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Bernard Tomic and the child sporting prodigy dilemma

Bernard Tomic was 15 years old when he first competed at the Australian Open. He was too young to drive the luxury cars he'd soon be able to afford.

"I didn't know any life apart from tennis since I was eight years old,"says the one-time No.17 before his short-lived stint last week on I'm a Celebrity …Get Me Out of Here!

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During an interview on The Project, Bernard Tomic calls Tennis Australia corrupt and lashes out at Lleyton Hewitt, after his exit from reality show I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here.

"I was just a machine, training with my father ... I didn't have a childhood; obviously, that took its toll."

But it's his comments about feeling depressed while he was on the reality TV show that have rallied warring sympathisers and revilers.

The troubled former child sporting prodigy is not an archetype Tomic created or can trademark, nor a harbinger for mental health problems or an excuse for bad behaviour in adulthood.

Tomic is just the latest lens used to interrogate the pitfalls of devoting a life to professional sport from childhood, a phenomena as varied as sports played.


Budding stars

Veteran Australian tennis coach Mark Hlawaty calls it "crazy parent syndrome".

"There's a really ugly side that comes out when parents let their emotions gets the better of them," Hlawaty says.

"They dream of their kids being successful and they just see dollar signs."

Having a supportive family that pushes a child to strive for improvement was an invaluable asset, Hlawaty says.

"No 10- or 12-year-old is super happy about spending four hours a day practising.

"But I've seen it go too far too often and that can be really damaging."

For elite individual sports such as tennis, swimming and gymnastics, training starts young. Younger than some team sports like rugby.

The strict regimens and the internal sporting culture can give children and young teenagers a scaffold to accelerate their development. It can flatten others.

"The structures of that life can be highly intense," says sports psychologist and researcher Dr Stephen Cobley.

"When you're young it can really improve your performance but the counter side is that it came become too intensive and the culture too pressurising."

Their worlds can shrink to the training gym, the court, or the pool and create "a perceived sense of entrapment", Cobley says.

They need to decide to double down or pull away and return to their education at a time when thinking of contingency plans if they were to suffer a career-ending injury is anathema to a burgeoning sports star.

"The sport becomes their identity," he says.

Some elite athletes thrive, or at least don't publicly stumble. Others implode, and countless more are chewed up and spat out before they reach the peak of their sporting profession.

"There are a lot who fell to the wayside that no one's ever heard of," Hlawaty says.

"These young kids think they are going to be extraordinary, and when they don't … when they're not in that 0.01 per cent, some of them take it really hard, especially when they've been pushed in that direction for as long as they can remember."

The 0.01 per cent

Cate Campbell was known as "the swimmer" at school. She was the kid who was good at sports.

"In a way you become addicted to the praise and recognition," the Australian champion says.

Despite the diligence of her parents in trying to preserve her sense of self, her identity became inextricably fused to her performance in the pool.

"It was hard to keep my self-worth and self-confidence separate from swimming," she says.

Campbell was the favourite to win the 100 metres freestyle gold at the Rio Olympic games.

She stopped hiking so her legs wouldn't be tired for training, going to live music gigs that might finish late and passing over the occasional pancake in favour of a healthier breakfast.

Cate Campbell felt the pressure of elite sport at a young age.

Cate Campbell felt the pressure of elite sport at a young age. Photo: Robert Shakespeare

"I was doing all these things not to be my best but to live up to all these expectations," she says.

"I was the number one in the world, the record holder, the sure bet. But we're not not robots, we're people."

When she didn't win, it was as if the world stopped, she says.

"I have this clear memory of hitting the wall and knowing I hadn't won. It was like the aftermath of an explosion. Everything was fuzzy and I couldn't hear anything.

"I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I felt like Australia had put its trust and hopes in me. I had people tell me they had lost money on me.

"Every time someone would congratulate me for how I handled myself after the race it was like nails on a chalkboard."

Her proudest moment was getting back onto the block the following day to swim the medley relay, where she pulled Australia up from fifth to second place.

"It was a conscious decision that I wasn't going to wallow," she says.

The so-called "post Olympics blues" hit the winners and losers, Campbell explains.

"You either achieved a lifelong dream and now you're thinking 'oh no, where do I go from here?' Or you just spent four years working towards something you haven't achieved and you might never get another shot," she says.

"How are you meant to deal with that?"

Sport is the easy part

For the sliver of hopefuls who "make it", there comes a disorienting realisation that a sporting career is "more than being able to hit a fluffy yellow ball", Hlawaty says.

"That's the easy bit," he adds.

"It's kind of like going from primary school straight into final year university … They don't have the coping mechanisms and they're pretty ignorant of the world."

Cobley says the pressure to perform in competition brings a new set of stressors: the threat of losing your position or contract, injury and being socially excluded after a loss.

"You might have gone through long periods of high-intensity training and a high competition load over a year or many years and you're feeling pretty fatigued and have this psychological burden," Cobley says.

"Then added to it is the pressure of media scrutiny, your privacy is lost and you've got sponsors to keep happy."

For some elite athletes, the pressure barely registers. For others it's a potential trigger for mental illness.

