Ronnie O'Sullivan exclusive: 'Can you justify feeling like s***?' – Why depression stalks snooker
World champion Ronnie O’Sullivan is keen to help snooker confront its mental health malady during the UK’s third national lockdown. O’Sullivan has battled depression throughout his life and is not surprised to discover a number of players opening up about their own experiences of the illness during such a bleak time for society.
Amid potting black balls, the black dog of depression is never far from the darkened domains of the professional snooker table. During the global coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing onset of a third national lockdown in the UK prior to Christmas, the old green baize has been disturbed by some despairing comments from some of its leading figures about a familiar incurable gloom affecting the human condition.
Former world champions Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy and world semi-finalist Gary Wilson have all opened up in recent weeks about a sense of personal despair blighting their mental health.
Ronnie O’Sullivan has always spoken openly and candidly about the importance of mental health and physical well-being having faced bigger challenges in confronting himself than any opponent he has met during a gilded 29-year career that brought him a sixth world title last August.
He is keen to use his own personal experience of anguish by providing help, support and advice on the best way to cope with the illness via his social media platforms.
“I thought can we do some stuff to help people by putting a few videos online,” said O’Sullivan. “Just all sorts of stuff and we’re looking to produce a lot more content and channel it into a certain area where I have an interest.
“If you feel like you can help someone, it’s great you can do it from a point of view where I can actually enjoy it and have something to give back.
“I understand a bit about that side of mental health if you like, and that is definitely something I’m passionate about.
I don’t think it’s healthy to be in a room hitting balls for four, five and six hours. That’s what snooker players generally do.
“Most people go down the club, have a laugh and chat with their mates while they are playing, but when it becomes a job you don’t talk.
“You just keep quiet, concentrate and stay in that bubble for as long as you can. I just think that’s not healthy in general to do that day in, day out.”
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O’Sullivan checked into a hospital for several days in 2016 suffering from exhaustion after lashing out in a dressing room after a 10-7 win over David Gilbert in the first round of the World Championship.
The record 37-times ranking event winner is not alone in suffering the loneliness of the long-distance potter. It is an affliction the game's greatest player has described as “snooker depression” during a gloriously successful but wildly undulating rise to the summit of his sport. It is an ailment which is instantly recognisable to several of his fellow professionals.
"I’ve got no motivation to play snooker, to get out of bed, I’m struggling to see a purpose or an end goal,” said the 2019 world semi-finalist Gary Wilson during the Championship League earlier this month. "I don’t know what the experts would say, but it sounds like depression and that’s what I’ve been going through."
Apart from the World Championship in Sheffield last August, snooker has been shunted behind closed doors at the Marshall Arena next to the MK Dons football ground.
Murphy, the 2005 world champion, admits the lockdown took a heavy toll on him as he battled weight gain without the oxygen of his daily practice routine from a sport that has found itself marooned in Milton Keynes to enable players to earn a living amid constant Covid-19 testing and isolating in hotel rooms since last June.
“When we did return, we were trapped in a hotel in Milton Keynes, I just really struggled with it. I didn’t go and see a doctor or anything, but I would say I was borderline suffering with depression really. I was very low,” he said.
O’Sullivan enjoys running for fun to keep his mental compass pointing in the right direction, but feels the solitary existence of a snooker player is detrimental to achieving harmony away from the table.
“At least in football, you have your mates to lean on,” commented O’Sullivan. “They know when you are not having a good time and know what to say to pick you up.
“In some team sports, they actively seek out different players because everyone complements each other, but in snooker you don’t get that.
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“Even in golf, you get to have a caddie and if you choose the right person, they can have an influence on how your mental state is and how your mood is.
“In snooker, you don’t get that, so that is why I find it really challenging.
For a lot of the snooker players, I can understand the problems because it’s not the healthiest of ways to spend your time. I’ve had to mellow a bit to keep playing and become a bit philosophical to keep my sanity, but not everybody is in that boat.”
O’Sullivan admits in the past he would accept a low mental state as a natural by-product of his desire to win trophies, but believes he has had to curtail his own expectations to cope.
He has been helped by the sports psychiatrist Steve Peters since 2011, winning three of his six world titles over the past decade after working closely with the Middlesbrough-born professor, author of the 2012 book The Chimp Paradox, which has sold over one million copies.
The toughest frame in snooker appears to be building a positive frame of mind that can buffet the mental storms that rage. Sportsmen should not define themselves by material success in their respective fields.
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"Are you a positive person who can motivate others?" said Peters. "Are you kind? Do you have integrity? If you are measuring success against your values – rather than what car you own or how much you earn – then building self-esteem is in your own hands."
