Sport AFL Nathan Burke: The mental edge necessary for peak performance
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Nathan Burke: The mental edge necessary for peak performance

mental health affecting sports people
Lance Franklin, Tom Boyd and Jack Steven are among the game's best to have a mental health break. Photos: Getty
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If St Kilda’s Jack Steven missed this week because of a torn hamstring, nobody would bat an eyelid.

The fact he is missing due to ongoing recovery from mental health issues still has sections of the AFL community perplexed.

While we have come a long way in understanding mental health, a stigma still exists.

Unfortunately there are still some sections of the sporting public that still don’t get it.

They question why a physically strong young man can’t put aside feeling a bit down or sad to play footy – something the majority of the public would give their right leg to do. Especially when they get paid an average of almost $400,000 a year.

Much of the confusion comes from a lack of understanding of what exactly mental health is.

The best way to get your head around it is to think of a person as having two types of health: physical and mental.

When you have an issue with your physical health, you do something about it. If you have a twinge in the calf, you self-diagnose and try some simple self-help techniques.

You may ice it, give it a rub and stay off it for a period of time. If you think you have injured your calf more significantly, you seek professional medical advice.

This is usually the last resort for many blokes, but you may relent and have a scan to assess the extent of the damage and then receive physiotherapy treatment until it heals.

In effect, you make a decision as to whether you use self-care techniques or seek professional help.

The dilemma is often knowing when to escalate to a professional or keep dealing with the issue yourself.

With mental health, the process is very similar.

Sometimes you may simply have the equivalent of a calf niggle.

This could include feeling a bit down for a couple of days, lacking your usual motivation or just not feeling like your normal self.

During these times you may initiate some self-care techniques, such as reconnecting with mindfulness practices, choose your attitude more effectively or begin to focus on gratitude and regain some perspective in your life. Often a little rejigging will do the trick.

And then there are other times when the self-care doesn’t work for you.

Times when you may struggle to get out of bed, can’t shake the knot in your stomach or find yourself physically upset for no apparent reason. These are deeper issues that self-care may not be strong enough to deal with and you need professional assistance.

The best treatment may be to step away from the thing you love and the thing we love seeing you do – playing football.

A difficult choice that champions and seemingly unbreakable men in the prime of their life like Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, Travis Cloke, Tom Boyd and countless other players have made.

When we see mental health in the same light as physical health we can start to understand it better.

We have learned over the years that the more we look after our physical health, the less likely we are to require professional intervention.

Mental health is the same.

The irony is that while we spend large parts of our week working on our physical health, most of us spend more time each day cleaning our teeth than looking after our mental health.

As bad as it is to see players miss games, at least this continues to highlight the importance and reality of mental health. Even for big, strong young men.

Nathan Burke is a former St Kilda captain who played 323 AFL games for the Saints, winning three Trevor Barker Awards as best-and-fairest player.  

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