.

"Former Munster and Irish rugby player, Alan Quinlan has been promoting Mental Health Issues around Ireland" - Picture by www.rte.ie

“Former Munster and Irish rugby player, Alan Quinlan has been promoting Mental Health Issues around Ireland” – Picture by www.rte.ie

Some of Alan`s tips for dealing with depression include – 

  • Take time for yourself every day by doing something that you enjoy. You may even challenge yourself to try something new.
  • Plan and make a list of the things you need to do. Writing them down and getting tasks off your mind will give you a sense of relief. Ticking items off your list will give you a sense of accomplishment.
  • Be aware of your mental health and look after it as you would your physical health.
  • Exercising each day which maybe even a short walk and eat/drink as healthy as possible.
  • Reach out and ask for help if you are struggling.




I once heard a quote that “Depression is living in the past while Anxiety is living too far in the future, and to reduce these crippling feelings you need to place yourself somewhere in the middle as much as possible”

Anxiety is a concept that is widely a big part of everyday performers and coaches. It is important that people involved in sports performance and any role in sport need to be aware of anxiety related symptoms.

Jonny Wilkilson has  indicated he has suffered from anxiety from a very young age how at times he can’t sleep before games due to anxiety, nor after if his performance has dropped short of his own sky-high expectation.


“Nerves, anxiety, anticipation ………… sink or swim. No matter how long I play for, I`ve learned that these feelings never go away before a game. But now, nor would I want them to. I`ve come to realise that it`s how you interpret and use these feelings that matters the most”  – Jonny Wilkinson at  behind the scenes at www.jonnywilkinson.com


RTE rugby pundit Brent Pope has been a huge campaigner from mental health issues in Ireland and around the world as he himself has suffered years of “Anxiety and Panic Attacks”

As part of Ireland AM’s A Time To Talk Campaign, Sinead Desmond spoke to Brent about his mental health issues and what he’s done to overcome them .

Brent still works with charities, spreading awareness of depression and anxiety continues to say

“I want to say, ‘it’s ok not to be ok.’ In the past, I’ve hidden it away. In 1991, before I came to Ireland, I was at an all-time low. I needed help. I locked myself away for six months. In the rugby world, there was no-one to reach out to.

“Writing it in my book, If You Really Knew Me, and talking about it, was part of coming to an acceptance of it. I’ve had to stop running away from it. I’ve spent years resisting anxiety, but now I accept it. I identify it, then let it wash overme.” www.irishexaminer.com


Another former Sports Player and once member of music band, the Blizzards, Bressie had played GAA for West Meath, and rugby for Leinster but behind his very popular and confident profile Bressie realised his anxiety was not new and it`s something that he has had for a very long time.

 “Talking to Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show , Bressie expalins when his anxiety started and what he has done to conquer the crippling disease”

Burnout –

While there is no one universally accepted definition of burnout, However (Daniel G & Whitley MA, 3013) have identify athlete burnout as a physical, emotional, and social withdrawal from a formerly enjoyable sport activity. This withdrawal is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishment, and sport devaluation, often occurring as a result of chronic stress and motivational changes in the athlete.


In this video, Bo Hanson  who in 1992, at just 18, became Australia’s youngest rower to compete at the Olympics.  Bo went on to win bronze medals at the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games. Here Bo looks at research into the leading causes of burnout amongst athletes (which is often a surprise to many). He also shares some key issues for Generation Y athletes. 

However it`s important to note that burnout is not just something that can affect athletes but can effect anyone within a sporting role exspecially “Coaches”.  A study by Angela Calder, University of Canberra and published by the Australian Sports Commission showed that  like elite athletes, many professional coaches undertake large physical workloads and experience considerable psychological stresses over many years. The long-term effects of such stress on athletes have been researched extensively and appropriate recovery and management strategies have been identified for them but few reports have examined the effects of these stresses for coaches. The limited research that does exist focuses almost exclusively on the causes and identification of burnout (Kelley, Eklund and Ritter-Taylor 1999; Raedeke, Granzyk and Warren 2000) with little or no consideration given to overuse and overtraining problems that coaches also experience. The latter reports provide no recommendations of how coaches can maintain their multidimensional roles with minimum risk to their physical and psychological however the basic recovery strategies that coaches teach to their athletes are the same that they should use for themselves: Practise What You Preach.


