As I sat here on World Mental Health Day... hours after delivering a workshop in Karara... reflecting on my journey, I couldn't help but be inspired by the countless people who have courageously shared their heartfelt stories with the world. These individuals have bared their souls, embracing vulnerability and overcoming the fear of judgment, which had once held them back.
My own story, which I'm about to share, was profoundly shaped by an experience that took place on October 23, 2015. It's a day etched into my memory, and it played a pivotal role in defining who I am today. Although my professional basketball career ended in 2019, the lessons I learned and the transformation I underwent during that period continue to resonate with me, even in 2023.
You see, I had the privilege of playing for the Perth Wildcats, a team I had idolised since my childhood. Names like Andrew Vlahov, Scott Fisher, Ricky Grace, and James Crawford had been my heroes. I proudly wore the Number Four on my jersey, inspired by Eric Watterson. I vividly remember buying nosebleed seats and dreaming of sitting courtside during the Perth Entertainment Centre days. So, when I was chosen as a Development Player in 2010, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. Simply being a part of that team, experiencing the camaraderie, the brotherhood, and the banter, filled me with an indescribable joy. That joy extended to the livelong friendships that have been created... bonds that remain intact.
Early in my career, my story resonated with many as the quintessential underdog – an undersized power forward from Western Australia who had already exceeded expectations. Rob Beveridge recognised the determination within me and rewarded my hard work. With unexpected success came accolades and media attention. Suddenly, I was in the spotlight, a source of inspiration for others. So why am I sharing this story you might wonder four years after my retirement and what does it have to do with mental health?
I share it because I'm proud of my journey. I'm proud of the hurdles I've overcome and the lessons I've learned through pain and struggle. There's not a single part of me that's ashamed of the fact that I've faced difficulties and that I'm far from perfect. This pride didn't come easily; it required extensive work, treatment, healing, and recovery. But it's real, and I believe it's attainable for anyone who silently battles with a mental illness.
We all experience pain, struggle, and suffering. So why should someone with a mental illness be shamed into silence, labeled as "weak," or told to "toughen up"?
I, too, experienced the weight of expectations and the scrutiny of the public eye. On the 23rd of October in 2015 against the Townsville Crocodiles, I missed two consecutive free throws in the final moments of a game and then made a significant mistake on a defensive rotation which ultimately led to a Leon Henry 3 pointer. My mistakes allowed our opponents to snatch victory from us. I felt like the sole reason for our loss, and the weight of that moment crushed me.
My world seemed to come crashing down, but the truth is that it had been building up for some time. I became fixated on social media, tirelessly scouring platforms to read what people were saying about me. At that time, I felt like the pride of Western Australia rested on my shoulders. As the lone representative from our state, I had enjoyed immense support and felt invincible. But as my role expanded, so did my profile. I was no longer shielded from criticism. While I cherished the admiration of our fans, I wasn't prepared for the hurtful feedback from them and even from peers in my State Basketball League.
I must make it clear that I hold myself accountable. Despite numerous warnings not to buy into the hype and to disregard others' opinions, I wasn't strong enough to resist. This struggle, I believe, stemmed from my background, where I had battled with self-esteem issues since my adolescent years. Even as I've grown older, I grappled with my identity.
After that devastating loss to Townsville, I laid in bed while my wife slept, glued to social media, overwhelmed and unable to sleep. The next morning, I headed to the airport for our game against the Illawarra Hawks. Moments of discomfort like these have the power to humble you and shift your perspective. At the airport, my teammates checked in on me, offering silent reassurance. Trevor Gleeson, with a subtle touch on my shoulder, mentioned that we had another opportunity the following day. This is why I loved playing for the Wildcats – the brotherhood, the camaraderie. Though seemingly insignificant, that gesture of confidence was exactly what I needed at that moment.
There's a harsh coarseness that seems to thrive on the internet, emanating from both supporters and critics alike. Despite my attempts to shield myself from it, these words still managed to reach me, either directly or through friends and loved ones who took those comments to heart. It was at that moment that I realised I needed a significant change in my life. I've always enjoyed spending time on social media – a means to share my story, provide glimpses into my life, and engage in conversations. I've even made incredible connections with people, including opposing fans. However, I had to make meaningful changes that wouldn't compromise my well-being.
