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19 July 2023

How Dele Alli exposed the trauma that accompanies success in elite sport

We are increasingly discovering the mental cost of the pressure the sports industry places on its stars.

By Emma John

Once upon a time there was a planet called Sport, where everyone lived on a diet of emotions. They produced them through compelling contests and arch-rivalries and tribal behaviour. Of all the feelings available, they especially loved the richly layered flavour of triumph-over-adversity. Piquant failure was another favourite, as was bitter disgust, but they weren’t too fussy.

In the short periods when there weren’t any contests taking place, the planet’s inhabitants spent their time talking about them, or about the people who took part in them. If any of the contestants began to complain that all this emotion-generating was giving them a headache, and that they needed a break, the citizens would grumble about how much they were paying for the contests. Their anger towards the players was delicious and sustaining.

[See also: A battle for the soul of English cricket]

In a parallel but not entirely unrelated world, the footballer Dele Alli gave an interview to Gary Neville to discuss some of the reasons behind his recent poor form. It was a moving interview, not least because Alli struggled to hold back tears when talking about being sexually abused at the age of six, and Neville’s eyes welled up in sympathy. For one brief moment on Planet Sport, every fan agreed: the Alli interview, available on YouTube, had to be watched.

In the coverage that followed, some resonances were lost to the background noise. The injured Everton midfielder had not chosen to share his trauma but was forced, as some never-named tabloid newspapers had a piece of it and were threatening to tell the rest. The interview took place only three weeks after Alli had left a rehab clinic after seeking treatment for an addiction to sleeping pills. As he told Neville: “I probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it this soon.” Yet he spoke without rancour or self-pity, and there was a surprising absence of therapy-speak.

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Alli reflected on his troubled childhood with calm intelligence, demonstrating as clearly as any scientific paper that addiction is not a failing but a condition. But one telling moment emerged halfway through, when he talked about the failure baked into life as a professional footballer: “Mentally, I don’t think people will ever understand until you’re in it, what it can do to you. Rejection, just being told you’re not good enough, fighting every day. Even something like losing a game… you have to be ready, you have to be smiling the next day. When you’re not, it’s a problem.”

Amid the revelations about his abuse and dealing drugs aged eight, this detail went largely unnoticed. It may have seemed too obvious a statement to deserve further consideration: what can anyone do about failure, anyway? Elite sport is pressure and, as Billie Jean King said, pressure is a privilege. At the highest level, where the margins between individual abilities can be wafer-thin, success lies in mental strength.

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This is the difference, on the day, between Ons Jabeur winning a Wimbledon title and losing two finals in succession. Being “mentally strong” is now a goal that athletes pursue with the help of psychologists. They learn to identify the thoughts that lead to anxiety and fear, and to develop new habits to keep them at bay. They learn to enhance their focus so that they can spend more time in their “flow” state, playing without conscious thought.

Yet despite all these advances, we are increasingly discovering the mental cost of the extraordinary pressure that the sports industry places on its proponents. This month, Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of her generation, competed for the first time in two years, having quit the 2020 Tokyo Olympics mid-competition. The former world tennis No 2 Naomi Osaka has just announced a return to competition in 2024, having withdrawn from the French Open in 2021, citing depression. Meanwhile, Ben Stokes, who took a six-month hiatus from cricket after suffering panic attacks in 2021, is now the captain of one of the most daring England cricket teams in history.

Are fans more demanding of elite athletes than of any other type of entertainer? When a movie is bad, we don’t insist on knowing why the performance of the lead actors was off, or whether the director had the requisite experience to be handed the job in the first place. We don’t care, because we’re interested in the outcome, not the process.

But a sporting contest is, in many ways, all process. We never stop judging performances, ranking players and wanting explanations for failure. The more an athlete is worth, the greater the sense of their obligation to the clubs and organisations that pay them, and to the fans who follow them.

No one feels that Tom Cruise, for all his box office millions, owes them a great new Mission: Impossible film. No crowds form to chant abuse at him each time he steps out of his trailer or attends a premiere.

One of the radical aspects of the so-called Bazball (named after Brendon McCullum, the New Zealand coach of the England men’s Test team ) revolution blowing through English cricket is the idea that even international athletes should be allowed to enjoy themselves. As the Ashes series has demonstrated this summer, it’s an approach that offers those of us who live on Planet Sport plenty of emotion, everything from despair to joy. But it also asks us to think again about the nature of failure, and the narratives we build around it. Dele Alli’s interview reminded us not just of the toll of childhood trauma, but of performing in a world where you can never fail.  

[See also: How sport explains Thatcher’s Britain]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world