O'Sullivan feels that not every player can treat success and failure the same in trying to justify their self-worth to the wider world.
“Everybody is at different stages of their careers,” he explained. “When you are in your pomp, and getting victories, trophies and are at number one you don’t mind taking the snooker depression because you think I’m getting rewarded for it.
But if you are putting that effort in and aren’t getting anything back, getting beaten in the first, second and third rounds all the time, and it's still leaving you feeling like s***, it’s a lot harder to take and handle.
“So what you do? Do you become philosophical? So it's like a self-preservation thing, but with that you probably lose that intensity.
“Rather than play with the attitude it's life-and-death, you think if you win, you win, if you lose, you lose, it doesn’t really matter.
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“But then if you don’t play with the attitude that it's life-and-death, are you really committed to wanting it as bad as the other guy, possibly?
If something is hurting bad, as long as the reward is good enough, I don’t mind hurting, but as long as the reward doesn’t justify the hurt, you think, ‘hold on, I’m not utilising my time in the right way’.
“For me, I’ve had to get a bit more philosophical because I’m not winning as much as I used to. Why would I want to hurt after putting all that effort in? It’s all about getting the right balance really and how to approach it.”
O’Sullivan has consulted the six-times world champion Steve Davis on how he managed to cope with the perception of failure when Stephen Hendry usurped him as snooker’s dominant force in the 1990s.
Davis recovered from trailing O'Sullivan 8-4 to lift his third Masters in 1997, but the last of his 28 ranking event victories came two years earlier at the 1995 Welsh Open, 21 years before he retired from playing the sport.
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Image credit: Getty Images
“When I spoke to Davis, he said to me once the 10 years when Hendry came on the scene and began dominating were the worst 10 years of his life because he was trying to find a way to compete with Hendry,” said O’Sullivan.
“It took him 10 years to finally give up, and I think once he gave up in his mind, he started to enjoy it again.
“He would turn up, hit a few balls, get the odd result and win a tournament. He was just as happy with his defeats as he was with his wins. You end up not getting as disappointed if you lose, but don’t get as excited when you win.
“You flick that switch off. You detach emotionally from wanting it so bad. By doing that, you don’t get fired up like you used to which is like a self-preservation thing. You don’t get the joys of winning.
When I won the World Championship, I wasn’t over the moon. I thought, 'Okay, that was nice, I’ve surprised myself,' but it wasn’t like the other five times when I wanted it so badly.
“It’s a really fine line to work out what approach you take to it.”
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What snooker players have said about mental health
Mark Allen, 2018 Masters champion
"Some days I wake up and I just can't be bothered, I don't have the motivation to do anything. It does get very lonely when you're looking at the four walls of a hotel room for most of the year. It can be a great life, but it can also be tough and I suspect there are others secretly battling away with this, feeling they have to deal with it on their own as I did for a long time."
Graeme Dott, 2006 world champion
"As far as my depression is concerned, it is something I will probably have to live with for the rest of my life, but I recognise the warning signs now and know when it is time to go back to the doctor and ask for more tablets."
Martin Gould, 2016 German Masters champion
"I didn’t want to be there. I just turned up and thought I’d get the match out of the way. I had no expectation of winning, and I thought to myself: ‘I can’t keep doing this’. I would have been more than happy to drop off the tour, give up playing on the main tour and concentrate on playing some seniors stuff later on after giving myself a year or two to get back to normal."
Shaun Murphy, 2005 world champion
“Some of the comments on social media are just vile. I often wonder how we got into this body shaming culture, when did we start bullying each other about the way we look? I wanted to do something about it. I decided on New Year's Day that I would start highlighting people saying these things. I’m going to start calling it out when they are vicious and bullying you. If you aren’t mentally strong, these things can have a real knock-on effect. We’ve seen some really high profile celebrities take their own life. It is awful really."
Mark Selby, 2014, 2016 and 2017 world champion
"When I was going through it - and even now, I'm still on the medication to this day - I went to see the professional people and they were telling me to do things that you enjoy and try to keep your mind active. But it's difficult when you go through times like this because the things you do enjoy you cannot go and do. The only thing you can do is speak to the professional people, speak to your family and cry for help and get them to help you as well."
Gary Wilson, 2019 World Championship semi-finalist
"I’m just totally gone, including snooker. I can’t play at all. I feel the worst I’ve ever felt and can’t see a way back anymore. I let John (Higgins) back in and apologised for the foul as he was plumb in. All I could do. First world problems. Although I do feel depressed generally and I’m not one, as many will know, to play on stuff like that or use them words lightly."