Sunday, June 23, 2024

The British gymnast Nile Wilson steps on stage and introduces himself.

In a broad Leeds accent, the 27-year-old describes himself as an Olympic medallist, the owner of several successful businesses, and the face of a YouTube channel with more than 1.5million subscribers.

Then he pauses — and, as if he’s slipped off the pommel horse, he begins again.

“I’m self-destructive,” he says. “Competing at the highest level of sport, I spent four to five nights a week at the casino alone. Once I drink alcohol, I struggle to stop for days or even weeks at a time”.

“I believe both introductions are true for the same reason. What can be our strength quickly turns into our weaknesses”.

This is the dichotomy of sporting excellence.

By starting young, athletes are malleable.

Like gymnastics, football asks its participants to adopt an elite performance mindset from an early age. In general, those who turn professional in both sports have generally begun to participate before they are six years old, and are in systematic coaching before they turn 11. And at the end of that, there is no guarantee of a pro career.

There are consequences to this model.

Increasingly, this type of coaching means children are pushed into developing an “addictive personality”; a single-minded focus in which nothing is done in moderation.

Wilson describes this reality, flitting from the sporting (endless hours of training) to the innocent (watching The Lion King movie every night as a small child) to the more sinister (trying to drink more than his friends when out socialising).

“Elite athletes, often driven by the rush of competition and desire to win, certainly display behaviours resembling addiction,” explain sport psychologist Marc Sagal and addiction expert Ned DeWitt. “Their focus, discipline, and pursuit of excellence can border on obsession. These qualities can contribute meaningfully to success — but can also create problems like life imbalance or relationship challenges”.

“I brought the same intensity to a night out as I did to gymnastics,” Wilson said. “It was a competition, I wanted to win”.

Football is at the sharp end of wider problems. Research released this month by Ipsos and GambeAware shows that, amongst the general population, nearly two-thirds of problem gamblers (64 per cent), had never spoken to anyone about their issues. Though the overall number of gamblers between 18 and 24 has fallen, those remaining are far more likely to bet more than they can afford (42 per cent).

In 2014, research from the Professional Players Federation, an organisation of athletes’ associations across UK sport, stated footballers and cricketers were three times more likely to become problem gamblers than other men in their age group. Eight years on, EPIC, a consultancy group specialising in problem gambling, said professional athletes were now four times more likely than others to develop issues.

“The modern footballer has no shortage of stress, pressure to perform, access to certain substances, and a culture that sometimes normalises risky behaviours, all of which might contribute to addiction and other mental health problems,” say Sagal and DeWitt.

These numbers are startling — and beg the question of why.

There is an increasing belief that the increasing pervasiveness of addictive personalities is a contributing factor.

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