Mind Games: Studying Mental Health in Sport

Mental health in sport is a serious topic that isn’t really talked about very openly.

Gary Speed took his life when he was just 42.
Gary Speed took his life when he was just 42.

Over the last number of years there have been some tragic cases of famous sportsmen and women struggling with the psychological aspects of both life and elite level sport.

Arguably the most well-known of these occurred in November 2011, when Wales national football manager Gary Speed committed suicide.

It stunned not only the football world, but sporting circles in general, yet unfortunately it wasn’t the first instance and it sadly wont be the last.

In the aftermath of Speed’s death, another footballer Clarke Carlisle made a documentary investigating depression in sport, in particular focusing on his own field of soccer.

Some of his findings were staggering, especially a revealing interview with then FA Chairman David Bernstein which completely demonstrated the lack of a clear mandate to help those in need.

All sports require mental fortitude, but perhaps none more so than snooker.

Snooker often gets critiqued as a skilled game that lacks the physical attributes necessary to be defined as a, for want of a better word, proper sport.

However, when it comes to the mental aspect of the game, it is perhaps unrivaled.

In no other elite level sport must a player be forced to sit and watch, helplessly, as his opponent is in attack mode.

In golf, tennis, football, gaelic, darts, rugby, swimming, athletics, cricket and more, competitors have the opportunity to counterattack their challenger’s offence.

Even in chess, which relies solely on the mind, players take turns in making their moves.

In snooker, you can break off and not play another shot until the next frame, sitting idly alone in your seat, frustrated and in tandem with just your own thoughts for company.

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s inner demons have been very widely publicised, but he’s not the only snooker player to have struggled with depression.

For the last two years researcher James Welsh has been undertaking his own comprehensive investigation, with a view to doing his PhD on psychological health in sport.

Welsh was a member of the winning English Home Internationals team in 2009.
Welsh was a member of the winning English Home Internationals team in 2009.

A former keen player, the 35 year-old has pinpointed snooker as his primary source of information, carrying out extensive research over the last couple of years into important facets of mental health such as “anxiety, burnout, depression and, alarmingly, suicide episodes witnessed in other sports.”

It’s a massive examination but one which Welsh feels can considerably aid snooker and sport in general the more he is able to achieve.

“For the past two years I’ve worked with the English Association of Snooker and Billiards, elite main tour players and coaches to greater understand psychological health in snooker and, more importantly, identify potential frameworks that may be used by players and possibly implemented into coaching practice,” explained Welsh.

“While my work has identified some potential negative psychological characteristics – that certainly can be improved with help and support – I’ve positively identified key attributes that snooker players could adhere to when striving for success in this sport. More specifically, I have identified the essential attributes that make the ultimate player, therefore can offer players the best guidance possible. I know full well just how hard it is to make it and the difference throughout elite sport may just be the six inches between your ears.

“Such research has been successfully implemented via coaching and psychological interventions into other sports, such as football, athletics, swimming, Australian football, cricket, cycling, rugby, and gymnastics, following in-depth research from academics across the world. Furthermore, this scientific work continues to be conducted as national and global governing bodies postulate just how crucial this work is when ensuring the best practice possible. Thus, I strongly feel that it’s about time that we have somebody fighting the corner for snooker.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked by how interested the players, coaches and tournament officials were. They could see how much this research means to me, where it can go and how it has the potential to provide players with the tools to give them the best chance of success. So I guess I’ve the unequivocal support from the players. I just need the backing of the governing bodies, and of course, like most things in life, the financial support to do this work.”

Typically, a PhD takes three or four years to complete but Liverpudlian Welsh already has his sights set on the long-term objective of being able to see the impacts of his research bearing fruit within the sport of snooker itself.

Hopefully he can get the support he needs because despite the fact that most of us label sports stars with a hero image, they are obviously only human and prone to fragility just like the rest of us.

The pressures associated with snooker and other sports aren’t just restricted to the table, the board or the blades of grass.

There are countless nights spent alone travelling the length and breadth of, first, your own country, and subsequently the world in an attempt to become successful.

This is something young golfer Eddie Pepperell, Open debutant who finished runner-up in the recent Irish Open, attested to in a recent article published on the BBC website.

For those trying to break into the professional spectrum of snooker it is particularly difficult as the financial burden continually weighs heavily on their efforts.

Challenges similarly await when the inevitability of retirement materalises.

Stephen Hendry earned millions of pounds throughout his enviable career and no doubt leads a very comfortable life.

Yet, last week on Twitter he admitted that since he retired in 2012, his “life has completely change.”

Welsh, who already has a Masters in Psychology, with his daughter at graduation.
Welsh, who already has a Masters in Psychology, with his daughter at graduation.

“You can spend around three weeks at a time with nothing to do and when you’ve spent your whole life doing something it takes some getting used to.”

These are all obstacles that each of us in any walk of life must overcome, but as Carlisle pointed to in his documentary there is often a taboo surrounding the topic in sport.

Is it a sign of weakness?

“Another objective of my research will be how mental health and well-being in sport associates to mental health positively or negatively,” concludes Welsh.

“I will endeavor to provide interventions and strategies that could improve psychological aspects of performance as well as provide much-needed information for parents, coaches, and snooker governing bodies.

“The overall objective is to provide support for the players. That’s the key for me, to ensure that they are aware of how much it could benefit them.”

To contact James Welsh and learn more about his research you can email him at:

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