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Playing For Your Resilience

By Hannah Wadley on 21 June 2018

 

While there is glory in being a successful athlete, it comes with massive pressures to perform well on and off the field.

Anyone can see the physical injuries of athletes, but rarely can people see what injuries they may have mentally.

Last year, mental illness forced one AFL player to leave the sport altogether.

 

Meet Tom Downie

Tom Downie, born and raised in Benalla, always showed a flair for sport.

Before playing professional AFL, he showed enormous talent for basketball from a young age. Standing at 203 centimetres tall, he was one of three Ballarat-based players to represent Australia in the 2010 world under-17 basketball championships in Germany.

In 2011, the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) Giants recruited Downie to play as a ruckman, which led to six years of playing professional AFL.

In May 2017, Downie announced his retirement from AFL at age 24, due to his ongoing battles with anxiety and depression.

Blokepedia recently caught up with Tom Downie to talk about his resilience to mental illness, and how he was doing after a year since retiring.

Chats with Tom Downie

“I think most of my anxiety has always been in my personality,” said Mr Downie.

But I was officially diagnosed with anxiety at the start of 2016. I had spent a month not being able to play or train.

“It felt like having motion sickness in my stomach. I physically froze a lot. I wasn’t comfortable being at work. AFL was the thing I trained and played for, so not being able to play on the field made me really fear failure.”

“I saw a psychologist and started taking medication, which worked well for me that year.”

Later in 2016, Mr Downie decided to wean off his medication thinking he had tackled his anxiety. But by the next pre-season game in 2017, a pivotal moment set Mr Downie’s plan for retirement in motion.

“In a pre-season game I experienced a panic attack, and left the field during the third quarter,” said Mr Downie.

The event caused Mr Downie to put enormous pressure on himself, to the point where he started taking anti-depressants for depression, as well as his anxiety medication. Due to his mental illness, the GWS Giants placed Mr Downie on the long-term injury list in March 2017.

“My lowest point mentally was the 6 week period prior to announcing my retirement. I didn’t know how I could keep having a sports career with my anxiety. Trying to fight and push through it was getting really tough,” said Mr Downie.

“But just having that low point gave me time to reflect. I decided to retire to look after myself and put my energy into other things.”

“The GWS club were very supportive of me, but they didn’t know how to help me. It was a hard thing for them to understand.”

After leaving AFL, Mr Downie was without any sport commitments for the first time in years.

“Those first 6 months was the happiest time of my life,” said Mr. Downie.

“I was seeing my friends and exploring Sydney as a young adult, feeling all the possibilities of what I could do.”

Coincidentally, Mr Downie found a passion for creating awareness for mental health. He has been the ambassador for The Black Dog Institute’s “Exercise Your Mood” campaign. He has also worked with his local Police Citizens Youth Club to work with troubled children and men suffering from mental illness.

“After hearing other people’s stories, I wanted to use footy as a platform to spread awareness, and make it more common to speak about mental illness.”

Mr Downie’s message to men suffering from anxiety and depression is this:

“Try and be open about it. Having a small circle of friends is good to talk about it with. Don’t try and be like someone else. Accept the way you are and learn to manage yourself as being human.”

Mr Downie currently resides in Melbourne closer to his family and friends, where he is focused on choosing a career, but is taking it one day at a time.