The study discussed that Coaches are time poor and that Tennis coaches are a typical example of this scenario. They have three major roles — coaching tennis, managing a business and a private family life. One of the major causes of excessive stress for coaches is being ‘time poor’. They lack sufficient time to undertake the massive number of tasks required to fulfil their primary roles (Lazarus 1990). Balancing commitments to all these roles requires exceptional planning and management skills. The best way to minimise the impact of excessive stress is to plan ahead and identity all commitments including appropriate recovery strategies for every day.


The early signs of "Burnout" from the GAA Games Development Conferences 2007

The early signs of “Burnout” from the GAA Games Development Conferences 2007

Burnout Symptoms from the GAA Early Games Development Conference 20007

Burnout Symptoms from the GAA Early Games Development Conference 20007



Just this year the GPA admitted that gambling amongst GAA players was a ‘continuing worry’ as Tyrone’s Cathal McCarron had became the latest inter-county star to struggle with the problem.


Tyrone Player Cathal McCarron has become the latest High Profile GAA Player that is battling a Gambling Problem - Picture by hoganstand.com

d Tyrone Player Cathal McCarron has become the latest High Profile GAA Player that is battling a Gambling Problem – Picture by hoganstand.com


The GPA also stated that Gambling issues are responsible for a third of the calls made to the Gaelic Players Association helpline since it was introduced in 2010.

Other high profile cases of inter county players struggling with this issues include ex-Armagh forwad Oisin McConville and Offaly’s Niall McNamee.

“Ex-Armagh forward Oisin McConville  discussing his addition gambling problem at a  Seminar held in Sligo in 2011″

However gambling seems to be wide spread in a lot of sports and especially in Football as Northern Irish and former Manchester United player Keith Gillespie explains how he gambled away more than £7 million over his football career. Gillespie is in this company with many footballers such as former players Paul Merson (Arsenal), Dietmar Hamann (Liverpool), Mark Wilson (Manchester United), Michael Chopra (Ipswich Town) and current players such as Andros Townsend (Tottenham Hotspur) and David Bentley (Currently no club but formerly of Tottenham Hotspur) who have or are still suffering mentally and financially with addiction with gambling.


“Keith Gillespie talking on the RTÉ Morning Edition  about “How not to be a professional Soccer Player” and explains how he gambled away more than £7 million over his soccer career”

Keith Gillespie was declared bankrupt in 2010 but its important to note that its not just athletes or players that find themselves neck deep in gambling addiction, gambling is so accessible now a days that it can be reached from virtually anywhere, anytime meaning all rolls within a sporting contact is open to the possibility of these issues. Not so long ago Gordon Taylor who is the head of the PFA (Players Football Association) has recently admitted to accruing a personal debt of over £100,000 with a bookie.

Former Arsenal Player and Sky Pundit Paul Merson says "Gambling is the worse disease of all" - Picture by www1.skysports.com

Former Arsenal Player and Sky Pundit Paul Merson says “Gambling is the worse disease of all” – Picture by www1.skysports.com

Former Arsenal player Paul Merson described ” Gambling as the worse disease of all because if you are a alcoholic or drug addict you have to go to the trouble of putting something in your body which people can pick up signs from if you are under the influence of these items but when it comes to gambling you don`t need any substance what so ever to get that rush feeling as all it takes is a simple bet which can be done from anywhere such as the convenience of your phone. Plus their is no tell tale signs that gambling gives away to other people. A player, Athlete, Coach could have a serious gambling problem but a person from the outside looking in could never tell because it is so easy to hide”

Injury :

Injury can be a very tricky time for any Player or Athlete as it can take away their sense of being, motivation and overall enjoyment in life and the same can be said for any role within sport. When a person in any walk of life loses or can`t do their daily career it can be a very hard mental battle as they basically can lose who they sight of who they are.

