Steve Gurney says depression can hit elite sportspeople after retirement

Updated: Jul 17

OLIVIA CALDWELL 05:00, Feb 10 2018

Endurance athlete Steve Gurney says retiring from sport can potentially have traumatic effects on an athlete's mental health. Depression, it is a dirty word.

Nine-time Coast to Coast winner and multisport legend Steve Gurney has gone down that pathway, come out and gone back down it again. He isn't ashamed about this fact, but the Kiwi multisport icon says too many athletes are afraid to open up because of the stigma around the 'D' word.

Gurney has publicly struggled off the course with his mental health because after the massive high of an event and career, the comedown can be brutal. He is currently going through what he calls "another bout", but is learning how to first recognise the signs of depression and secondly address it.


Adventure racing legend Steve Gurney struggles with his depression at times and says Kiwi athletes need to speak out about mental health. He says through injury and "being too old", he can't compete at the same level I was competing at, so that's massively depressing, suicidally depressing at some stages and I've had help with this."

READ MORE: Sports retirees are at risk of depression

Since retiring from serious competition the 54-year-old has left Christchurch for Queenstown, taken up motivational speaking and dabbles in multisport. While that fills in time, it does not fill void that his love for competition once occupied.

Sir John Kirwan was one of the first Kiwi sports people to speak out about depression and mental health.


He believes this is a common issue many athletes are left with when they decide to "hang up the boots", because they all have that competitive streak that doesn't just go away the minute you retire or run out of form.

"I don't think you can change your personality. As a driven person, it's your personality type. Often the first born or things that have happened in your life as a kid, drives you to be competitive.

"So when things go wrong, or when your career gets interrupted then life suddenly gets really tough because we are competitive by nature and I don't think you can change your nature. What we can do is understand."

"There are a lot of athletes who used to be professionals or high level competing athletes who have had injury or had to retire and are now struggling because that purpose that they had has now evaporated. I know it's especially happening in sport but also other professions and walks of life too."

Gurney and other Kiwi sporting greats have provided years of entertainment and inspiration to upcoming athletes and sports fans. But these same athletes are somewhat forgotten when they retire from professional sport and some even feel a sense of trauma when they are left with what can seem like nothing.

"It is like they are discarded in to the used basket you know."

When Gurney retired after winning his ninth Coast to Coast event he wasn't sure what to do with his life. He was left with with huge amounts of anxiety and a head space often so bad he thought about taking his own life.

While Gurney made a conscious decision to leave sport when the time was right, many athletes have to end their careers because of injury or poor form, and sometimes because of a mental health struggle.

He says there needs to be an open avenue for these athletes to talk about their mental health issues, both during and post career.

"There's nothing really, no organisations, help or courses. I see a gaping hole there with these sorts of people who are now lost. They can be helped."

An athlete's performance is not only driven by their physical fitness, but a lot has to do with their mental health. If an athlete's belief or self confidence is low, it is likely to show on game day.

The quick answer of anti depressants does not sit well with Gurney nor with former sportspeople who have spent a career resisting the temptation of drugs.

"We have fought really hard to stay clean in our sport. Drugs are kind of a dirty word to us. I'd rather figure out what's going on in my brain."

The former Cantabrian says mental health struggles are a lifelong battle and there is no easy fix.

Since realising he battled with his own mind, Gurney has learned how to recognise triggers and address them before they become too large to cope with.

"Recognition is the first thing, and being aware of that. Then you can choose a response. "Instead of being all upset and pissed off you can say 'there goes that competitive streak again' and think 'okay what's a better response'? That's the hardest thing for some people, to be able to recognise it."

One of Gurney's biggest concerns about depression is the word "depression". He believes Kiwis, especially males, treat having depression as a failure and others sometimes treat it as an excuse for life's failures.

"I think depression has been thought of as a dirty word and something you don't really want to talk about. There is a stigma and it's only just coming out into the open now, but there is resistance."

"Everyone is on the scale. Traditionally we have placed people in a box. 'Okay so you are in the depressed box' we say. And that's like you have got a fault. But it is human nature, we are all on the spectrum between happiness and depressed and we are all somewhere on that line.


"Society is still a long way from normalising it, but I really commend those high achievers who come out and are helping to normalise it."

AT A GLANCE Steve Gurney's steps to a clear mind: - It's about getting back in to good habits. Keep it small, like eating healthy food - Ban any form of junk food, throw out all the sugar in your house - Stay off social media, disconnect - Meet people face to face - Get lots of sleep. Get early nights and get up early - Sunlight. You need sun on your skin - Remove yourself from the cause of trauma - Acknowledge the good things and share it. It's an uplifting spiral - Develop and attitude of gratitude Where to get help

  • Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354

  • Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757

  • Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116

  • Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666

  • Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

  • Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz

  • 0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

  • Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

  • Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

  • Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

  • For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

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