After reading other articles with people sharing their experiences of participating in sport while also dealing with mental health issues, it has made me feel comfortable enough to share my own experiences.
Taking the non-traditional path in sport, I played field hockey for nine years as a junior in Adelaide, before taking game back up here in Canberra, nearing the finals in my fourth season in the ACT competitions.
Plural too, because I play in both the Canberra Cup and State League competitions; with varying degrees of success. I also umpire hockey at most grade levels, from more social leagues all the way to second grade with ambition to make first grade next year in both Men’s and Women’s.
What makes my journey all the more different, which could probably be guessed from my opener; is I suffer from mental health issues. Taking the trifecta of being diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum (see Asperger’s), having severe depression and a side dish of anxiety to round it off. Never did things by halves, only finding out about the Autism in recent years was a great relief; as it gave context to a lot of things.
The main reason I wanted to share my story, is that if it resonates with just one person, or even just starts a conversation about the subject, then it has achieved its purpose. I have an awesome group of teammates and support people in my life, which has taken years to develop and get to a stage where I am comfortable. And there are still times where I will hide from them, and go some of the unimaginable dark places of reality.
Splicing the story into pieces, my experiences as a hockey player while dealing with issues between the ears has been a challenging one. In my first season with my club, I was offered the team managers role for the Canberra Cup side, and with it the captaincy (because my first four choices all said no).
Went on to captain for 1.5 years with that side, before it was folded due to financial pressures. Took the team to two finals, including a thrilling elimination final win against my now current club.
I then would play double duties on the Saturday with my current SL team, without the burden (or respect) that comes with the captains C. It made it challenging in a way, on a Wednesday/Friday night when the Canberra Cup games where being played; I was the Captain and I had earned the respect of the players around me and the opposition.
Most of the players around me where better in skill, yet still respected me when I led them out and rallied behind me. Then on the Saturday, I would struggle to make the starting XI, often coming off the bench in a grade that was far lower standard then the Canberra Cup games.
Eventually this all came good, it just took a couple of seasons of hard work, and going in with mindset that my team respects me during week, and I need to earn their respect again on the Saturday.
Of course, at the time didn’t see it that way, and always pictured it as I am intentionally being knocked down a few pegs because I’m the captain of the other squad and had no authority there.
After the team folded at the end of the 2015 season (and an unsuccessful elimination final campaign), I was offered a run with my current Canberra Cup team. Rewarding their faith in me by taking out their team leading goal scorer in my first season (and second in a row for the Canberra Cup competition). The change in team was great, as although I left the captaincy and leadership roles behind, I was also untethered from responsibility, and could go out and play the game on my own terms.
Wrapping my playing days story up though, there are plenty of times (more than I care to count) where it was challenging. Even as recent as last weekend, where you lose confidence in yourself because of how I perceive the teams thoughts on me. In the past couple of matches, I regularly do not receive passes, regularly burned on leads and even pick pocketed by own teammates prior to shots on goal. Normally a person would call BS on that and talk with the team and sort it out…
When you’re feeling depressed and anxious however, being a coward and saying nothing is the more likely approach. My opponents (not teammates) actually started to be concerned for me, because of how well known I am (and having this false persona of being bubbly and bright on the field) could tell something was wrong.
Speaks volumes of how far we have come in society that opposition players can still look out for someone clearly not tracking well. Still played out the game, did my job as a striker and created space and leads. Never got the ball, but never stopped trying.
What I did do however, was completely withdraw from the team. Flatly refused to join the team huddle during half time citing ‘hamstring soreness’ and need to stretch out the back behind the dugouts. I felt the team would just be blaming me for not playing strong, as they had done the week before.
The joys of anxiety is hearing whatever will support the narrative that the brain was crafted. “We are not playing down the left, and the striker isn’t there” to the team is a rally to play on the left, to me was “it’s the left strikers (my position) fault we aren’t up by more”.
The reason I mentioned my umpiring at the start was this anxiety and negative thoughts that I experience when playing don’t magically go away when I start umpiring. Quite the opposite, as this season in my first on both the men’s and women’s second grade panels. I was starting to get comfortable, albeit still making errors and plenty of room for improvement in second grade Women’s, before this season making the leap to second grade men’s as an umpire.
And boy, was that a leap and a half. Before even starting the season, I was selected for round 1 (my debut) as an umpire. To say I was anxious is an understatement, and even though the game went well, the main feedback I got was to relax. It’s now Round 17 I think (couple weeks out from finals), and I am still anxious when I walk out onto the field.
The negative thoughts from playing still nagging at me, and every time I make a howler of a call; I have to remind myself not to break. The umpire must always be seen to be in control, even if in their own head they are breaking.
It is why I am always defensive about people abusing umpires in AFL and NRL in the first instance. It is a really hard gig in hockey, and I’m guessing they have it tough too. For me, I have my own demons working away in my head, while concentrating on the game in front of me, while also learning as I go.
The feedback I get sometimes can be brutal, as my umpire coaches want me to improve, so pick out a lot of areas for improvement. Which is their job, and what they are there to do. But again, that negative anxious mind will build the narrative that I am a terrible umpire and shouldn’t be doing this.
Often that is far from it, but in a game of split second decisions and no replays; you have yourself and your co-umpire and that’s all. It is high stress and when you’re not of your game the players will hammer you.
But finishing up, I wouldn’t trade this for anything else. I have met some truly great people in my time with Hockey ACT. I won’t list people or clubs, but they know who they are and I am truly thankful to them.
Having to play and umpire on both extreme of mental spectrum, from being delirious with a grand final win to wanting it to stop has taught me a lot. My teammate s aren’t trained mental health professionals, but offering an ear and a beer (or Jack Daniels) is better than years of training.
Australian readers seeking support and information about depression can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.