Wednesday 21 February 2018

When waking up can become a nightmare in high-pressure world of sport

Sleep stress remains one of the key triggers for mental health issues among elite athletes

Tom Court has revealed how he struggled to sleep because of the pressure of the international game
Tom Court has revealed how he struggled to sleep because of the pressure of the international game
David Kelly

David Kelly

Tom Court wouldn't swap his old life but that doesn't mean he misses it either. He certainly doesn't miss the sleepless nights. The anxieties that accompanied the too regular waking hours in the dead of night. The short fuse that ignited an otherwise blissful domestic scene. The nagging self-doubt.

Am I good enough? If I am good enough, do they think I'm good enough? Will I be good enough next week?

A Grand Slam win during a six-year career amassing 32 caps while also playing 104 times for Ulster may indicate that others thought more of him than sometimes he did himself.

Nevertheless, having admitted to growing "stale" at Ulster, from where he joined London Irish for a fresh challenge last summer, the 34-year-old Brisbane-born loose-head is still happy to have discovered a renewed ease in his daily life.

His was a pressurised existence few professionals publicly voice. But a recent survey from the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association (IRUPA) would suggest most privately struggle with the levels of stress to which Court had become accustomed.

Their survey revealed 67pc of respondents admitting to regularly/always spending time worrying about playing performance while 74pc of players have admitted suffering from excessive lack of sleep; four in 10 agree that performance worries affect relationships outside the sport.


Court candidly attests to a phenomenon that, largely, remains undiscussed. Stress attacks sleep which itself arouses stress; it's an unforgiving cycle.

Court's introspection was magnified by his sense of being an interloper who, rightly or wrongly, felt he had to over-reach himself to make an impression in the land of his Limerick-born grandfather, Patrick.

"I suffered massively from it, especially when involved in the Irish set-up," he reveals. "I always felt like I was the first guy they were trying to get out of the team whereas it seemed like others, even if they had a nightmare game, couldn't get dropped if they tried.

"I joked once that when I had a shocker from the bench I never got promoted to start a game!

"But yeah, I suffered terribly from stress and all that because I always felt I had to perform a lot better than some of the local, born and bred guys in order to maintain my place on the team.

"It always felt to me like form was something where reputations weren't really matched up with form all the time. It's one of those things where you always felt under pressure to perform because your position was always under threat.

"My wife deserves more credit than I do because the amount of my sleep I lost, and the amount of stress I caused her and the kids over the years, it's probably hard to quantify it all.

"Add in young kids that piles on the pressure. That's why the move over here was a watershed moment. I had to clean my hands of it, tell myself it's all over and start fresh.

"Now I can [focus] purely on the club and day to day, not to have to switch camps. It's very tricky to handle. People joke about Joe Schmidt and how intense he is, I only had a taste of it but I can only imagine what it is like now. Some players can deal with it better than others."

Former Cavan goalkeeper Alan O'Mara, who has spoken publicly about his battle with depression, has also suffered from the consequences of insomnia.

"It always reminds me of going to switch off my computer," he says. "Most times growing up a pop up box would appear saying 'Windows is shutting down'. It always left me feeling trapped in that state.

"Unfortunately when it comes to sleeping you can't unplug the power source or remove the battery to force it into hibernation. So you must lie there. You and your brain in a world of its own - staring at the ceiling thinking, questioning and wondering about everything in your life.

"On one particular occasion I remember, absolutely nothing did the trick and my insomnia proved to be a catalyst to a singular suicidal thought entering my brain.

"I suppose as I grew more and more frustrated, my brain put forward this as a logical way to stop the internal conversations pulsing through my mind. Thankfully on this night, the notion left my brain as quickly as it came in. This whole process happened in seconds. In, out.

"I wondered if maybe I couldn't sleep because I had been away on holidays for a week and did little or no exercise. Maybe I needed to burn some energy in order for me to switch off. I hadn't played a game of football or trained for six weeks because of injury.

"Was my body telling me I was missing something? Is it that release that playing sports provides me that I was missing? Maybe sport is not a valve, maybe it is just a distraction. Does football just compress this stuff for me? Internal conversations. One mind, two voices and they are away again!


"I've learned to understand that when I struggle to sleep that something within in me is off balance. I try to appreciate that I have a very clear warning signal - the occurrence of insomnia for the first time in my life was an extremely important part in me reaching out for help with regards to my mental health.

"These days I try to see my rare spells of insomnia as those big flashing lights on the side of the motorway that we often see urging us to slow down. I am grateful for the ability to recognise them."

Court's warning signs were not as severe; but there were still consequences for the harmony of home life. He was bringing his stress home as, he suspects, most do. Few speak about it, though.

"Definitely, I don't know many players who it wouldn't affect. The top guys obviously manage it well and have relationships outside the game that can help. It was an enormous strain on my marriage.

"You're away for weeks on end. But then when you're home, you're totally occupied with your Ireland form or your form leading into tournaments. You're playing well to get into the team but always second-guessing yourself, have you done well enough to get in or will they look for someone else?

"Even in the province, the guys who are conscientious and give a damn, they'll take it home.

"The older I get, the better I am with sleep hygiene, winding down by reading books or listening to something. You need that routine or else you'll never get out of your head what you should have done or what might have been.

"This year, I dealt with all that and made peace with it all. I've been like a spectator, being happy for them. It's been great watching Jack McGrath in my position, probably Ireland's most consistent performer.

"And being happy for Robbie Henshaw and older guys like Paul O'Connell. It's great to wish them well and feel part of it that way."

It will help knowing that, whatever happens Ireland or himself, he won't be losing that much sleep over it.

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