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Depression and Boxing - The Silent Blow

By Terence Dooley

Clinical Depression affects a number of people, especially young adult males.  Depressive States are not as ingrained, but can be just as bleak.  When the “black dog”—Winston Churchill’s nickname for his depression—bites it hits hard, burrowing into the recesses of your mind, forcing you into a mental prison of your own creation and infecting you with an illness that can only be glimpsed through the prism of your thoughts, moods and actions.

Emma James, a Psychological Sport Performance Specialist from Northern Ireland, works with a growing number of fighters and is concerned about the Sisyphean train-fight-rest treadmill.  It can cause extreme highs and lows, which are exacerbated by binging on food and/or alcohol between fights, not to mention the occupational hazards of defeats, injury and criticism.  That’s before you take into account the chicanery of the business side of the sport, and the endless politicking that takes place.

Could boxing's cycle of training, fighting and the post-fight comedown be the perfect breeding ground for differing degrees of depression, leaving too many fighters suffering in stoical or embarrassed silence?

“Most of the guys I work with have aspects—the worries and fears—that aren't seen as an issue,” said James when speaking to BoxingScene.  “A lot of them are very much men's men.  That sort of thing is not discussed.

“You've got personal pressure on you as you come towards the fight, mental pressure of expectation, the physical pressure of trying to make weight—carbs getting reduced while work rate is increasing—and if your serotonin levels are all being effected by dieting then any doubt will be exaggerated.  You will focus more on problems than you naturally would.”

Serotonin helps regulate mood, dieting can affect serotonin levels, which can lead to depression.  Light exercise can boost these levels; fighters, though, suffer from yo-yoing serotonin due to extreme dieting and gruelling workouts.  Research shows that over-training and making weight can lead to physical and mental side effects such as flu, cold sores and mood swings (Richard Budgett. ‘Overtraining Syndrome.’ British Journal of Sports Medicine, 24 (4) pp.231-236).

“When you are experiencing a depression you will usually assume it is a drop in motivation,” explained James.  “What happens is that, as you start to become depressed, you have to get up and train anyway, but doing it with all the physical symptoms of depression.  Because you can't see this, you put it down to a lack of motivation and try to give yourself a kick up the arse.

“Then you become even more disillusioned in your performance levels and ability, which causes even more hormonal and chemical changes in the brain.  This gives you physical symptoms, such as tiredness—you can't concentrate or sort things out—and things become a massive effort.

“Because it is not recognised as depression, and as the symptoms take hold, you think you're losing your ability.  Things you’ve usually done—like getting up at 5a.m. to run—feel like they are slipping away.  They'll still get up and do these things; people will see them doing them and think they're OK.

“With my clients, we go through that whole cycle, starting with acceptance (of depression).  They can then recognise if they start to slip again, and stop it before it gets hold.  Outside the world of sport depression is seen as staying in bed with the curtains closed, so they see getting up and doing things, even with low motivation, as a sign they're not depressed.”

Furthermore, reaction times in some physical tasks could be dulled by depression and anxiety (see H.U. Yavuz and F. Oktem. (2012). ‘The Relationship Between Depression, Anxiety and Visual Reaction Times in Athletes.’ Biology of Sport, 29 (3) pp.206-209).  There could be an added effect of depression, reduced performance levels, leading to poor performances, defeats and the lonely burden of expectation—an entourage can whoop and walk a fighter into the ring, but when the first bell goes they all climb out of the ropes and the boxer stands alone.

“Boxers understand how much expectation they carry,” said James.  “Their amateur coach becomes a pro coach, you get a strength and conditioning coach, and you end up with a whole group of people that rely on you and you're worried about letting down.  Then you have the people who come to see you fight—it is tough.”

Even great form can have its negatives.  Raymond J. DePaulo and Leslie Alan Horvitz, writing in Understanding Depression: What We Know and What You Can Do About It (‘The Experience of Mania: The Bi-Polar Disorder’. London: John Wiley & Sons, pp.24-36), talked about athletes exhibiting a near-manic mind-set, without the actual clinical diagnoses of mania, one that pushes them towards perfection by focussing their attention until they are completely ‘in the zone’ (DePaulo and Horvitz, p.27).

Emma's work helps fighters develop techniques to get ‘into the zone’ while ensuring they can deal with post-fight comedowns.  Winning can take fighters to the very top of their emotional scale only for them to come crashing back down to earth, especially if the win is followed by the pressure of matching or bettering it.

“When your focus is right you can't see, hear, touch or feel anything apart from the thing you focus on, your opponent,” said James.  “It is like a dream state, and that's great, it is perfect, but when you're not naturally in that state and have to artificially induce it then it is hard at first, so I teach people how to do that. 

