Danny Mills: Sport’s attitude towards mental health has come such a long way

Gary Speed.
Gary Speed.
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Fifteen years ago mental illness in professional football didn’t exist. Or that’s the impression you were given.

If I’d told coaches or managers that I was stressed or depressed they’d have slapped me around the head and told me to get my boots on.

The game could be pretty archaic and when you look back now you wonder how many of the lads you played with suffered in silence. Football creates a huge mix of characters – extroverts, introverts, the insecure and the nervous. Trying to second-guess other people’s problems is often impossible.

I’d assume that to some degree most sports are the same. But we’ve seen huge advances in attitudes and awareness and it means that someone like Jonathan Trott can leave the Ashes tour to Australia with most of us thinking about nothing more than his own well-being.

There will still be some who look at Trott and shake their heads. He’s got it all, right? What’s the problem? He’s being paid thousands to lead the life he leads and play cricket at the very highest level. On paper it’s a dream existence, isn’t it?

Two years ago there was another man who everyone thought had the perfect life – Gary Speed. Likeable, successful and no doubt pretty wealthy; you’d aspire to be him. But what we know about Gary is that somewhere along the line life became too much to take. It was a lesson for everyone, and I mean everyone.

Much was made of the fact that he appeared happy and upbeat on the BBC’s Football Focus the day before he was found dead. The reality is that sportsmen and women learn to put masks on. I did it myself.

The way I acted on the pitch was nothing like my personality away from football. You wear two different heads and no matter what was going on, the bravado kicked in when you stepped out of the tunnel. You puffed your chest out, got stuck in and showed no weakness because any weakness was targeted. In my time only a few teams looked at psychology. Clubs employing sports psychologists were not completely unheard of but it was more performance-related. People didn’t want to hear you talk about stress. Some managers got annoyed if you said you had a muscle strain. They had it in their heads that if you can walk, you can play. No doubt it put fear into people who were struggling.

Mental illness can’t be easy to hide but it’s clearly very hideable. Not even experts seem to know what causes it. Maybe it’s a premeditated condition caused by genetic factors. Or maybe not. But you’d never choose to be afflicted by it. And you’d never use it as an easy excuse.

Focusing on Trott’s wealth or stature is pretty naive. When it comes to it, what you do and how much you earn has nothing to do with your state of mind. You’ll hear it said that struggling to pay the mortgage or battling to feed your family is real stress and I’m not about to argue with that. But regardless of whether you’re a checkout worker, a top-level banker or a famous sportsman, if you can’t handle that scenario then you can’t handle it. Trott has my sympathy and my very best wishes.

The way I see it, one of the big traits of competitive sportspeople is that we’re all driven by a desire to reach the top. We all want to be perfect. Take an innings of 99 runs. That’s a very good knock that helps your team take control of a match but is any batsman going to celebrate scoring 99? No. They’re going to beat themselves up about the century that went begging. They’re going to go home criticising themselves over a single run. That’s the drive inside you and I still feel it now. Retirement was strange for me because I’d been used to other people controlling my life. I was fortunate to have a family and business interests but I found myself making my own decisions. It was odd.

These days, I’m often guilty of taking on far more than I should. Three or four commitments in a day, enough to leave me tearing around. I’m busier than I ever was as a player but that’s a good thing. And it’s all because the drive to succeed never left me. Or maybe it’s the fear of failure that pushes you on. Being successful is great, winning brilliant, but failure – losing or not winning – is horrendous. You go over every mistake, every decision, and you’ll always be your own biggest critic. The fear of failure can lead you to the top but it can also be a curse. And ultimately that can be too much for some.

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