Clarke Carlisle who is chairman of the Professional Footballers Association and was once  a player with QPR and Leeds amongst other clubs explains that “People have this perception of elite athletes and sports people that they are these infallible beings. But although they may have a strength or a talent in a particular area, they are no more immune to mental health issues as they are to any other illness” . He was speaking about English Cricketer Jonathan Trott who has just recently been allowed to leave the English Cricket Camp in Australia to return home to his family due to stress and injury related reasons.

“There are common triggers in sport and injury is one of them. In 2001 I needed reconstructive knee surgery. I was told I might never play again and may have to walk with a stick. That led me to try to commit suicide” says Carlisle speaking to the www.mirrow.co.uk.


Jonathan Trott was allowed to leave the English Cricked Camp due to Stress related injury - Picture by  www.theguardian.com

Jonathan Trott was allowed to leave the English Cricked Camp due to Stress related injury – Picture by www.theguardian.com


Wayne Rooney has indicated that being injured is one of the most frustrating things that can every happen to a Player or athlete. He said in his Book “My decade in the primer league – When I’m out injured I know I can’t train or help the lads prepare for the next match so, typically, I get grumpy, a bit like someone would when they have to give up smoking or coffee, I’d imagine”

I’m a fidgety patient. I get snappy. I go quiet. I don’t get fed up with the treatment or the physios and club doctors, I just want to get out there and play in the practice games like everyone else. The worst thing is that the rehab process messes around with my head. I feel left out at the club. I miss the banter and the crack in the dressing-room. As I’m not fit enough to play, I don’t even get to spend the night in the team hotel with the rest of the lads before the next game. I have to stay at home, then drive into the training ground the following morning for some more boring recovery work.


       Wayne Rooney’s horrific leg gash, sustained against Fulham in August”


Players become a spare part when they’re seriously injured. They become forgotten men around the club.

When I’m injured I get wound up and nervy watching games. It’s like being a fan all over again, probably more nerve-wracking than actually playing. It’s so frustrating. I can’t influence the game at all. I’m helpless.

There’s nothing I can do to change the result and help my mates win.

I try to keep a happy face on when I’m around the other lads afterwards, but it’s hard.


The psychology battle during injury is key to getting through some hard and lonely spells during injury - Picture of Tommy Bowe after being injuried during the Lions Tour www.independent.ie

The psychology battle during injury is key to getting through some hard and lonely spells during injury – Picture of Tommy Bowe after being injuried during the Lions Tour www.independent.ie


Former Dublin football captain Paul Griffin who promotes positive mental health by discussing the role that mind management can have in enhancing performance and overcoming adversity, speaks about the important role positive thinking played as he suffered set backs in his playing career with serious injuries over a couple of seasons.


Paul’s Top Tips to stay positive through injury  via his work with www.leanonme.net

  • Try to always look ahead and plan a path forward through the process. Use achievable goals and small targets to help break this down and take it step by step.
  • Look at the other opportunities that are open to you and other areas you can give more time to. Keep thinking of what you can do tomorrow and see it as an advantage.
  • Use the supports that are all around you and in particular family and friends to help take your mind off things.
Former Dublin Captain Paul Griffin had numerous set backs with injury - Picture by hoganstand.com

Former Dublin Captain Paul Griffin had numerous set backs with injury – Picture by hoganstand.com

  • Try not to dwell on the past and what if’s. The past can’t be changed so you need to look ahead and to the chances that the future can provide for you.
  • In a sporting context remember your team mates. You still need to be there for them. It might not be the same role but if you can still offer something to help your team be a success give them that support.
  • Keep your language and thoughts positive as these affect your outlook and energy.Enjoy the challenge of it all and the test it provides for you. Overcoming challenges successfully can help to develop your character and strengthen your resolve.




According to new stats released by Xpro,the charity which was set up to help Ex-footballers from England and Ireland shows a crisis of mental health among footballers and especially Ex-footballers  who can suffer from alcohol dependency or suicidal thoughts when adjusting to life after the game

By some estimates as many as three in five former players will be declared bankrupted and to often blighted by bad financial advice. At least 150 ex-professionals  are currently in prison and more than 700 a year end up being pitched out of the sport in their 20`s after failing to win a new contract.

