Things i believe
AS A CHILD, MATTHEW MITCHAM DREAMED OF BECOMING THE WORLD’S BEST DIVER. WHEN HE SET AN OLYMPIC RECORD, HE HIT ROCK BOTTOM.
NEGLECT CAN BE A POWERFUL MOTIVATOR
I grew up with a single parent who suffered from mental and physical problems. As a result, I often felt overlooked as a child. I received positive reinforcement when I did something well, and I remember forming this idea that, if I became the best in the world at something, my mother might love me. It sounds crazy now, but in a way it wasn’t actually that far-fetched. For years I didn’t even know what it was I wanted to be the best at – I just knew that I wanted it. When diving came along I grasped it with both hands.
INVISIBLE OBSTACLES MAKE FOR HARD NAVIGATING
I was 11 when I started training with the Australian Institute of Sport, an age much too young to have established my sexual identity. By the time I started questioning things, I’d been training with my squad for several years – five hours a day, six days a week. I didn’t feel able to be open with them; I felt that that would have been admitting
I’d been deceiving them. I became cagey and standoffish as a consequence, which alienated me further. Everybody could sense there were obstacles, but nobody knew how to navigate them because I wasn’t being authentic. I fell into depression and wasn’t able to be present in my training. At the 2006 Commonwealth Games my best result was fourth. I retired from diving at the age of 18 without any intentions of making a return.
DESTRUCTION CAN BE CONSTRUCTIVE
For almost a year I basically just partied. It was a fairly wild phase of my life, but also a constructive one, in that it empowered me to finally become comfortable with my sexuality. During this period I decided that I was going to be completely honest with everyone about who I was; I knew that my self-esteem couldn’t handle anything less. Ironically, once I came out, all the homophobic slurs that had been slung at me all but disappeared. A bully can’t pick on a strength; they can only pick on a weakness. Owning your identity gives them nothing to latch on to.
ACCEPTANCE EQUALS PRESENCE
After retiring from diving, it took me six months to stop hating the sport and another three to start missing it. It was around this time that I received a message from a diving coach I knew, Chava Sobrino, saying I would always have a place in his squad if I ever wanted to return. I knew Chava enough to know that he cared for my welfare as a human being more than as an athlete. When I accepted his offer, he actively went about creating a training environment in which I was completely accepted for who I was. The sense of validation I received had a profound effect on my self-esteem. I was able to be present for every single one of my dives in the 15-month lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where I won gold on the 10-metre platform with the highest single-dive score in Olympic history.
SUCCESS IS SUBJECTIVE
After returning from Beijing, I checked the world rankings and found out that despite having won gold, I was actually ranked second in the world. The Chinese diver
I’d beaten in the Olympics had won more events earlier in the year, meaning that he was still number one. My self-esteem plummeted – I wasn’t the best in the world at something after all – but I also felt reinvigorated to set new goals. Two years later I finished on top of the rankings. I had achieved my goal of being officially the best in the world at something. And yet my feelings of emptiness persisted. I started feeling like I didn’t have any value; that I was essentially just a coat rack for a medal. My achievement hadn’t filled the void I’d anticipated it would.
COPING MECHANISMS ARE HARD TO SHAKE
Things got worse later that year when I had to take three months off due to injury. Because I was no longer diving, I lost a lot of the external sources of esteem that I’d come to rely on, such as judges’ scores and the feedback of my coach. That’s when my depression really relapsed. I’d been training six hours a day for years and now I was alone and idle with my own damaging thoughts running over and over. I wanted so desperately to feel differently, or to not feel at all, that I ended up going back to the last coping mechanism I’d known as a teenager: hard drugs.
ESTEEM COMES FROM WITHIN
Because I didn’t want to appear weak or ungrateful to those who had helped me, I kept my problems to myself. I could cover it up when I was bed-bound, but when I returned to training I discovered that getting off the drugs wasn’t as easy as I’d expected. Every time I used drugs I promised myself it was going to be the last time, and every time I broke that promise it just tore my self-esteem in half. Finally I accepted that this wasn’t a problem I was able to fix myself. Rehab was my last resort where it really should have been my first. I learnt there that my attempts to self-medicate were a symptom of my depression, and that the cause of my depression was poor self-esteem. It sounds obvious now, but I had let all of my self-esteem be based on my actions and achievements rather than on my own inner worth. I didn’t know how to esteem myself.
CHANGE COMES SLOW
Part of the reason I wasn’t able to be open about my sexuality, depression or drug abuse was that I was working in an environment that largely adheres to these traditional notions of masculinity. I don’t like to use the term ‘toxic masculinity’, but the macho mentality that pervades many sports is an issue. You’re in an intense, insulating environment with all these ultra-competitive alpha males thrown together. Thankfully this is starting to change. It’s heartening to see talk increasing in sport around issues like domestic violence, racism, depression, homophobia and gender pay gaps. Still, you can’t expect to see changes in sport before these changes have first been reflected in wider society. Athletes are a part of wider society, not apart from it.
ROLE MODELS HAVE ONE CHOICE
You become a role model as soon as somebody looks up to you. The only choice you’re then left with is whether you accept this position and modify your behaviour accordingly, or whether you continue to behave in the way that you want. In the latter case, you’re likely going to end up being a bad role model – because some people are going to idolise you whether you like it or not. I can understand how some people might see being a role model as an unfair burden, but I like to see it as an opportunity to be recognised for being the best version of yourself.
NO-ONE HAS A SINGLE IDENTITY
Sporting organisations are slowly realising that work or school can provide a great mental break from sport. It also guards against athletes feeling stuck. You should never be made to feel like a one-trick pony with only one choice or identity. That’s where so many athletes run into trouble once they retire. They think, “Who am I if I’m no longer an athlete?” Preparing for life postsport can ease the transition. If you already have some new pursuit to devote those six hours a day to that were consumed by your training, you’re halfway there.
SHARING IS A TWO-WAY TRANSACTION
For the last few years I’ve been performing autobiographical cabaret shows. It’s a forum where I can talk about mental health and get people having conversations. Once you’ve opened up about your own vulnerabilities, you’ve disassembled that power imbalance of shame, which in turn allows people to open up about their vulnerabilities. People have shared things with me they’ve never felt comfortable enough to tell anyone. I find that a really rewarding experience. I benefit from sharing my story, others benefit from hearing it, and I benefit from seeing them benefit. This, finally, is one of the healthy ways I’ve found to validate myself.
YOU BECOME A ROLE MODEL AS SOON AS SOMEBODY LOOKS UP TO YOU. THE ONLY CHOICE YOU’RE LEFT WITH IS WHETHER YOU MODIFY YOUR BEHAVIOUR.