Ban Elite Sports to Improve Mental Health

Welcome to Mental Health Week. This morning I was listening to the radio on which an ex-elite athlete was discussing the hidden mental health issues he suffered from during his career, and how he was now committed to campaigning for changing the culture within elite athlete circles so that athletes could feel free to 'come out' about mental health issues, and be trained in dealing with their emotions. All good stuff. People talking about how they feel? Especially if those people are elite male athletes who are supposed to be tough and win all the time? That is a great and worthy endeavour..


Nowhere in that conversation this morning did I hear anyone question whether elite sport itself might actually have been contributing to the mental health issues to start with. All I heard was that Australia is a great sporting nation so that sport is a great place to be talking about mental health.. well, yes, but what if the sport is causing it?

If you think about it for a minute, if you had to set up some laboratory conditions to cause mental health problems, what would be more likely to do so than to look for a child with talent, train them up to think that winning is everything, and that their talent defines them as a person, then put them under increasing pressure as they get even better at what they do, so that eventually, not only is their whole life consumed by training for one single goal, also, thousands or millions of people live vicariously through their failures and successes, and if that isn't enough pressure, they wake up one morning and realise that they have become a sock puppet in the hands of the gods, er, the sponsors.

Ah, yes, and now we come to The Money. Elite sport wouldn't exist without it. Televised sport makes SO MUCH MONEY for its sponsors. The whole edifice has been built by money, and for money. And all of it creates intolerable pressure for the frail human beings at the centre of the arena. It is around two thousand years since huge arenas were last built for sport. First time round it was for gladiators. They probably had mental health issues too.

Just think, once upon a time, those elite athletes were eight year olds who liked to kick a footy, or play tennis, or run and run with the wind in their hair. What kind of a cruel society would take such a child and force them to waste their youth by practicing the thing that they love, to the exclusion of every other good thing life has to offer, hour by hour and day after weary day, for the hollow twin prizes of fame and fortune, which they may or may not attain? Is it any wonder that their mental health breaks down?

Australia could be a great sporting nation, but isn't, because most of us only watch sport rather than playing it. And the handful of sporting heroes that we watch on the telly? We are actually breaking them mentally just by watching, because in doing so we are siding with The Money.

Ways for Australia to be a great sporting nation and solve mental health issues in sport? Watch where the money is. If it's big enough to attract money, it's probably big enough to mess with your mind.. Playing footy for your local team on a Saturday afternoon? No money there, so go for it. Likewise Thursday night mixed netball, Monday night Div 2 hockey, bowls at the club, capture-the-flag on your local school oval with fifty of your best friends, and running, anywhere, with the wind in your hair.

Brought to you by Mental Health Week Life - Making Society a Nicer Place So That Mental Health Problems Mostly Go Away By Themselves.


simplelife said…
Could not agree more. So well written and said. It's long been a bugbear of mine.
Cheers Kate
Monique said…
I wonder about the culture of watching children play sport. On a Saturday morning the sidelines are packed with keen and supportive (mostly) parents watching their loved progeny achieve great things (hopefully). But in terms of health, mental and physical, wouldn't it be better for the family to all head out to do Saturday morning sport/exercise and once a term or so watch a game. How many children watch their parents play sport??
Treaders said…
Great points Jo. I mean, after all, there is only one Olympic gold medal no matter how many thousands (millions?) aspire to it. The sport that immediately leapt out at me was women's gymnastics. How those little girls train from very, very young and God forbid they hit puberty before the Games!! Anna
Pam in Virginia said…
Hi, Jo!

You are 100% right, and thank you for putting it so well. In my two sons' early years I felt that team sports were acceptable because of the, well - let's call it relative, camaraderie. And the fact that they had unending energy like you'd never believe (I never had to watch my weight when they were growing up . . .). But once it became serious with them, because to my husband it was serious, I began to hate the whole thing. I watch footy with my husband, not for the sport, but because I wish to be a "good sport".

Penelope P. said…
I felt so relieved when my children were ok at a lot of things (sport and playing musical instruments) but weren't brilliant at any of them! I also didn't enrol them in lots of after school activities when they were little either, they were forced to play when they were little !
Anonymous said…
I have always felt bad when one child in a family is determined to have sporting talent and none of the siblings can pursue any in-depth activities because of the "star's" training and tournaments. (Could be true of any endeavor, not just sports). My pet peeve is when kids sports teams send the kids door-to-door selling things, collecting bottles to get the deposits or asking for donations. In Canada, 9 times out of 10, it is hockey teams. It costs $300+ to outfit a young child for hockey; into the thousands for a teen tournament player. Not including ice time and travel. In my opinion, if parents want their kids in such an elite sport, they should foot the bill.
Jo said…
Kate, thank you. Sometimes I feel like I get carried away on my soap box, but so many things make me mad!