An example of the is Ex-Arsenal left back Kenny Sansom who recently just admitted sleeping on a park bench. The 54 year old who was capped 86 times by England and £1 million player in the 80`s when such a fee was huge said he was homeless and battling alcoholism until the FA stepped in and helped him out.

 “Ex-Arsenal player Kenny Sansom says “Having to much time on your side can be a bad thing for a Footballer who retires”

It is said sports stars die twice, the first time at retirement. If you are no longer a sporting superstar, then who are you?

A report by Peter Crutchley from  BBC Sport  indicates that “Someone who knows this struggle better than most is boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. He vividly recalls the feeling he experienced at the moment of victory and how he found its allure too enticing to resist”

Sugar Ray Leonard said that “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring,” he went on to say “There is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.”

Leonard reflected on how his inability to separate the boxer from the man became all-consuming, forcing him to the depths of depression and leading him to make repeated comebacks.

“When I came back I felt safer in the ring. I could defeat those demons that possessed me outside the ring,” he recalls. “It was such a release when I trained for a fight because all of a sudden I’m totally clean, whether it was from cocaine, or alcohol, or depression. It gave me a sense of calm.”


Sugar Ray Leonard - Boxing


Sugar Ray Leonard talks to BBC Sport Radio about his “Battle with Retirement”


According to Bill Cole, a world-renowned peak performance coach based in California who has worked across dozens of different sports and seen many athletes struggle to come to terms with their retirement there are many factors that one must have and go through.

Sense of loss

Their is no meaning to their daily lives from one day to the next after living such a structured life where every minuted was accounted for.


Biological factors

“Athletes had regular doses of serotonin daily for many years, and suddenly, that has decreased or stopped outright. That is a huge upset to the chemistry of the body,” he says. “Even some retired athletes who continue to exercise fail to get the endorphin highs since they no longer compete.”

Tunnel vision

Leading sportsmen and women have lived a regimented training routine for years, often since childhood.

Cole says an athlete’s “tunnel vision and regimented life” is part of the reason why top-level sportsmen and women struggle more with retirement than those in other walks of life.


The grieving process

The factors behind an athlete’s retirement can be crucial as the fact that many are forced to end their careers for negative reasons, such as injury, diminution of ability and de-selection, adds to this feeling of loss.


Sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson recognises the challenges of retirement: “Elite athletes such as Premier League footballers relish testing themselves by competing in front of thousands of people, either willing them to succeed or fail. This is the type of challenge and buzz that you don’t generally get in everyday life.”

Having plans in place for their retirement, along with having a strong support group around them, are important components for helping athletes make the transition.


 Transion Project by the Victorian Institute of Sport, Australia

Life after sport can be a time of great challenge for many athletes. Post the Beijing Olympics a number of Victorian Institute of Sport athletes with significant sporting experience decided to retire from their sport. The project  was aimed to glean the experience and wisdom from athletes who competed at the highest levels along with learning about their life management skills. The project recorded the interviews and stories of 5 athletes to share with the broader athlete cohort. Athletse included are Grant Hackett, Catherine Arlove, Don Elgin, Travis Brooks, and Rachel Imison.

The following Interview is from Catherine Arlove who is an Australian judoka who has also represented Australia in wrestling and competed at a national level in cycling. Arlove has won ten Gold medals at the Australian National Judo Championships

She competed in judo at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

This video of Catherine discusses the experience of transition from the athletes sporting life to the next phase. Initial thinking about retirement, accepting the decision, timing of the decision, associated feelings, thoughts and concerns; strategies employed, advice sought along with how athletes are filling the void left by their retirement from sport.


I would like to thank James Murray and all the crew at Ireland Strength and Conditioning Coach whom this write up blog was specially created for.

Ireland Strenght and Conditioning



They are doing some unbelievable work bringing a high level of coaching and education to these shores and I want to thank them hugely for giving me support towards these issues in sport.

Keep up the great work Ireland S+C

Please check them out  at





  1. I think I understand every type of candidate much better now. Thanks for sharing.

    Physio in Cavan

    • John /

      Hi Kieran, thank you very much for your positive message. Glad you found it beneficial and insightful and hope it will be of practical help for you and your clients. Very kind regards John, Lend An Ear Sport.

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