Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tennis and mental illness

I recently attended a talk given by Herschel Walker, the former NFL running back and Heisman Trophy winner. He shared some of the horrific events of his childhood that probably played a part in the later splintering of his fragile psyche, such as living in terror of being attacked by members of the Klu Klux Klan, and being the chubby kid who was constantly bullied.

Walker also opened up about some of the early glimpses of his mental illness. He first shared his concern with a pastor who then made it the topic of that Sunday’s sermon. Walker even endured an exorcism, before finally obtaining professional help.

As I listened to him share about his diagnosis and eventual treatment for Dissociative Identity Disorder, I found myself wondering if any professional tennis players had ever opened up like this about being mentally ill. I don’t remember ever reading about mentally ill tennis players. Have you?

But surely some must exist? Mental illness is not incompatible with playing professional tennis. It certainly did not interfere with Walker’s tremendous accomplishments as a pro football player.

Most tennis players are probably more comfortable talking about their physical injuries than acknowledging mental illness, which may be unfairly perceived as a sign of weakness. As the general population continues to struggle with the unfair stigma attached to mental illness, think of how much more difficult it may be for the professional athlete.

One of the few references I could find to mental illness in professional tennis involved a player named Edwin P. Fischer. He played for the West Side Tennis Club and won the New York Metropolitan Singles Championships in 1896, 1898 and 1899. He won the US Open mixed doubles in 1894, 1895, and 1896 with the same partner, a Ms. Juliette P. Atkinson. He was ranked #9 in the US in 1901. Yes, I had to go that far back.

According to the December 2, 1920 New York Times, Fischer was admitted to Bellevue Hospital after his sister reported that he has been annoying relatives with his dire predictions. On September 11th, 1920 (I kid you not), Fischer sent a number of postcards from Canada, warning friends to get out of New York because Wall Street was going to explode.

The fact that he had accurately predicted the Wall Street explosion was later determined to be  purely coincidental and not evidence of his psychic abilities as he had claimed. Fischer was arrested in front of a crush of paparazzi upon his arrival in New York. In explanation of his bulky clothing, he revealed that he was wearing two business suits for warmth and his tennis clothes underneath in case an opportunity to play presented itself.

Howard Schoenfield is still listed as an inactive player on the ATP tour.  He won most of the tournaments he entered in 1975, including the 18-and-under championship. Later that year he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was admitted to a mental hospital for several months. He attempted to recoup his career the following year but was never again successful. He lives today in a halfway home.

In 1982, Sports Illustrated writer, Barry McDermott, wrote an in-depth piece on mental illness among junior tennis players. Though somewhat dated and containing notions of mental illness that we now know to be inaccurate, the piece is a detailed treatise on the mental decline of a number of Junior tennis players whose emotional unraveling was at the time linked to the pressures of competition and achievement.

The pressure has only grown since then. Does tennis have a Herschel Walker who will step up and courageously admit to his or her struggles?


Anonymous said...

maybe there isn't someone with this problem. don't look for something that may not be there. that's when people start finger pointing, "he maybe, she maybe."
And I don't mean the on court meltdowns.
If someone has a problem, they may want to keep it to themselves. Everyone doesn't have to tell everything, or be expected to. Privacy, you know!

tennischick said...

there is a HUGE difference between an emotional meltdown and being mentally ill. to equate them in any way is just downright stupid.

your response only highlights the unfair stigma still attached to mental illness. no one pointed fingers when Sampras admitted to having Thalassaemia. it's not an issue that Djokovic suffers with breathing problems. i think that mental illness needs to be treated with the same level of dismissal because it does not have to interfere with people's competence to play the game. that is the point of my article.

Kim said...

While it seems weird to think that there may be pros with mental illness actually functioning on the circuit, I would have said that none of them would ever take crystal meth had you asked me two weeks ago.

tennischick said...

i can imagine someone being bipolar or clinically depressed but remaining highly functional bec of meds. i think that it would be more difficult with certain conditions like schizophrenia or certain delusional disorders. but tennis has certainly seen it share of druggies, yes.

Anonymous said...

Jimmy Connors has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (OCD) didn't know he had it until way after his pro career ended though.

Chip Angell said...

Our son, Chris Angell, #1 mid states 18s and a scholarship athelete in Tennis to Indiana where he played #1 Singles and was all big 10 his sophmore year developed Schizophrenia, finished school at Clemson playing his senior year there ranked as high as 32 in NCAA. After graduation and a brief period on tour, he fell in and out of jails, hospitals, and homelessness numerous times, finally living with us in Maine where he took up tennis again becoming at 38 Maine's #1 Men's open two years running (2012,2013). Errors by Doctors led to miss medications caused him to fall into such a deep depression that he took his own life.

His employer where he taught and a club manager who knew him as a player loved him so much that two tournaments are named for him...Angell Open in Portland Maine (April) and Chris Angell Junior Summer Champs in Ellsworth Maine (June)

These tournaments are dedicated to raising awareness of mental illness and improving the outcomes for those with servere mental illness.