• Chris Murphy

Part of the game? Abuse in Sport (and how it affects mental health)

Abuse, in various forms, has historically been accepted as 'part of the game' when it comes to professional sport. From revelling in chanting profanities about the referee to booing the opposition or inaccurately fat-shaming a goalkeeper when they take a goal kick - it has always existed and it has always affected those it is directed at in various ways.


Pantomime rivalry is one thing, it is meant with good humour and is not really aimed at anybody but a fictitious perception of the opposing team, but singling out individuals for personal abuse is bound to affect them mentally, sooner or later.


Social media has taken some of the abuse out of the stands and placed it directly in front of the eyes of the victim. More than that, it has allowed the abusers, hidden behind their masks of anonymity, to say the things they would not dare to say in public - and they have dared to say a lot.


Racist and homophobic abuse has been freely expressed by individuals and groups of people at sports events for many years. While things have improved, it is yet to be totally eradicated from the stands or, in some cases, the pitch or changing rooms.


It most definitely hasn't been eradicated from the internet. Recently we saw the bad and ugly followed by the good when three England footballers were subjected to abhorrent racist abuse following penalty misses in the European Championship final. This was, somewhat encouragingly, met by an outpouring of support and affection for the victims of this hate.


It is probably a safe assumption that somebody reading this would never engage in the most severe forms of abuse. The reaction to the abuse suffered by the England players showed a community that is largely anti-racist and anti-abuse.


But perhaps you have joined in a chorus of 'the referee's a.... whatever', or maybe let off some steam after losing a bet by tweeting a sportsperson to tell them that they're 's***' and how you hold them responsible for your financial loss. These forms of abuse take their toll too.


While these types of abuse in themselves may be perceived as less offensive and therefore less damaging, the impact on sportspeople experiencing them cumulatively and consistently can be surprisingly similar.


Affects of abuse aimed at sportspeople include:


Anxiety

Depression

Low self-confidence

Compounding self-criticism

Feeling unsafe

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Plus many more


Sporting Chance treats several current and retired professional sportspeople who have reached out to us after being subject to abuse that resulted in a deterioration of the mental state, while other clients have discovered during treatment that being a recipient of abuse may have contributed to the manifestation of other mental health problems.


While we will continue to support sportspeople with any mental health or emotional wellbeing concern, it is also our role and responsibility to raise awareness to some of the avoidable contributing factors that lead to these issues.


It is all of our responsibility to protect and respect each other's mental health. Whatever the environment, whether at home with our families or on the terraces with other fans, we should ask ourselves 'am I part of the problem or part of the solution?'.


Note: While this article focuses on specific forms of abuse (mostly written and verbal), Sporting Chance is experienced in treating those who have suffered any type of abuse, including physical abuse. If you are a current or retired professional sportsperson and feel you may benefit from support with any mental or emotional health concern please visit the Get in Touch section of this website.