Observing, interacting, and building relationships on a day-to-day basis with other golfers over 20 years strengthened this sense of tension or disparity. It wasn’t just me who was different – others’ lives too were at odds with ‘received knowledge’. Over time, I became increasingly aware of many contradictions and ambiguities between the behind-the-scenes behaviour of other athletes compared to how they were when performing on show in the public gaze. Like those colleagues and acquaintances who were curious about my sport career and life choices, I hoped that studying sport and exercise science would answer these questions, and that the answers would help me understand and make sense of other sportspeople’s lives as well as my own. The undergraduate course I began in 1996 was interesting and diverse – I enjoyed nearly every aspect of it. I learned about ageing and physical activity, about how to design exercise referrals, how to take blood samples, collect anthropometric data, how to use an ECG machine, an isokineticdynomometer and force plates, analyse running gait and golf swings, how to design sport programmes for children with learning disabilities, and a whole lot more. Yet when it came to the lectures on sport psychology – and in particular on elite athletes – my ‘insider’ experiences and knowledge about performing at the highest level in sport were notably at odds with what I was being taught, what the academic literature told us. While there was a truth to this research, it seemed simplistic and failed to adequately represent what I had experienced myself and observed in other professional athletes. Added to this, the research didn’t seem to answer the questions that, to me at least, seemed most important – and there were a whole host of issues left untouched. As an undergraduate, studying the sport psychology and sociology literature only widened my sense of a gulf between how athletes’ lives were represented by people outside sport, and what I knew in an embodied sense from living in sport. The more I picked at the surface, the more deeply I became interested and committed to both answering the questions that were important to me as an athlete and making sense of why these answers were missing from the existing sport literature. So, in 2000, I started my doctoral studies – which explored the kinds of questions that had been plaguing me – by researching the lives of other professional golfers. At the time, I shared an office with another doctoral student – David Carless – who was studying the ways in which a small group of men with severe and enduring mental health difficulties, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, used sport and physical activity in their recovery. Together we formed a small research team and throughout our Ph.D. studies read and discussed each other’s interview transcripts, provided feedback on content as well as techniques of interviewing, and acted as critical ‘outsiders’ to each other’s projects. This way of doing research had many benefits. One benefit was that we were each exposed to alternative methodologies and populations, which allowed us to compare and contrast the developing insights we were each gaining through our own research. It also challenged many of our assumptions regarding mental health, elite sport and social science research methods. Most significantly perhaps, during the hours we spent reading and discussing each other’s
interviews, one strange finding across our two cohorts of participants began to emerge: at times, the life stories shared by the people with serious mental health problems in David’s study suggested greater well-being compared to the stories shared (anonymously and in confidence) by some of the professional athletes in my research. Yet, culturally speaking, people with the most severe forms of mental health problems are often stigmatised, seen as deficient or even dangerous, while elite athletes are typically held up as role models for how to live well and succeed in life. This paradox struck us both powerfully: what was going on here? Why might elite and professional sportspeople come to experience mental health difficulties? Why do accounts of these experiences so seldom surface in public discourse, in the media or in sport psychology literature? Of course, sport has many positive aspects and effects that are clearly apparent across societies. While we in no way wish to deny these strengths, we are aware that less is said about the darker side of sport. Recent years have seen the beginnings of an awareness that problems exist in terms of athlete well-being – through, in football, for example, the highly publicised suicides of Robert Enke and Gary Speed – and the beginnings of a concerted professional and policy response which takes seriously the mental health of elite and professional sportspeople. This response is, in our view, both necessary and timely, and this book contributes directly to informed debate around these issues. In our first book together – Sport and Physical Activity for Mental Health (Carless and Douglas, 2010) – we presented one strand of our continuing research focusing on the therapeutic and life course benefits of regular leisuretime participation in sport and physical activity for people with diagnosed mental health difficulties. In contrast, in this book we turn our attention to the other side of the coin: the ways in which sport can compromise or threaten the mental health, well-being and development of athletes. By drawing on our ongoing narrative life story research with elite, professional and Olympic athletes from sports as diverse as rugby union, track and field athletics, swimming, judo, netball, canoeing, hockey, rowing, cricket, and golf, we aim to unpack the ways in which the culture of sport interacts with not only mental health but also the development, identity and life trajectories of elite and professional sportspeople. Our first aim in taking this approach focuses on the individual person and relates to our belief that if the lives of athletes and professional sportspeople are better understood, strategies may be put in place to minimise difficulties or distress and support may be tailored across different life phases. Recent research suggests that this in itself is likely to have positive effects on the individual in a holistic sense: both well-being and sporting success stand to improve. Our secondary aim is to move beyond a focus on the individual to consider how these issues relate to broader cultural and social factors. Insights from this focus have important implications for family life, school and youth sport participation, and the aspirations we set for the future generation of sportspeople – be they interested in medals, friendship, personal development, health or pushing the boundaries of human performance.