Things i be­lieve

Smith Journal - - Smith Stuff - In­ter­viewer Taz Liff­man Il­lus­tra­tor Lorenzo Gritti

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.

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