Sport on TV: We should be more clinical in the way we look at depression

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The Independent Online

The word "jocks" either conjures up images of Scots or American high school quarterbacks. While the former may be envisaged as dour, stony-faced and apparently under a permanent black cloud, we would not expect the latter to be affected by any kind of mental anguish. The whole point of the expression is that sporting achievement among the young goes hand in hand with immunity to any kind of introspection. After all, they get the prettiest girls, the open-top cars, the adulation of the crowd. The quarterbacks, that is, not the Scots. Who needs a convertible under all those black clouds?

We think of our sporting heroes as leading charmed lives with their riches, their smiles and their champagne-spraying. But Mind Games: Depression in Sport (BBC1, Wednesday) showed how our understanding of the demands of sport is finally broadening to acknowledge the fact that jocks are just as prone to mental illness as the next man.

Maybe more so, given the pressures involved, though this 'Inside Sport' special tended to overstress this – "Here are nerves, stress, expectation," said Gabby Logan. "How do I follow that? How do I keep it going?"– and didn't adequately distinguish between a clinical condition and mere fear of failure.

The latter can exacerbate an existing problem but won't cause it, just as success won't cure it. Similarly, when a sportsman has a high profile, his demons won't leave him when he quits the arena. Unlike sport, depression is a very private battle. And the majority of cases occur towards the end of a career.

Marcus Trescothick, the central character of this tragedy, is an example of someone who was cut down in his prime. The grossly unfair perception has been that the hard-hitting batsman should just "shake it off". After all, Kelly Holmes came back from a long period of self-doubt, and then self-harm, to win double Olympic gold.

But Dame Kelly's story is a truly remarkable one, and sadly she was only mentioned in passing. How uplifting it might have been to find out how she won the biggest race she ever faced.

* Swimmers aren't usually hailed as jocks. The world of the pool is almost as alien as its aquatic milieu, and ploughing up and down the lanes at some unearthly hour of the morning is like an outward expression of being pursued by the demons – and as difficult to identify with. Wonderland: Virgin Swimmers (BBC2, Thursday) showed how hard it is for those who can swim to understand the terror that afflicts those who can't.

It doesn't help when the instructor at the Warriors Swim Centre in Southend sounds like Marjorie Dawes of Little Britain's Fat Fighters. But at least the Water Warriors are less likely to sink into the depths of despair.

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