Monique, parents don't get to play sport because we spend our weekends ferrying our children around to all their matches! (Well, I don't play sport because I think it's weird, and also have the hand-eye co-ordination of something that has no hands. Or eyes)

Anna, gymnastics, yes, and don't get me started on ballet. It looks like Art but it is actually sport with a tutu. The competitions! The pressure! (former ballet mum here..)

Pam, I am hearing you with the boys and the energy! Sport is great for learning skills and team work and wearing everyone out. But then it gets co-opted by our society's obsession with winning. When I was a kid, boys used to play football or cricket scratch games on the oval after school most days, depending on the season. Presumably there were winners and losers in those games, but crucially, it didn't matter. And everyone had so much fun. There were no adults involved.. it was play. What if there were no repercussions for winning and losing in sport? What if it were just for fun? We have made it into this hierarchical structure, just like the rest of society. The local talent gets funnelled into rep teams, state teams, the institute of sport, national teams, international games.. what if it all just stayed local? And fun?

simplelife said…
I think you have identified the problem right here Jo, sport was spoiled for children when adults got involved.
All the problem solving, sharing, rule making/breaking/adapting, work together and inclusiveness was taken from the kids. Then it was only fun for the naturally gifted and the vicarious adult who saw it as an opportunity to achieve what they feel they missed out on in their own childhood.
Treaders said…
One of your other commenters mentioned that sometimes it is the parents that are competitive - oh how true that is! Since we live in the alps my kids have always skied. They had lessons from the age of 3 so as you can imagine they ace it. Years ago I remember our kids doing the grand slalom - if you did it in a certain time you moved up to the next level. Our friends' kids were much better than mine but dad (and mom to a certain extent) were SOOOOO competitive. Anyway, M whizzed down the slalom and missed out by a few seconds and dad was furious. My son came whizzing down after him, spotted our friend's wife filming him and skied over to chat to her - he never made it past the finish line (he always was a bit of an idiot in that way). It was brilliant. Everyone was yelling at him to get going as he HAD to cross the finish line. I think he came last in the end.
Jo said…
Penelope, I think we are kindred spirits in parenting! My kids are ok but not great at sports and I was always secretly grateful that they never made any rep teams, or progressed up the sports ladder - all the money and the travelling and the pressure - it's just not us. Plus, none of my children care about winning enough! And yes for play!

Dar, oh, yes, the star child. Can anything good come out of that scenario? And ice hockey - presumably once upon a time it was played on a frozen lake for entertainment during the long Canadian winter.. here in Australia we play field hockey. My grandma and mum played it on grass playing fields, while my daughters now play on a sprung, artificial grass surface with inbuilt sprinklers under giant floodlights for night games. we are all so good at taking simple things to whole new levels because money..

Kate, the funny thing is that adult sport is generally undifferentiated - it is just for fun. Adult sports teams are social and pleasant and local, because no-one is grooming the 40 year old netball player for a future career as an elite athlete. And kid sport can be fun as long as the team is not very good - then nobody has any expectations, and getting any goals at all is seen as a marvellous achievement, but get good at something, and there is no time to muck around and play anymore..

Anna, that is the BEST story! It sounds like your kid just doesn't have that killer instinct! Good for him! People first, winning later. Or never.. And it shows how arbitrary the criteria for winning is. You have to go over the line.. you are not fast unless you get over the line..
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Yup. Hey, I see enough people heaping pressure on their kids too in the realm of sport and pressure to achieve at school. It all seems very weird to me, because when I was kid, all I cared about was getting some mud on me at footy, and nobody at all cared other myself about the marks I received at school. Far out! Nowadays I hear stories from friends that make me shake my head in concern for their ambitions for others (their kids) and the mental health issues I see in those others. I'm not sure what you think about such things, but I reckon it is concerning, but I don't have any skin in that game and am just a passive observer of life. You introduced me to Mr Diogenes, and it does make you wonder what he would say about the situation?

Anyway, I reckon that is what a society looks like when there is still a lot of stuff to go around, but the stuff per capita may be declining. ;-)!