"Some have long-term psychological problems, and that's when we see excessive and extreme behaviours, drug and alcohol problems, depression and, at worst, thoughts of suicide," he says.

Former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker pulled focus from Tomic this week to offer a sobering frame of reference.

But Tomic's successful and lucrative sporting career – with his millions, his houses and his luxury cars – is worlds away from that of many young Australians with mental health problems.

"In the grand scale of things, you see people struggling with their daily lives ... I don't think Bernard Tomic is struggling," Becker says. "We have to put everything in perspective."

Former champions Boris Becker and Billie Jean King hold the men's and women's trophies ahead of the first round matches on day one of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

Former champions Boris Becker and Billie Jean King hold the men's and women's trophies ahead of the first round matches on day one of the 2018 Australian Open. Photo: AP

Almost one in five Australians experience some form of mental illness in a given year. Almost half (45.5 per cent) will have some mental health problem in their lifetime. The rates are highest among people aged 16 to 35 years.

About 4 per cent will experience a major depressive episode and 14 per cent will be affected by anxiety over any 12-month period.

In 2016, a comprehensive review concluded elite athletes experience a broadly comparable risk of anxiety and depression as the general population, though it acknowledged there was a paucity of robust research in the area.

An Australian survey of 224 elite athletes found the level of symptoms of mental health problems reported by elite athletes was similar to that observed in the community.

But they were vulnerable to "a number of extraordinary issues and stressors that may increase their risk, such as pressure to perform and public scrutiny", according to the study.

Injured or retiring athletes may be at greater risk of developing mental health issues, the authors wrote.

"Very few athletes have the choice to bow out gracefully," Cobley says.

"When it's forced on you there's a lot of bitterness and a sense of loss and isolation."

Research presented in Germany in 2016 found athletes in individual sports were more prone to depression than those in team games.

Swimming legends Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett

Swimming legends Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett Photo: Bernd Thissen

Grant Hackett had one of the most public mental health breakdowns in recent years, long after he retired from his swimming career, and the rigidity of training and the drive of competition was gone.

In January, swimming superstar Michael Phelps spoke of the "major state of depression" he experienced after every Olympic games.

The winner of 23 gold medals told the mental health conference the Kennedy Forum that he contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics.

Alone under stadium lights

There is an egotism that was almost impossible to entangle from the singular focus needed to succeed in individual elite sport.

"It's very different to a team environment," Hlawaty says.

"It's all about you. You are the most important person in your circle and you're all working to make you a better player."

The media scrutiny and the money can magnify the ego effect.

"How many 18-year-olds are staying in five-star hotels most weeks? It an abnormal world and you're at the centre of it," Hlawaty says.

When the adulations become scorn, or the pressure too much, young players can discover their physical conditioning doesn't extend to their emotional and psychological fitness.

"That's when players get ratty and all of a sudden they're breaking rackets and making the news for bad-mouthing [a competitor or umpire]," Hlawaty says.

"You've got to remember that they're getting the pats on the back, but they're also reading vile tweets and wondering if a threat's just a threat or is it real? That's a lot to cope with."

Former Australian swimming champion and general manager of the Australian Swimmers' Association, Daniel Kowalski, says today's athletes had it tougher, with the intense amount of media attention.

"There's the traditional media, but you've also got your bloggers, YouTubers, social media and everyone has an opinion. It increases the expectation and you don't have the ability to switch it off," he says.

Kowalski can't relate to Tomic's lack of love for his sport.

"I've never lost my love for swimming," says the Olympic champion who started squads when he was six years old.

"The hard work was never an issue. I was dealing with my own inner demons and trying to cope with my sexuality and the fact that I was sort of living this fake life."

Kowalski came out to his family three years after retiring from competitions.

"It took me a while to realise the focus I had when I was training and swimming and the ability to shut everything else out was probably the worst thing to do," he says.

He went through a "very dark period" after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and cried himself to sleep almost every night for 18 months.

He speaks openly about his depression – "it's just part of my make-up" – and treatment to help break down the stigma of mental illness and the perception that sports stars as "superhuman".

What comes after

Cobley says sports organisations have a responsibility to take a holistic approach to their athletes' wellbeing, and empower them to find a life and financial means outside the sport.

"A wise organisation would be thinking about those pathways," Cobley says.

In recent years, both Tennis Australia and Swimming Australia have undergone culture changes and introduced measures to help curb detrimental fixations on performance, including the language used to speak to young athletes to moderate expectations, as well as support programs and mentorships to assist athletes transition out of the sports.

"Staring at a black line for hours a day is not a very transferable skill in the workforce," Cate Campbell says.

After Rio she was stuck in limbo. She didn't want to retire from swimming, but she wanted a life outside the sport.

"I've never had a job. Not even a part-time stint at Woolworths or McDonald's."

Her training and competition program is now structured to allow her to study media and communications at university.

But she suspected there would be less incentive for highly-paid athletes to think about a career outside of the sport.

"The more money you make, the less you think about life outside sport because you don't have to," she says.

Hlawaty says Tennis Australia's culture shift is about giving its budding players a well-rounded sense of self.

"It's about making sure kids become the best possible people instead of just a great sports brand for Australia," Hlawaty says.