There wasn’t much hockey being played when Nick Hayman was a child, growing up outside London, England. It wasn’t until he was fourteen years old that a rink opened in his hometown. Nick had been ice skating as a child but when the rink opened, it was the first time he had ever seen hockey played. As it happened, Nick was involved in the grassroots of a hockey community that is still thriving today. But at the time, it was just a project for the local youth who were totally new to the sport. Nick played hockey for a few years but was never particularly successful. In his late teens, Nick left the game, finding that his academic pursuits and amateur rugby career were too time consuming.
“I had decided that I was going to take up something completely different from the job I was doing… which was that I was going to officiate hockey.”
Nick remembers watching the 2010 Olympic men’s hockey final on TV and it's no coincidence that he made his return to hockey a few years later. In the autumn of 2012, there was a push to expand grassroots, community sports as a follow-up to the recent Olympic Games in London. Nick remembered how much fun he had playing hockey as a child and that there had been referees, although he didn’t know any of them. That's when he made the decision to pick up a whistle and that was the first time he had ever officiated any sport at any level.
He was initially trained as a linesman but right from his first game, Nick was told that he would have to start refereeing shortly. There simply weren’t the numbers of officials for Nick to only work as a linesman. According to the IIHF, the United Kingdom has fewer than 500 officials and there are approximately 200 games per weekend across all levels; from grassroots to the senior and professional leagues. However, Nick was still working a time-intensive day job and only worked about a dozen games in each of his first two seasons as an official. Even so, he continued to watch a lot of hockey, practice his skating, and study his rules.
“Something is there in the background but you’re able to control it for periods of time… after a while, I was having to work harder and harder to achieve the same results.”
In retrospect, Nick acknowledges that he had dealt with mental health issues since his youth. But it was always manageable and he never felt like it seriously impacted his day-to-day life until 2011. At that time, he began to deal with depression that quickly spiralled out of control. Nick took time off from work in 2012, and ultimately left his career in 2015. At the time, Nick was working as a freelance stage manager for touring theatre productions. For anyone who is unfamiliar with theatre, the stage manager is quite possibly the most important role in the company. While the director is in charge of how a production is staged and how the actors perform their parts, the stage manager is responsible for making sure it happens, through rehearsals and each and every performance. One former actor describes the role of a stage manager as a “professional chaos handler”.
Nick loved his job but the workload was challenging. He would often spend all day rehearsing a new show, only to have a production of his current show in the evening. This meant eighteen-hour days, six to seven days per week, often over a period of multiple weeks. On top of that, Nick was dealing with the reality of being a freelancer: he was always looking for the next job. Professionally-speaking, Nick was experiencing great success but personally, he was heading towards a breakdown. It was during this period that mental health changed from something he could manage to something that was disrupting his routine.
“I had gotten to a point in my life where I needed something else; something other than my career”
From the outside, officiating doesn’t appear to be a relaxing hobby. However, officials know that when they're the ice, they simply cannot be thinking about something else. They just can’t be thinking about their chequebook or whether they booked a dentist appointment. So while officiating is physically and mentally taxing, it was also a space to which Nick could retreat from the other areas of his life.
“There were times when just packing up my kit and arriving at the rink was a major achievement."
This is not to say that Nick’s mental health never affected his officiating. There were still periods of time when he felt that his performance suffered and he took time off from officiating when that happened. However, even during challenging times, officiating helped keep Nick on track in other areas of his life. When Nick’s mental health was challenging, it was difficult to motivate himself to eat properly and get exercise. Officiating provided a reason to do these things, regardless of how he felt at the time.
“I tend to catastrophize, which is exactly the opposite of what you want in this job.”
As Nick was having increasing difficulty managing his mental health and his demanding work schedule, he was also working very hard to keep that under wraps. His career expected him to support others, deal with an unpredictable number of problems, and roll with the punches; not unlike officiating. As he began to experience challenges with his mental health, it became much harder to be the flexible, level-headed, problem-solver that his job demanded. Even when he reached the point where he knew he needed to take time off, he was concerned that this would become common knowledge. That could in turn affect his ability to get his next contract.
“People are prepared to be far more sympathetic that you would imagine, but you need to have the courage to actually talk to them about it.”
When Nick returned to work and was more open about his mental health, he found that it was easier than he thought to have work-related conversations about mental health. He had feared that conversations would go something like: “How are we supposed to employ you you’re your performance might be impacted by your mental health?” Instead, Nick’s employers were asking him how they could help him to do his job if his mental health became a problem again. There’s no question that mental health problems hastened the end of his career in the theatre. However, Nick doesn’t view this as a negative. He had a good career and after a time, it was clear he needed to move on to something different.
“The supervisors I had were not only supportive but many actually had their own stories of problems with mental health.”
Similarly, Nick wasn’t particularly eager to discuss his mental health challenges with his officiating colleagues. However, when he began working senior-level games, he felt he needed to disclose his history. He spoke with his supervisors and while he didn’t want it to be a big deal, he didn’t want it to be a secret. He wanted to be able to talk to his colleagues about his mental health, if and when it became necessary. Nick preferred this to what might happen if he wasn't forthcoming and his mental health became a problem later on. That would've been more problematic.
There is no doubt that it would have been much harder for Nick to be open about his struggles with mental health if he was a younger man. At the time, he was an established professional, well respected in his field and while he wanted to officiate at the highest level possible, it was not his career. But as a younger man, Nick would have felt like he had something to prove, that he wouldn’t be supported, and that he might not be able to work at higher levels of the game. It’s well-known that there is a lot of fear around issues of mental health and Nick was no exception. Nick’s feels that if people share their stories, other people are more likely to be open themselves. If Nick had known that colleagues with whom he was speaking had previous mental health challenges of their own, he would have felt more able to discuss it with them.
“As an older guy, it makes me want to be more proactive and open with people so that if someone else is in that position, that makes it more likely for them to speak to me.”
Nick’s belief is that it’s not enough to say that people should be more supportive and open. Individuals have to make a firm and active commitment to do so. Having colleagues and leaders who are open about their own mental health concerns encourages people to be open themselves. Nick’s role model for this is Nigel Owens, one of the top rugby referees of the last fifteen years. As a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, Owens both attempted suicide and asked his doctor about chemical castration. Owens is openly gay and has been very open about his mental health struggles. This would be like Wes MacCauley or Kelly Sutherland publicly disclosing their mental health struggles.
However, Nick believes that the example doesn’t have to be set doesn’t have to be those leaders at an elite level. Any person can do their part to push the conversation and help erase the stigma around mental health.
On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Nick's story in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.