It's lonely at the top for leading Kiwi athletes

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014

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With every game of the soccer season, the pressure built and built. When the last whistle rang out, all that anxiety Chris Jackson had been bottling finally burst out.

"It was the everyday pressure to perform, to be the captain, to be the strong guy. It really hit me at the end of the season, or when I had a break. You were just like on a train and you couldn't get off. It got faster and faster and more pressured and you kept training and you never had time to go ‘wait a minute, I'm struggling here'.

"When I did binge, I binged really badly, which a lot of professional sportspeople do. It's a mechanism to go - ‘Am I human? Yes, I am human.' "

The former Football Kingz and All Whites captain, who now works as a cleaner in Australia, talked for the first time about his anxiety and depression as part of a global soccer players survey. The 43-year-old is speaking out in the hope more will be done to recognise and manage the enormous pressures on professional sportspeople.

For Jackson, those pressures started when he was 15, when he returned to New Zealand from a dream UK football scholarship without having secured a professional contract.

He thought he was set with the establishment of New Zealand's first professional soccer team, the Football Kingz, who played in the Australian league. But he quickly became disillusioned by cockroach-infested hotels, loss after loss and booing fans.

"I loved to play, but with the money, it's like you're so accountable. I remember thinking ‘if we win this week, I'll get an extra few hundred dollars'. It really does change your perspective.

"You're very much on your own. As long as you're performing, no-one gives a toss and that's great. But when you don't perform, it's just chew you up, spit you out. In a normal day job, you might have a bad day but you're not going to get the sack for it."

Jackson was no angel before becoming a sportsman. Although in some respects soccer ruined his life, it also saved it.

"If I hadn't got into soccer I know I would have been into drugs even more. I'd almost guarantee I would have killed myself by now.

"Even when I was going through those times I'd always have a ball and I'd dribble around the house. I just really love the game. When I'm playing football I'm free, I'm kind of out of this world. That's what's got me through."

But with better support, Jackson believes his career could have been so different.

Although his troubles might have been at the extreme end, his experience is far from unique. Take golfing great Tiger Woods' crash from grace (and form) after a string of affairs. Closer to home, there's cricketer Jesse Ryder and former All Black Zac Guildford's battles with alcohol, and cricketer Lou Vincent's depression and alleged match-fixing.

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Psychologist Karen Nimmo (right) works with stressed or depressed athletes. Becoming a professional sportsperson can,Karen Nimmo she says, be a "massive leap", with sudden exposure to the temptations of money, women, alcohol and gambling. Many athletes are flying just under the clinical threshhold for mental health problems.

"There's heaps of anxiety, heaps of depression. There's alcohol and drugs. For women there's eating disorders and body-image issues, which are rife. It's an exaggerated reflection of real life, because they're under such pressure a lot of the time."

While individual sports breed loneliness, cliquey team sports can be even more isolating.The number one issue Nimmo encounters is relationship problems, whether it's between players and coaches, coaches and managers, or players and the partners they leave holding the baby while they travel the world. There are also confidence issues, injury frustrations and travel fatigue.

"I've had cases of guys who, on cricket tours, are too scared to leave their room or don't know if anyone will be there to meet them for dinner."

Awareness of sporting pressures is growing, with an increase in teenagers seeking help. But psychological support is still a funding afterthought, Nimmo says.

"We've got to go a lot beyond just awareness - good programmes, good places for people to take their problems, good safe landing spots when they're in trouble."

Perhaps the biggest challenge for professional athletes is not playing, Nimmo says.

"They simply don't know how to live life beyond sport. It's been so framed by being an athlete all these years it's quite terrifying, the prospect of stepping beyond that and having to live an ordinary life."

Former All Black, now Blues coach, Sir John Kirwan well remembers the day his phone stopped ringing, when he was aged 33.

"The people you grew up with you've drifted away from, because you've travelled aroun

"The real issue is being 35, not having a career and going from x amount to nothing."d the world playing professionalsport. They're 10 years into their career and you've

 finished yours and can be at a bit of a loose end. If you wrap that up with not being financially secure, the stress and pressures on professional sportspeople are really huge, and we need to make sure we train and plan for it.

