After International Men’s Day was celebrated on Saturday, it is clear that, on a broad societal scale, there is a lot regarding male depression and anxiety levels that still needs addressing. In the sporting arena, this is also, unfortunately, a truism. With the devastating examples of the late Robert Enke and the former Leeds United legend Gary Speed, whose death was five years ago this Saturday, sporting icons are not immune to the pressures of life, despite popular mythical perceptions suggesting otherwise.
In a paper entitled ‘Choking under pressure and gender’ the authors used data from the four tennis grand slams of 2010 to examine whether or not there was a significant gendered difference between male and female athletes when it came to performing well under intense pressure. The results were startling. Indeed, the key finding of the paper was that ‘men consistently choke under pressure’, whereas their female counterparts’ reactions to these scenarios of sporting pressures are more varied and nowhere near as negative.
Despite these findings, however, the paper is quick to state that these results, although taken from over 8,000 games spread equally between men and women, are only applicable to tennis. In other words, these results cannot be easily transferred to other sporting events due to the unique pressures, skills and formats of each individual sport. What this paper shows, though, is that due to this gendered difference, vast improvements need to be done regarding the mental attitudes of male sportsmen in particular in order for them to successfully combat the extreme pressures that invariably are a consequence of big sporting competitions.
What this paper can also be used to suggest is that just because many male and female athletes have an extraordinary amount of money as well as a fortunate place in society, in no way does this mean that they cannot succumb to extreme feelings of pressure as well as deeper mental health problems. This is true of their on the field, but also off the field, endeavours. Indeed, sporting stars such as Clarke Carlisle, Stan Collymore, Kelly Holmes and Serena Williams are clear examples of this. Put simply, sporting stars are normal human beings with all the same problems that everyday people experience. Whether that be bereavement, mental illnesses, or these constant feelings of pressure which are exerted on them from fans, sponsors and sometimes even whole countries. Sometimes these athletes have a lot of money. Sometimes they are extremely famous. Sometimes they are even global icons, adored by millions. But they all have feelings, just like you and me and everyone else.
What can be done? More money should be invested into research to investigate the reasons as to why male tennis stars disproportionately choke under pressure and, by default, how they can cope with these extreme pressures. Similar studies should be pioneered in other sporting activities as a means of comparison. There is also one thing the general public can do too: realise that athletes are just normal people. Sporting stars will always be under pressure because that is the nature of their job. When pressure is removed from a sporting event then that event is rendered uncompetitive. But, as the research suggests, more simply has to be done regarding both male and females as to how and why they choke under sporting pressure. That much is undeniable.
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