American soccer star Landon Donovan earned scorn for taking a self-imposed sabbatical at the beginning of the 2013 MLS season, but he’s far ahead of his contemporaries in understanding the effects of mental health on performance.
Donovan is one of my favorite athletes, precisely because of how unconventional he is. In the spectrum of professional athletes, Landon has always been a bit of an odd duck and the source of speculation and curiosity among both the sports press and fans. A good portion of that attention comes from the fact that Landon has borne on his shoulders the hopes and dreams of American soccer fans since his dynamic debut at the 2002 World Cup at the tender age of 20. He was named the “Best Young Player” of that tournament, during which the US national team had one of its best performances at a World Cup. Since then, in the eyes of fans, the media, and soccer’s governing bodies in the US, Landon’s success as a player has been intrinsically linked to the growth and success of soccer domestically and America’s arrival as a world footballing power on the global stage. Needless to say, that’s a little bit of pressure.
Donovan’s choice to play in the US, for example, earned him constant derision from fans who doubted his ability to cut it in Europe’s top leagues. Landon also took an unfair share of the blame for an aging US team’s early exit from the 2006 World Cup. Failure to deliver on the unrealistic expectations of American fans — self-conscious about our relative lack of status in the footballing world, something Donovan’s emergence was supposed to reverse — earned him the pejorative nickname “Landycakes” among detractors. His talent was obvious; it was Landon’s conviction and toughness that was in question, despite his record-breaking performances for the national team.
Under the circumstances, the guy can hardly be blamed for getting a little burnt out on the sport from time-to-time. Soccer players in general have grueling lifestyles. The sport is played in two 45-minute halves without breaks, during which many players cover 8-10 kilometers a game. It’s not uncommon for players to play all year round–for their club during the regular season and for their national team during international engagements. Landon, in fact, has more miles on his tires than most players. He started 2011, for instance, playing on loan at the Liverpool-based club Everton FC before reporting to the Galaxy for his MLS season duties and breaking again in the summer to help lead the national team to the final of the Gold Cup. And those are only the physical pressures, to say nothing of the mental stress players are put under to achieve. Still, when Donovan began to hint at retirement early last year, saying that his heart wasn’t in the game anymore, it aroused anew the chorus of detractors that had long cast doubts on his fortitude.
“I was pretty burned out,” Donovan said, when reflecting on his time off. The type of job burnout he’s describing is a real phenomenon that affects millions of people. Though we don’t normally think of playing sports as a traditional job, pro athletes are no less subject to the same pressures and institutional issues of other types of work. According to WorkplaceIssues.Com, factors like an inability to balance work and social life, lack of positive reinforcement, unrealistic expectations and a feeling of loss of autonomy can contribute to burnout stress resulting in a “lack of enthusiasm and pride in your work”. Donovan understood that a break to sort his head out was crucial to maintaining his performance levels in the long run.
Landon still brings it on the field, despite his wavering conviction for the game
The sensitive, soft-spoken and remarkably candid Donovan was always going to stick out like a sore thumb in the realm of pro sports where it’s still not okay to talk about your feelings. We expect our athletes to be alpha males, both physically and emotionally invulnerable. Both fans and team owners are complicit in treating athletes like machines or superheroes instead of human beings, to the point that even awareness about physical disorders comes slowly. Rising star-turned-commentator Taylor Twellman was sidelined permanently due to multiple concussions, the long-term risks of which are only beginning to be understood by sports doctors. Or consider some fan reactions to propositions to make gridiron football marginally less lethal to its players. But Landon has an insight into the issue of mental health that is far ahead of most of his contemporaries, in and out of the sports world:
“We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable. We should ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and ‘fight through it,’ and all this, and it’s a little peculiar to me, that whole idea, that if someone’s physically hurt, we’re OK with letting them take the time they need to come back, but if someone’s in a difficult time mentally, we’re not OK with letting them take the time they need to come back.”
Donovan’s exhibiting a pretty sophisticated perspective on mental health issues here, perhaps one inherited from his mother, a former special ed teacher. Protecting the mental health of players doesn’t just preserve their ability to perform–it could save lives. The murder-suicide involving 25-year-old NFL linebacker Jovan Belcher, who shot his wife to death before turning the gun on himself, left his closest friends and teammates both shocked and grieved. Prior to his death, Belcher had been in contact with a 24-hour hotline for athletes seeking help with personal and mental health issues, an initiative started by the NFL after the 2011 suicide of Junior Seau. Mere weeks later, the Newtown massacre demonstrated that the systemic failure to identify and treat people suffering from poor mental health is a national crisis.
The stigma Landon describes discourages sufferers from seeking the help they need, sometimes until it’s too late. It also affects how we treat and deal with patients once their needs are identified. Many were quick to write off Belcher and Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, as monsters, a viewpoint that fails to attempt to understand — and prevent — future tragedies. Donovan himself, while given the benefit of the doubt by his teammates and the majority of fans, had to be institutionally punished for taking a mental leave. He was denied a call up to the U.S. National Team for crucial World Cup qualifying games and permanently lost the Galaxy captaincy to Robbie Keane, who filled the role in his absence. While these actions may not be “official” punishments, they are symbolic gestures meant to send a clear message about how athletes in leadership roles are expected to act. While Donovan’s bosses tacitly accepted his need for a mental leave, he is now being treated as an unfit leader, which wouldn’t have happened if he’d be sidelined by a physical injury. Landon’s willingness to speak openly about his mental health is, in fact, incredible courageous and he has paid for it by being ironically stigmatized as mentally weak.
It is increasingly becoming conventional wisdom in the business world that taking steps to improve mental health and reduce job burnout and stress improves employee performance and reduces absenteeism. Managers who take such steps tend to be more successful leaders also (which is just one of the factors that explains why one study found that women were more effective business leaders). It’s not hard to imagine these benefits being applied to professional sports. Maybe someday leaders like Landon will be the norm in the sports world:
“…If you’re really at a place where you’re struggling mentally, we need to be more compassionate and understanding of people in all walks of life and understand that they might need time away, too.”