To maintain a salary of $80,000-$100,000, for example, would require $3m-$4m in the bank. In the United States, a 2009 survey found 78 per cent of American football players were either bankrupt or in financial trouble within two years of retiring.

So, can you have a happy, trouble-free sporting career? "I don't think you can have a life like that, can you?" Sir John says.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Even after 11 years as a professional netballer, Casey Kopua still reads the jibes, the nasty remarks.

"It is part of who we are and what we do. You don't have a choice - you're a role model, you're in the media. You do see what comments people write about you and you really would like to comment back and tell people how you really feel."

For the Silver Ferns captain, having a national profile meant, in 2010, navigating an engagement break-up in public.

"Times are hard and some people don't see us as normal people and think that we do normal things. For me, personally, I try to break those boundaries down so people can see me for me and that I'm only human and I make mistakes and I eat chocolate and go out and have a good time. I'm nothing special compared to anybody else."

As leader of one of New Zealand's most successful sporting teams, that's not strictly true. But the 29-year-old does have everyday challenges, such as how to maintain a marriage when you're away almost every weekend for half the year for the trans-Tasman championship and several months with the Silver Ferns.

"When Terry and I are together we make the most of the time, we don't just watch TV. It's part of our job and we're there to do a job."

Travel and room-sharing can also strain within-team relationships. As in any disparate group, there are cliques and personality clashes.

"Wai [coach Waimarama Taumaunu] told me: ‘Not everybody has to like everybody off the court, but when you're on the court, you have each other's backs no matter what.' "

After a decade of body-battering, Kopua knows "how easily things can go from hero to zero". She's had surgery on both ankles, torn a calf and a hamstring, gouged an eye and suffers jumper's knee. Injuries are her "deep dark hole".

"You can get very down. I wouldn't say depressed, but just everything you used to be able to do is taken away from you."

But all that melts away at an event like the Commonwealth Games.

"I just love the feeling of when you sing your anthem, you're looking at the other team and thinking, ‘here we go, this is it'. It gives you the shivers."

THE LONELY SLOG

Gordon TiejtensThink All Blacks Sevens training and you might imagine a tight huddle under the keen eye of infamously hard taskmaster Sir Gordon Tietjens.

What you probably wouldn't envisage is one guy alone in a gym doing endless weights repetitions: benchpress: 8,8,6,6,4; incline dumbbell press: 8,8,6,6,4; weighted tricep dips and chin-ups: four lots of eight.

Scott Curry's days are planned by the team's Auckland trainer and emailed each week. The Mt Maunganui-based player meets his Hamilton team-mates weekly, and in the lead-up to the Commonwealths he'll travel to Auckland for training every Thursday. But otherwise he's on his own.

"It's kind of hard motivating yourself," the 26-year-old admits. But the spectre of Sir Gordon's pre-tournament camps is enough to scare him into it.

"In 2009, I remember

coming to a trial camp. I was pretty nervous. I remember Titch telling us in a team meeting ‘This camp is going to be harder than any tournament you'll play'. That stuck in my mind. He wasn't wrong."

The Mt Maunganui camps start each day with a sea swim, winter or summer. There are fitness tests, fat roll tests, full-contact games, and then team selection. If you've been boozing or breaking Titch's strict nutrition rules (lean protein, carbs, yoghurt, fruit) you will be found out. And there's always someone on your tail angling for your position.

Being a Mt Maunganui local, Curry goes home at night to his partner. But he's away for two weeks for every pair of the nine global tournaments.

Curry always wanted to play sport for a living and the life is mostly as he imagined. It can be boring, hard and lonely, but he still loves it. At least when he's at full strength. His lowest moment was breaking a bone in his hand a week after removing a previous cast.

"I was named in the World Cup team - to get that taken away a couple of days before departing was pretty tough."

At least he still gets paid when injured, and now that sevens is an Olympic sport there's more money. Salaries are estimated to be up to $120,000. Armed with a science degree and teaching diploma, Curry also has an exit plan.

"People say you're pretty lucky to be doing what you love, and in a way I am. But in a way it's not so much luck, but a lot of hard work as well."

