Danny Rose remembered getting angry. He’d suffered his first really serious injury and the team were doing well without him. “I didn’t socialise, I wasn’t sleeping, I was looking to fall out with anybody.” Gareth Southgate and the Duke of Cambridge were among the small audience listening intently as the Tottenham left-back described the signs of his depression.
Shown on BBC One on Sunday night, A Royal Team Talk was a bit blokey, a bit repetitive, a bit padded-out in places. But there were moments when it fully justified its claim to be giving us the rare sight of men – in this case a group united by their interest in football; five current or former professionals and five amateurs (including the future king of England) – gathering to talk openly about depression and its effects.
Rose was the one who made a real impact in the programme, perhaps because he is still in the middle of an important career – still with everything to play for, not least in Madrid on 1 June. You can go and see Rose, or watch him on the television, and know that you are seeing a man struggling with demons. It is brave of him not to wait until retirement before unburdening himself in public, choosing instead to lend himself as an example in a debate of great importance.
Jermaine Jenas, another of the group, thought back to his days as a senior pro in the Tottenham Hotspur dressing room and remembered the young Rose approaching him to say he was wanting to go back home to Doncaster the whole time. “As a team and as a club,” Jenas said, “we ignored it.” Now he sees that homesickness as a sign of “something building up” and emphasises a responsibility “to notice certain things happening around you”.
The football pitch is a challenging environment – “a place where people can crumble” in Jenas’s words – but Rose’s current international manager is a man whose particular experience has taught him the necessity of extending help to those coping with adversity. When Southgate’s penalty was saved in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany, he was left alone to deal with it. For years, well-meaning men would point him out to their children. “I played 700 games, but I was always ‘that bloke’.” Among other things, the experience taught him to tell his players not to be afraid of making mistakes.
There is something particularly poignant about a professional athlete – a member of a group whose operative verb is “to play” – dealing with mental-health problems, whether it be a golfer tortured by the putting yips, a boxer hitting the bottle or a footballer scared to try a risky pass. “Everybody thinks it’s only them,” Southgate says, “but the dressing room is full of people who’ve had problems growing up or who have performance doubts. And everyone has different ways of hiding it.”
Over the years an increasing number, from Victoria Pendleton and Serena Williams to Frank Bruno and Michael Phelps, have opened up about the many varieties of depression; last week the speed skater Elise Christie spoke very movingly about her bouts of self-harming. But it can strike non-professionals, too, and for them sport – rather than lithium or Prozac – can sometimes help to provide a solution.
Last week in south-west London a women’s cycling club called BellaVelo held a discussion about mental health in which some who had suffered were invited to share their experiences and to talk about the ways in which their sport helped them to recover. Christine O’Connell, for instance, is a keen enough road cyclist to have completed the demanding Étape du Tour since surgery to remove a brain tumour early last year, following initial treatment for breast cancer in 2012. Having been diagnosed with incurable stage four cancer – metastasised not just to her brain but her bones – she runs a charity called One More Mile, raising money to fund research into secondary brain cancer. “Cycling keeps my mind occupied,” she says. “The one thing I’m not when I’m on the bike is a cancer patient.”
Victoria Walford had a successful career in corporate strategy when she was hit by a car in London 12 years ago. “The accident injured me in every part of my body,” she said. After her body had mended sufficiently, she was offered treatment for a condition known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder. It involved a lot of drugs. “I didn’t like that,” she said, so she went back to university to study psychology with the intention of healing herself. Now a practising psychotherapist, she returned to cycling relatively recently. While careful to stay within certain limits to avoid triggering the PTSD, last year she rode 1,000 mountainous kilometres in Vietnam to raise money for a related charity.
Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.Cycling is not a magic bullet, although many former professional athletes attracted to it in retirement – from Geoff Thomas, another cancer survivor, to Martin Johnson – would no doubt speak on behalf of its benefits. The BellaVelo evening was another example of how Mental Health Awareness Week shone a light on the ways in which the problems associated with depression, whatever their cause, have to be acknowledged before they can be tackled. Give or take a handful of male interlopers, that conversation was women talking to other women. The televised Royal Team Talk was all about men, who are often stereotyped as possessing a lower level of emotional intelligence. Breakthroughs like these are being made all the time, but perhaps the real one will come when men and women can talk freely to each other about a disease whose symptoms, like Rose’s homesickness, might not be so hard to spot when you know what you’re looking for.
View the original article here