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The Yin and Yang of Our Sporting Heroes

Just before the World Cup 2018, the England player Danny Rose gave an extraordinary press conference, in which he revealed how he and his team had recently dealt with his experience of depression. He's not the only one; in recent years, Jonny Wilkinson, Kelly Holmes, Victoria Pendleton and Marcus Trescothick have all discussed their struggles with mental health. As a clinical psychologist and psychodynamic psychotherapist, Amy Izycky believes that the personality structure of elite athletes is different to that of the normal population. She believes that personalities of high performance athletes are characterised by higher than average levels of specific traits such as obsessionality, focus, masochism and aggression. They are skewed to the right on the normal distribution curve. It is this position outside of the average range that Izycky believes makes this population more likely to struggle with mental ill health than those who fall within the average range. Being aggressive on the pitch or in the ring may be of benefit and required to perform at the highest level. It becomes socially acceptable and desired. Yet if this behaviour generalises to other areas of one’s life and starts to become out of the individual’s control, aggression may start to hinder relationships, social life and work.

Many athletes are now talking about their experiences of mental health in the media. This book aims to take that one step further, including interviews with high profile sports people who share their stories, and a psychological commentary by the author, to offer a fuller understanding of what may be going on behind closed doors. The book is divided into three sections: weight restricted sport, personality traits that help and hinder, and points of vulnerability. Izycky explores these individuals’ developmental experiences and asks whether they have left them more vulnerable to developing difficulties, while the culture of high performance sport then provides a socially acceptable environment to engage unquestioned in clinically diagnosable symptoms of mental ill health such as vomiting, excessive exercise, anger and aggression and self-harm. Some thought processes and behaviours that are seen in the sporting world as socially acceptable and even helpful in the pursuit of peak performance may in the clinical world be viewed as symptoms of mental ill health.

Starting by describing her own experiences of sporting culture as a high performance lightweight rower, Izycky talks to athletes in rowing, horse racing, cricket and rugby, and explores the traits that can make sporting success possible but mental health evasive. With personal accounts and revealing photography, Skewed to the Right explodes the myth that sporting heroes are always in control, and explores how we as a society can provide a more healthy environment.

With thanks to Urban Splash and Places for People for use of their Smiths Dock show home in the making of this video.

Dr Amy Izycky is a Clinical Psychologist and Psychodynamic Psychotherapist in independent practice in Newcastle Upon Tyne. She specialises in working with individuals and athletes with mental health difficulties and difficulties with adjustment to injury, brain injury and disability. Prior to qualification Dr Izycky was a high performance rower with Durham University. She has a keen interest in social documentary and street photography. www.dramyizycky.com

I was first exposed to the world of high performance sport at the age of nineteen. I was a young and vulnerable girl who was trying to develop into adulthood. I was living away from home for the first time and within two months of me leaving home my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was told to stay at university and continue with my studies. I’d given rowing a go during freshers’ week and as the year progressed I was doing well within the world of college rowing. At the end of my first academic year I won my first Novice cup and was spotted by the university and GB Development coach. I was approached by my college captain and asked if I wanted to go to trials. I was flattered and I went for it.

The next year I was thrust into what an onlooker, most likely, would have perceived to be an obsessive, masochistic and socially isolated world that, to your average rower, was par for the course. Of most concern was the day when I was invited to consider being a lightweight rower. It became commonplace to watch girls weighing themselves and training multiple times each day, missing meals, taking laxatives and slimming pills, sweat-running in bin bags, and sitting in scalding hot baths in hotel rooms throughout the night in an attempt to make the numbers on the scales correct the next morning. I lasted an academic year and after competing at Henley I returned home, soon to find myself in hospital with appendicitis. I recall waking the morning after emergency surgery and being spoken to in a rather stern way by the surgeon who said that if I had left it any longer my appendix would have burst and I would have succumbed to more significant complications. He told me I should not have ignored the pain, something my rowing training had educated me to do and expected me to do in order to perform. My get well soon card from my then boyfriend was brief and suggested that perhaps this might put an end to ‘all that silly dieting’. I returned to university for my final year and decided not to return to rowing.

My story is not extreme, far from it, but I share it with you as part of the journey that led me to writing this book. This was my first exposure to mental health difficulties in high performance athletes. Even at such a young age and with an untrained eye, I had a sense that something didn’t feel comfortable about what I was being exposed to. Almost fifteen years on, I now work as a clinical psychologist and psychodynamic psychotherapist with a wide variety of people who are struggling with their mental health, including elite athletes, albeit a small number, for various reasons that we will consider later in this book.

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