Life & Culture

Gary Bloom: Putting sports stars on the couch

Commentator turned therapist Gary Bloom has a new radio series in which stars like Rebecca Adlington and Marcus Tresothick open up about their emotional lives.


If you’re a sports fan, particularly of the couch potato variety, you’ve probably heard of Gary Bloom.

He’s had a 30-year career as a sports commentator — most notably for a decade on Channel 4’s Football Italia show — but also covering swimming and athletics and well, you name it.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to hear that he is hosting a new radio show, which is a quite different approach to sports broadcasting. A sort of sporting In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, with Bloom as the Anthony Clare figure, talking to top sports people about their darkest moments.

How did this come about, I ask when we meet at his snug Oxford home, a converted church with a large mezuzah on the doorpost.

It turns out that Bloom combined working as a commentator — he’s soon off to the World Swimming Championships in Budapest — with training and then working as a psychotherapist.

“I had no idea that my training as a therapist, which was a very traditional training, would in any way one day link up with sport.”

Seven or so years ago he went through a difficult period in his personal life, which took him into therapy.

“I decided that when I wasn’t broadcasting I would train as a therapist. Now, though, I see my role as a counsellor and therapist as my bit of tikkun olam — to repair the earth, it kind of fits in a very spiritual way.”

His series will be aired on TalkSport next month. Called On The Sporting Couch the six shows include stars of cricket, football, rugby and athletics.

There’s England and Somerset cricket legend Marcus Trescothick talking about the anxiety issues which robbed him of the captain’s role for his country.

“It was all about the anxiety of being away from his family,” Bloom explains. “Marcus couldn’t be away on tour — he talks very honestly about this.”

The former Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballer Keith Gillespie examines the gambling that led to him blowing
£7 million, and his conviction for harrassing his ex-partner, for which he received a community service sentence. The judge told him that his behaviour amounted to “a form of domestic violence”.

And there is a highly moving account from darts champion James Wade on his battle with bipolar disorder.

‘For James, it really was a case of whether he should take his medication and not be as good a darts player as he was.

“Or should he not take it, and be forced to deal with the consequences?”

For the final show in the series, Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington, OBE, agreed to talk to Bloom about the problems she has had dealing with the attention which came with her stellar career.

“She said she didn’t want it all to be about body image, which has been a big part of her career,” says Bloom. The swimming star was often subject to personal comments in the media about her appearance.

In the show she did eventually talk about body image — and also discussed in some detail how hard she found dealing with fame.

Perhaps the most moving episode is Bloom’s session with Nigel Evans, who refereed the 2015 Rugby World Cup final. He breaks down in tears after admitting that he tried to take his own life over his struggle to deal with his homosexuality.

“He talked so honestly about lying to his mother over the fact he was gay,” Bloom tells me.

“I remember thinking thank God the red light is on — we are recording this.

“If one person also struggling with their sexuality listens to this and manages to come out, then I’ve done my job.”

The series owes much to Gary’s recent work with Cognacity, a Harley Street based group of clinical psychotherapists and psychologists.

“I was asked to be an associate and it’s just grown from there,” he says.

“It’s a great organisation, especially among people with problems in sport. I’ll see elite sport stars, as Cognacity have contracts with players unions in a variety of sports.

The problems that sports stars struggle with include “mood disorders, mostly depression, and the biggest concern is failure to succeed.

“Sports people tend to have a dual personality — a sportsperson, one which is overdeveloped and a second one, which is underdeveloped.

“If you think how leaders of industry often measure themselves heavily on how they do in their work, in sports it is invariably if I haven’t done well then it means I’m a terrible person.”

The series came about when Gary was looking for a way of combining the two elements of his working life. Stuck for a first candidate for a pilot show, it was Cognacity who came up with Bath rugby star Duncan Bell.

The former prop spoke movingly about the battle against depression which ended his rugby career; and the family issues that continue to haunt him.

“It was a jaw-dropping 50 minutes,” says Gary. “It was just OMG. Talksport got very excited about it.”

I put it to Gary that some of the shows are so raw with emotion that some listeners may feel they verge on being exploitative of vulnerable people.

He disagrees profoundly. “Anyone we invited onto the show, we made them listen to the pilot show with Duncan,” he says.

“Then, if they agreed to go ahead, if they felt uneasy or uncomfortable about anything they could either say so, or they had the opportunity to redact anything they said.”

He is also keen to stress what he sees as the way in which Judaism has influenced his work.

“The reason I’m doing it,” he says, “is that if we save one person, if one person puts down the bottle or pills, if one person steps back from taking their own life — this plugs into my Jewish values. That’s my mitzvah.”

He grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community in Leeds.

But rather than fond memories, he admits his early verdict on Jewish life in the city was far from positive.

“A lot of the things the community stood for did not make sense to me.

“The idea of having an ethical base to the community was kind of not there — and what took its place was an adherence to rules without understanding what the rules were.

“It drove me away from the faith, I found the community incredibly materialistic, incredibly narcissistic.”

Moving to Oxford in 1990, to be near his in-laws when he and his former wife had young children, had a dramatic influence on Bloom’s approach to his faith.

“I didn’t understand religion until I came to Oxford,” he explains. The pluralist nature of the Oxford community was part of the appeal.

“The faith came to me from the community here, it took me more towards Liberal Judaism.

“I see myself as a Liberal Jew — but probably more devout.

“It’s about trying to pick up for some the points of being Jewish — things like tikkun olam, tzedakah, about kindness and about generosity.

“It’s an extraordinary community – an adherence to the core values of Judaism.

“To me it’s about being a light upon nations and having a certain morality as a Jew.”

Bloom has a partner, Sue, but lives on his own. He has a student daughter, and a son who also works in the media, in sport and has just got engaged to “a nice Jewish girl, I’m a very proud dad.”

Bloom uses his book-lined living room to host counselling sessions, as well as holding weekly surgeries in Harley Street.

Alongside his sessions with sports stars he also helps teenagers who are struggling at school.

“I work with teenagers who are showing behavioural and academic problems — mainly boys aged 14 to 16.

“I go to a school and see kids who really are struggling and I feel I can make a difference.

He often uses a diagram during sessions, which seeks to show how antisemitic ideas come to flourish in society.

“I use it all the time with my clients,” he reveals. “It is about taking responsibility and trying to clean up the mess instead of blaming somebody else.”

It is clear that his three years of training to become a psychotherapist have left Gary in a far better place in his life as well as giving his Judaism even greater meaning.

“The hardest part for me was that as a broadcast journalist we are forced to make instant decisions like, ‘Was that offside, or was that a foul?

“As a therapist it has been about teaching myself to say no, I’ve no idea what is going on here.

“But with psychotherapy it could take eight or nine sessions, maybe even up to an entire year, but finally when that breakthrough does come, it’s amazing. That has been the huge change for me.”


On the Sporting Couch starts on TalkSport on June 10 at 9pm

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