“There's a physical knock on effect of competing and a way of managing it, but you are at risk of picking up physical effects—flus and cold sores—and that can create a negative thought process.  You have to let the physical effects lift, allow things to drop, understand what's happening then switch your focus to the next event.”

Once the fight is over, fighters have to contend with fight reviews on Twitter, social media and forum comments, and post-fight TV dissections of their shortcomings.  Some boxers ignore them, some read most of the stuff that gets said.  This is a depressing thought given the bile that is regularly served up to boxers via the uncensored sound and fury of the Internet.

“The pressure is so huge,” said James. “One thing boxing and football have in common is the comments you see about the games and fights.  Some from people who don't understand boxing, have never competed in anything, but feel they have a right to criticise—I think it is dreadful.”

Riddick Bowe argued that boxing-related brain damage was the cause of his erratic post-retirement behaviour.  Indeed, there is a wealth of research into the link between sport-related head injuries, concussion and depression (‘Neural Substrates of Symptoms of Depression Following Concussion in Male Athletes With Persisting Postconcussion Symptoms’ by Jen-Kai Chen, Karen M. Johnston, Michael Petrides and Alain Ptito, plus ‘Sports Concussion and Associated Post-Traumatic Headache’ by Tad Seifert).

“A lot of people who have never boxed have suffered with depression, so to line it in with that is maybe not medically correct or you'd need more data before you can say that,” argued the BBBoC's General Secretary Robert Smith.  Smith racked up a 16-5 (11) record during his own boxing career and is aware of the challenges faced by the rank and file.

“I've been hit on the head a few times so I do understand that it does hurt.  I understand what happens before that, what you've got to do to get yourself into a position to be in the ring and also defend yourself against all the rigmarole, the heartaches and the lows.  A lot of the time, we hear of depression when it's a big name, someone who has been to the top and has had difficulties in retirement, but it is also a human problem, not just a boxing one.”

Liverpool’s former British Super middleweight titlist Tony Quigley, 13-2-1 (6), did not understand depression until seven operations on a back problem and pancreatitis left the 28-year-old inactive, overweight, suffering from insomnia due to physical discomfort and without a purpose.  Isolated from the sport that had defined him since he was seven, he dropped into a deep depression.

“I didn’t like the way I looked or felt,” said Quigley, who is working on a 2014 comeback. 

“Then I lost all the nice things: I lost all my money, because if you don’t fight you don’t earn, I ended up back at my mum’s house, all my so-called friends stopped ringing me and inviting me to places.

“I felt my life had no meaning anymore and that I was a disgrace, which got me down even more.  I’d be in my own little world thinking: ‘If I don’t like me then how will anyone else like me?  I could kill myself right now and no one would even know’.

“I put my entire family through it, but they did their best and stuck by me.  I had no money—my dad was buying me things.  It was hard for them.

“I was hoping that someone would just come in and tell me things were going to be OK or hug me—I felt alone.  You’re not thinking logically, you’re thinking mad thoughts, but, at the time, they seem the most logical things.  I felt I was a burden on my family, I felt embarrassed and thought people were embarrassed of me.”

Quigley got through it with the help of his fiancée, Toni, and the birth of his son, Tony.  He said: “My goal was to make Toni happy when she got pregnant.  That was the motivation I had.  Now I’ve got my girl and my baby, and I need to fight again to support them.  Nothing else matters.”

There’s also the issue of post-retirement depression, a feeling of dissatisfaction with regular life that prompts fighters to make repeated comebacks with increasingly diminishing returns.  All-time greats Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones are currently locked in this endless tailspin.  History is littered with examples of fighters who kept doing the same thing—coming back to the sport when past their primes—over and over and expecting a different outcome each time, one of the definitions of madness.  

Manchester’s Anthony Farnell, 33-4 (22), a WBU titlist at light-middleweight and middleweight respectively, spiralled into depression when he retired in February 2005 after a routine MRI revealed complications.

“I loved boxing so felt that my career was taken away from me,” the 35-year-old told BoxingScene.  “I went from being teetotal to heavy drinking.  You wake up the next day hungover, so have to get back on the booze again.”

Quigley can relate.  He said: “A mate came around for a drink and I felt happier.  I thought to myself: ‘This is OK’, but then woke up the next day down and depressed.  I started drinking every day just to feel happy.  I had insomnia—I’d sit up all night.  I tried sleeping tablets, but they didn’t work.  Then the night gets late, your mind starts wondering and that’s the most dangerous time.”

“It got to the point where I just wanted to die,” added Farnell.  “I thought I couldn't handle it.  If you've got depression in you then a million pounds in the bank can't help.  Some people say they're depressed that day because of the rain or little things.  That's a load of rubbish, because if you do have it then it's a life-changing thing.  I wouldn't get out of bed for a long time.  I didn't care about no one.  People used to tell me they were depressed, I'd think: 'Depressed? There's nothing wrong!'—then I realised it is the worst thing ever.