This negative aspect of social media wasn't limited to my teammates or the basketball community; it extends across all sports and even into everyday life. Cyberbullying affects individuals at all levels of sports, often perpetuated by those who've never experienced the impact of their harsh words and relentless pursuit of "perfection." These critics, by virtue of not facing such harsh criticism in their own lives or professions, unwittingly contribute to this cycle.
Many athletes, including myself, once subscribed to the "if and then" model of happiness. We believed that "if I get picked for this team, then I'll be happy" or "if we win a championship, then I'll be happy." This mindset is a perilous one, opening us up to criticism and scrutiny. You can avoid newspaper headlines, but as I've mentioned, escaping the realm of social media is nearly impossible.
So, how did I navigate all of this?
With humility and meticulous care.
I managed my health, both physical and mental, much like I managed my basketball game. Becoming a successful basketball player involves more than just a great shot, a strong mind, a fit body, or exceptional ball-handling skills. It encompasses all these elements and more.
Similarly, maintaining strong mental health isn't reliant on a single factor. It's the culmination of various components, each playing a significant role in my well-being. Contrary to the misconception that strong mental health involves simply "toughening up," "putting on a brave face," or "staying positive," our minds deserve more credit than that. They're intricate and multifaceted, far more than just repositories for clichés and ignorance.
Imagine a bicycle wheel, with numerous spokes that keep it rolling along its path. That's the key to my mental health – the spokes of the wheel.
No one spoke takes precedence over another, and if one becomes shaky or bent, the others step in to maintain balance and keep things moving smoothly. My mental health wheel consists of mindfulness, therapy, diet, sleep, physical fitness, vulnerability, and above all, community.
Today, when things don't go well, I take stock of the past few weeks and identify which areas have been neglected. This approach mirrors how I assessed my basketball games when I was playing poorly. It might be my shooting, my rebounding, my rest (or lack thereof), my preparation, or even self-imposed performance pressure. I could delve deeper into this list, but I'm sure you understand the gist.
Being able to retrospectively evaluate situations has been immensely beneficial over the past five years. It's a methodical approach that helps me maintain balance in my life.
My support community, comprising family and close friends, has played a pivotal role in allowing me to view things rationally and systematically. I can engage in raw conversations with them, knowing that they'll help me see the bigger picture, reassure me that the sky isn't falling, and remind me that my story is far from over. When it seems like everything is falling apart, these individuals strengthen and encourage me.
Having had my teammates, coaches, and loved ones in my corner was monumental for my mental health, and that has continued as I have transitioned from playing professional basketball. I've adopted practices that significantly improve my mental state. I practice gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness daily, creating a profound shift in my life. These practices offered perspective and were exactly what I needed.
So, why am I sharing this story now, in 2023, long after my retirement from professional basketball? I felt inclined to share this story this morning at a workshop in Karara because I believe in the power of vulnerability. The power and authenticity that comes with sharing your experiences, in the hopes it can help someone else.
The response from the room gave purpose to my pain and struggle. In that moment, I realised that my story isn't rare; it's far more common than anyone can comprehend. As long as I have a voice and a platform as a former professional athlete, I will speak proudly and confidently about my struggles.
I liken it to sitting around a table with your closest friends, reminiscing about the scars on your body. "This was the time I slipped off the dock and cut my leg," "this was from a surfing wipeout," "and this is when I got drunk and tripped over a curb." We can sit and laugh and cry at what we've been through and the marks we bear.
In my case, I don't have many visible scars, but people still know about them. My closest friends can sit at that same table with me and hear me talk about my struggles, because they've been there too, albeit to different degrees. They can sit with me, laugh and cry about what I've experienced, and never judge or perceive me as weak.
I talk because I believe that scars are scars, whether they're visible or not. I believe that we can relate to each other more than we realise. I believe that we can create a culture where all pain and struggle are acceptable topics of conversation. I believe that it's okay to hurt, and it's more than okay to talk about it.
So, that's why I talk... and why I believe you should too.