By Maxwell Levine
To be at the top and a superstar seems such a glamorous life. Travelling the world and representing your country, all global events and plush hotels.
But as a study on elite athletes show. Having it all means having the vulnerability of being human, as well as dealing with those vulnerabilities in an alien environment. It often means dealing with those vulnerabilities alone.
In short, sport mirrors life and the mirror is in desperate need of a clean. Whilst there has been no rigorous study on the prevalence of depression or other mental illness in elite athletes, many estimates that, on average, 15% will suffer from depression in their lifetime.
Discussing the realities of mental health is slowly being normalised, but athletes still fear stigma and, as a result, often do not seek the help to get better. Research also suggest that athletes competing in individual sports are at higher risk compared to those within team sport.
Imagine being so crippled by a sense of panic that no matter how hard you try, your brain’s default function is to imagine the worst, even if you know these fears are entirely irrational. For people who suffer from anxiety, this is routine. For athletes like South African national hockey goalkeeper Phumelela Mbande, this is her lived reality.
Phumelela Mbande has been a crucial part of the national team since making her debut in 2012. The 27-year-old earned a Player of the Match award at the 2018 Hockey World Cup against Argentina – a rare achievement for a goalkeeper, and an accolade that kept her in the sport.
Born in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, and raised in Pietermaritzburg in the KZN, Mbande developed the love for hockey by accident. “I played sport here and there. The only sport we had at school was athletics, and I used to play sport on the streets with the other kids. When I was 10, we moved to KZN. I went to a very small school in iXopo called Lynford Primary School, and that’s where I first started playing hockey. I literally never saw the sport before. I had never heard of it before. One day, in our second term, they said, ‘right, we need a goalkeeper’ and for me it made a lot of sense because when I saw the ball I was like ‘Ja, this is where I belong’,” she said.
Playing hockey afforded Mbande dream opportunities: travelling overseas, scholarships and, of course, the honour of wearing the green and gold.
She had to do it all while balancing her work towards becoming an auditor and suffering from crippling anxiety.
“It is quite hard to talk about it. I think it’s because you feel like you are the different one, the weird one, and you don’t know everyone else or a lot of people feel the same way,” Mbande said.
Anxiety manifests differently for everyone. It mostly comes without a warning. Sometimes there are triggers, but the panic and fear that anxiety brings is an indescribably dark place.
For many athletes, Mbande included, sport is your safe space of sorts, A way out of the noise in their minds. Hardly surprising considering the scientific studies that reveal the positive effects of exercise on the brain. But despite all the challenges that comes with her international sporting career, Mbande wouldn’t trade any of it for the world, with or without anxiety.