“I think the depression started from the [Mehrdud] Takaloo fight [L TKO 1 in 2001].  “I thought I was a hard case, a proper tough man, so to get done in the first round in front of my own fans like that destroyed me.  Then you come back, win and lose fights, and it is like a roller coaster, in boxing and life.  Then, when it came to head after I retired, I fell down.

“My family said they were going to wash their hands of me unless I got help—that was the kick I needed.  My mum took me to the doctor—I was like a little kid when I was depressed—and he sent me to the Priory in Oldham.  If I didn't have the family I had, I'd have either killed someone or killed myself.

“A doctor told me I had clinical depression and I said: 'No'.  She talked to me for so long, and then she said she knew what it was.  I still wouldn’t have it; I was a bit touchy and arrogant over things when I was depressed.  She said: 'It is boxing', and I cried my eyes out for over an hour in that doctor's room.  Then it got better week-by-week, admitting that I had depression was the big thing.”

Now a successful trainer, “Arnie” advocates vigilance coupled with sound weight making, avoidance of over-training and refraining from binging.  “I didn't know how important clean food is until I met [nutritionist] Kerry Kayes,” he said.

“I used to kid myself, missing meals so I could have a Mars Bar.  Now I tell my fighters to tell me everything, even if they’ve had a sneaky beer or a burger.  If I can understand what they're going through then I can help.  You need to be a good trainer, but be a good friend as well.”

Quigley hopes his story will prompt the BBBoC to be more proactive when it comes to helping fighters deal with mental disorders.  He said: “Depression is a vicious cycle. Fighters don’t want to admit a weakness.  I know fighters who’ve been depressed, but you can’t admit it.  If you get knocked down in a fight, the ref will ask you if you’re OK to continue.  You will always say you’re fine, even if you’re not.  If someone asks you if you’re OK then you’re not going to say: ‘No—I’ve got depression’, you’ll tell them you’re fine.

“We’re paying the Board our licence money and for medicals, so they can’t just take the money and not help.  The moment you don’t fight, you don’t hear from the Board again.  There should be someone in that office trying to support fighters.”

“The easiest people to blame are the people in authority,” countered Smith.  “If anyone has an issue then they should come to us and we'll deal with it, to blame us after the event is slightly unfair.  We've proved in the past, with people who have come to us with many medical issues, that we can put them on to specialists.”

“We have scan specialists, brain surgeons, physiotherapists, we do have people we can deal with, but we need to know the problem in the first place, so if no one's coming to us then they're silly because we can offer them help,” he said when asked if the Board would consider adding a Sports Psychologist to their panel of experts.

“We're an individual sport and, with things like depression, there are people in society who deem it as a weakness—and they shouldn't, we all have our own problems—so they need to admit it themselves.  Until you admit it to yourself you're not going to seek any help.

“We are looking to do many types of educational courses.  We run our trainer/Seconds courses and our First Aid course, which are very well attended because you need them to get a licence.  We run doping tests seminars, about four over the past 18 months, and unfortunately they're very poorly attended.  Then, when someone fails a dope, test they blame the Board.  We can certainly put something on about it (depression), but how many people will attend?”

“Not everyone gets depressed, not everyone gets to the place I got to, but when some people get there there’s no turning back," said Quigley.  "People need to know that there’s hope.  You could get 20 people in a room and some of them will be suffering with depression, but no one talks about it.  It is the silent disease.”

A version of this article first appeared in the November issue of Boxing Monthly.  Click on the following link to purchase back issues of the magazine: http://www.boxing-monthly.co.uk/backs.htm.

Please send news and views to [email protected] or Twitter @Terryboxing.

Tags: boxing image  
User Comments and Feedback (Register For Free To Comment) Comment by Joe Grizzley on 01-09-2014

Excellent choice in article. I would like to read more in-depth pieces like this.

Comment by !BEAST on 01-09-2014

Hello darkness my old friend

Comment by TGD on 01-09-2014

Good read that. As someone who has suffered from depression I can relate to a lot of what the boxers are saying. It's a very difficult thing to come to terms with. It's great that more and more people are…

Comment by Neckodeemus on 01-09-2014

Thanks for all the reads and positive comments. It's a tough subject to tackle as there's a temptation to lapse into purple prose "dark night of the soul" "glacial loneliness" type stuff, but I wanted to look at physiological causes…

Comment by ddangerous on 01-09-2014

Outstanding article. So many good points made, and light shed. Pavlik, Hatton, Gatti, Jones, and Holyfield definitely came to mind in various portions of the article (obviously Jones and Holyfield were mentioned).

Post a Comment/View More User Comments (15)
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