FAIR WAY FROM RICH

Nick GillespieWhen Nick Gillespie got his first pro golf pay packet, he didn't exactly do a jig of delight. He'd shot a respectable three-under-par at the Aussie tournament but finished 20 or 30-something on the leaderboard. His efforts, which cost him about $1000 in flights and accommodation, netted him a princely $445.

It was a stark dose of reality for a guy used to excelling as an expenses-paid amateur.

"You go straight to Aussie and all of a sudden you're at the bottom of the food chain, so you get a bit of a fright. Because you're playing for money, you do start to think about that a bit. To play well, that's got to be the last thing on your mind, but it's tough to put that to the back of your head. You hope you make enough to cover your costs for the week and maybe a little bit on the side."

More than three years later, the 26-year-old has dragged himself up to world number 985, but he still periodically has to ask Dad (former cricketer Stu Gillespie) for help paying off the credit card.

The dream is a spot on the big-money US PGA Tour. But it's a hell of a road to get there. When we speak, he's playing for two weeks in Beijing in an attempt to short-cut the protracted United States qualifying process. While it's great to be immersed in a different culture, jumping on a 12-hour flight every second week, rooming with strangers, ordering food blind and flicking 60 television channels to find no English can get old pretty quickly.

"Those weeks feel like they take forever - almost everything is hard."

Also hard was getting disqualified when leading the $150,000 Victorian Open because he forgot to sign his scorecard.

The feeling of standing on the tournament tee on a Thursday afternoon knowing you've done the work, or hitting a killer shot on the 16th to make the cut, keep Gillespie going. But he can't continue like this forever.

"If you've had a bad week, about mid-way through Friday afternoon you think an office and a regular pay cheque would be fantastic . . . But I can't think of anything worse than sitting there at your 40th or 50th birthday going: ‘Man, I wish I gave that a proper nudge'."

ON THE BACK FOOT

Kate McIlroyAt first, she wondered what was wrong with her, as the entire field flew past. How could this happen to a former mountain running world champion? Then she wondered if she just wasn't good enough any more.

Injury has been triathlete Kate McIlroy's Achilles heel for most of her career. In 2008 she pulled out of the Olympic steeplechase - her protruding heel so excruciating she knew she would never run in spikes again. For six months she wore only jandals and ever since she's cut the backs out of her shoes.

The 32-year-old instead took up triathlon and managed the pain well enough to run 10th at the 2012 London Olympics. But from January last year the heel again began to flare. A cortisone injection in March masked the pain for three months. But on the European circuit it got sorer and sorer and - as 4th and 9th placings turned into 24th and 36th - McIlroy got increasingly down.

"This injury seems to have got to me the most. I think because I knew there was something fundamentally wrong and everything we were doing was really just putting a bandaid on.

"I just get frustrated because I know I'm capable of so much more, but my body seems to continually let me down . . . How many times can you keep doing this before you go ‘Enough is enough'?"

Desperate to qualify for the Commonwealth Games, McIlroy struggled through the season. At least husband Johnny was between jobs so stayed with her for about three of the five months on tour.

In retrospect, she realises she should have come home in June or July, but instead she returned in October. Despite no running for six weeks, her foot remained angry and inflamed.

"It's all a big jumble in your head: ‘I can't run, I've got a sore leg, this sucks'. You do fall into a bit of a hole for a while. ‘Should I have surgery? Should I not? Should I just let this whole thing go and move on to the next chapter of my life'?"

She should probably have talked to a psychologist, but didn't. Instead, she had a chunk of heel removed, and then madly pushed to complete the mentally and physically exhausting rehab in time for the April Commonwealth Games selection. She didn't want to retire without knowing she'd tried everything.

"It's been a little bit stressful, to say the least. You have your moments - where you'll just start crying and you'll be like ‘the world is terrible and this is just crap', but because you're with other people that train around you, you just want to get on with it. I've still got to swim, I've still got to bike . . . that keeps me pretty sane."

McIlroy made the Commonwealth Games team after coming 13th in the Auckland qualifying triathlon, with just 3 weeks' running training. She can now wear shoes with backs, and "it's still my job and I still love it".

■ The 20th Commonwealth Games start in Glasgow on July 23.

- The Dominion Post

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