When the night is yours alone

REM 2003

It is Mental Health Week in Australia. The ABC has a week of Mental As programs to support mental health research.

Two days ago, I wrote about the place critical friendship might have in supporting those for whom the night is theirs alone. This post is an attempt to deal with some of my unfinished business from that post.

It has taken me back to a remarkable R.E.M. performance at Glastonbury in 2003. Ironically on a night with thousands of people together.

REM 02

It is a performance of Everybody Hurts.

The unfinished business for me is about the enormous pressure we exert on people in sport.

A number of coaches wrote to me after my post appeared two days ago to share in the utmost of confidence their journey into dark places.

Today the ABC’s Drum has a story from an Australian athlete, Leisel Jones. It comes just after the publication of her autobiography, Body Lengths. In it, Leisel discusses her own battle with depression.

She is not alone in being depressed but her book tells her story of being alone.

And so one hollow, grey Tuesday afternoon in Spain, while the snow outside is beginning to whirl and dance, I sit down on the bathroom floor with sleeping tablets and plan how I will steal a paring knife from the hotel kitchen …

Her story shares how, with help, she overcame this dark place. She was able to lean on others. It is chastening to think that a beautiful woman in the pantheon of Australian swimming can feel like this.

This is my unfinished business.

I want to be part of a sport system that values everyone for what they try to be. I want as a parent and coach to help each person flourish in failure as well as success. I want to be supportive of everyone who tries to go beyond the ordinary … and be part of a community that is tolerant of fallibility.

I believe sport is about people rather than podiums.

I understand that there will always be people for whom the night is theirs alone and that awareness campaigns like Mental Health Week and Mental As will help us think about these people … and perhaps act.

We could transform sport into a celebration and not create pressures of expectation that dehumanise the playfulness of sport.

We could make a start on this by contesting the hype created by digital media in pursuit of an audience and by inviting retired sportspeople to engage in a narrative guided by sensitivity.

It could be a non-zero sum world. A place where smiles are smiles rather than camouflage.


Photo Credits

Frame grabs Everybody Hurts (2003)

Leisel Jones (Eva Rinaldi, CC BY-SA 2.0)


#coachlearninginsport: everyone hurts sometimes


I have had a day in my garden in Braidwood.

It is a thinking space as well as a place of horticultural adventure.

Today I have been thinking more than usual about the twenty-one coaches in my critical friend group.

One of the coaches in the group came under immense public scrutiny yesterday and I have been wondering what to say about his experience.


For some reason, I could not get an R.E.M. song out of my head in the garden. I do not know the lyrics but these lines stuck …

everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

In my two and half years with my coaches, two national coaches have lost their jobs. Both are flourishing in new roles. They are remarkable people who use their humanity to inform their coaching.

Back in 2011, I wrote about Dark Woods and Crumple Zones. I mentioned Jonathan Franzen:

You know, you enter a dark wood at a certain point in your life and things start falling apart; your life is not what you expected it to be.

I mention Ben Pobjie too:

I know now the desperate flailing, the horrific suffocation that comes when those black waves come crashing over and you find yourself just about incapable of keeping your head up in the face of the merciless tides. But we’re all capable. We may have to lean on others from time to time, but we don’t have to fall. Tomorrow I may feel them crashing again, and become convinced that none of this is true, but now I have to affirm that it IS.

So, in my garden today, I have been thinking about my coaching friends on the other side of the world. The sun is setting in rural New South Wales and is rising over the British Isles.

I am hopeful that the R.E.M video is one way of starting the conversation that will emerge from the dark woods prompted by public scrutiny.

I will be adding Bill Withers to my song list too as another way of sharing Ben’s realisation that leaning is what friends do … and what they are there for. It is a reciprocal act.

We all need to lean at some point. How we prepare for this leaning is very important. The more public the profile of the coach, the more I think we do need to discuss dark woods and crumple zones.

I wonder how you have dealt with similar experiences and what songs play in your head as you prepare to address them.