Tracy said…
I think we are the odd family out. Our kids never did sport. When they were of the age where it might have been the thing to do we had absolutely no money. And sports is expensive! When we did have money I was not prepared to be the parent who did all the running around for it. Of course, then we had the sporting-family friends who declared that we were being neglectful and sports is important and you need to get your kids into it. We couldn't afford it! So, what? Now I should send my child to play basketball (because that's what yours do), but I can't feed them because we spent all the money on uniforms, team fees, insurance and venue entry? Grrrr. Of course, we had other friends who told us we were being neglectful because wouldn't have pets. My stance? You either get sane parents or a pet...not both. We don't spend time with those "friends" anymore, and our kids are doing great, thank you very much. Two who landed well into adulthood and one who's nearly there. No sports or pets required.
Jo said…
Chris, the more I think about it, the more I realise how lucky we were to grow up in the 70s and we just kind of grew up any old how. The pressure on my kids' generation is immense, but it is also subtle and insidious, and hard to argue against, because it is truly from the perspective of parents trying to do a good job to raise their kids. BUT the bar for 'good parenting' and therefore, acceptable outcomes for kids, has been raised enormously over one generation. And I believe that Big Money is behind it. In a thousand ways we are being convinced that only the best for our kids will do. Then we're upset if spend all that money and they turn out to be 'only' ordinary, decent human beings.

Tracy, I LOVE your tough love approach to sensible parenting! Food before sport? Outrageous! I am totally hearing you on the ridiculous expenses involved in extra-curricular activities. Spread over a few children it could entirely eat up a part-time, or even full-time wage..

And I spend half my time saying NO to extra pets. Except chickens..
Anonymous said…
Great long essay, very informative, slightly witty and self-depreciatingly wry - blogger ate it. Damn wordpress/blogger active dislikage of each other.

Summary - working full time parent who has no free time = kids who don't do team sports. Of course, if they were interested, that would be another matter! Smallest childerbeast goes to the footy with his dad, has no interest in playing it (he's keen on the stats. Weirdo), does karate (which involves training once a week, and a special outfit handed down fron his big brother). Larger childebeast does gymnastics and trampolining and skateboards in summer(no special outfits required there either. Gymnastics is a casual teen thing and came about after he landed on his head on the trampoline; although I do seem to be procuring skate shoes at a ridiculous rate of knots...)

Unknown said…

Agree with you totally. Only problem, I think we are in the minority. Those parents who support the elite sportsperson probably don't see their contribution in any way negative to their child; and the elite or going to be elite sportsperson probably disagree with the view too. After all, as you say the sportsperson on the radio didn't see elite sport as the issue, just he need to be more supportive. Also if your chance of making money is through sport, you most likely won't want to give it up for friendly games.

I love Anna's story of her son skiing. When everyone invests so much emotion in a sport, it is so refreshing to see a young person take a different stance.
fran7narf said…
I agree with you implicitly Jo. Did you want some more of those cloth bags that Rabid sent you? I have a lot that I am not using (never used) so if you would like them let me know and I will drop them in the city when we are next in.
Anonymous said…
Hi Jo,
I read this a couple of years ago:
'Beyond winning: smart parenting in a toxic sporting environment' by Kim Payne (he wrote Simplicity Parenting). It is excellent.
I HATE organised team sports. My 17 yo daughter has only just asked me if she can play hockey next year (after NEVER playing anything!) as she is finally 'ready for it'. Who knows if she will even find a team willing to take a novice - and that is such an issue in our tiny sport-obsessed town. If you aren't in a team sport (cricket, basketball, netball, footy) by the time you are in Grade 6, it is too late. Sigh.
My son is a competitive Speed cuber (Rubik's cube). Now THAT is an interesting sub-culture (and the kids and parents are so supportive and lovely). My husband adores golf and was probably good enough to turn pro in his youth. Fortunately he was smart enough to keep it as a hobby and still loves it at 50. I walk, do yoga and bike ride and I feel fitter than ever. Not bad for someone who was always 'scared of the ball', haha. Loretta
GretchenJoanna said…
It is hugely encouraging to me that you have opened up this discussion on your blog with such a wise and stimulating post, and that so many people are lovingly questioning what is so broadly accepted and practiced. Thank you, Jo!!!
Jo said…
Miss Maudy, oh, why can't we just all be friends? Another thing to rant about. However, you made a brilliant comeback. Your childebeasts sound very well rounded young persons indeed..

Lucinda, don't you ever rant about things you can't change, just because you want to? It is one of my best hobbies. It is good if you don't take rejection and blank incomprehension personally though, if that is your hobby:)

Fran, would LOVE some more - and would love to see you! Will get in touch xx

Loretta, I am petrified of the ball, hence why I walk the dog and gossip/lift quite small weights at the gym for my exercise. That book sounds right up my alley.. I think at bottom, it is because big money gets involved that we have this hierarchical sporting phenomenon in the first place. But maybe that's because I like to blame Big Money for everything..

Gretchen Joanna, sometimes I like to throw out an idea that I have only just thought of to see what happens. What happens is that I get a lot of very thoughtful conversation starters from a bunch of remarkable people. I am so lucky to be here with you all..

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