Is there something about cricket that puts its top players at greater risk of mental illness?
by Gordon Campbell
The causal links between cricket and depression, says Heath Mills, chief executive of cricket’s New Zealand Players Association, have been an issue in the game for many, many years. “There’s no question in my mind that in the past it was seen as a personal failing…It has not been recognised and addressed to the level that it should be. For too long we’ve had an attitude of hey, if a player shows a weakness, he’s got to harden up. That’s our culture, that’s being what we are. It has meant that people have been afraid to speak up when they’ve had issues. Depression has been almost suppressed within the culture of our team. And within the wider sporting environment.”
Some changes are afoot, Mills continues, but much remains to be done. The Players Association has run a personal development and careers programme for some six years now, which contains a risk management component that offers a number of services to the players – including psychological support and professional advice. “What I’m happy to say is that we’ve had approximately 20 players seek support through our programme in the past four to five years for depression, and other forms of mental illness. A large number of those wouldn’t necessarily be known to coaches or to team management.”
To make progress in this area, Mills believes, there needs to be a lot more communication with the game’s administrative body, New Zealand Cricket. Work needs to be done, he says, to create an environnment where people are comfortable talking about the issue. “That will only happen when there is no longer a fear that by raising the issue, [the player ] is going to be discriminated against, or that this is going to impact on their selection. For too long we’ve had a culture where athletes and top players have felt that if I put up my hand and seek to talk about this, then it will impact on my future selection, and on my future career and on my job..” Personally, he doesn’t think those currently engaged in the management and running of New Zealand teams are “ anywhere near the level required” on this issue.
Is something more involved than the normal pressures of top level professional sport – or is there something about cricket that renders its top players particularly vulnerable to depression? “There has to be a connection [with cricket itself]’ Mills replies. “ Not enough work has gone into finding out what that is.”
“What I would say about the cricket environment is that is unique in so far as the players are away from home for an enormous amount of time. We have international players who are away from home for ten months of the year and longer, in some cases. People say ‘Well, they’re well paid, it’s a career they choose, so get on with it.’ That’s all well and good, but its not showing a lot of empathy for the fact these guys are in hotel rooms on the road for ten months of the year, they’re away from their family support networks, they’re often operating in a workplace environment where they are under extreme pressure most days, and where their performance is judged publicly – not privately in a performance review as in a normal job, but publicly each and every day, on a score sheet. That’s not to make any excuses for the players or to say that other jobs aren’t tough, but this is not an easy work environment. And I think there is a lack of support and acknowledgement of how tough that workplace environment can be. And a lack of recognition of the lack of supports in place around it.”
Cricket’s administrators and publicists may resist their game being seen as the poster boy for depression – but cricket is its own worst enemy in this respect. The structure of the game allows for subtle and infinite variations of the individual’s efforts at batting, bowling and fielding, and how these fit within the team effort. Those relationships are utterly transparent, over days at a time – or months, in the case of a test series.
Down the years, this transparency has been widely celebrated. In his classic cricket book Beyond a Boundary, the Caribbean writer C. L. R. James made a case for cricket being the greatest of all games, and comparable at its best to the great works of art and theatre. He also credited cricket with helping to break down the barriers of racial and social intolerance, and saw in it the spirit of individualism being celebrated against the dead hand of conformity and the numbing effects of industrialization. (Clearly, he was writing before the age of limited overs and T20 cricket.)
Cricket, James maintained, involved a unique relationship between the individual’s contribution and the outcome for the team :
The batsman facing the ball does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is the side. This fundamental relation of the one and the many, individual and social…leader and followers, the part and the whole, is structurally imposed on the players of cricket. What other sports, games and arts have to aim at, the players are given to start with, they cannot depart from it. Thus the game is built on a dramatic, a human relation…which is objectively pervasive and psychologically stimulating…
OK, that’s the upside. What is not talked about very often is the downside : that of all top sportsmen, cricketers seem to be the most prone to depression. Could it be that the same ingenious structure that makes cricket supreme among team sports also renders its top players far more vulnerable to mental illness?
More top cricketers are now talking openly about this aspect of the game. The fact that several high profile players – such as the English opener Marcus Trescothick, the New Zealand pace bowler Iain O’Brien, the New Zealand batsman Lou Vincent, the Australian pace bowler Shaun Tait, and the English all rounder Michael Yardy – have all spoken publicly about the impact of depression on their lives, is helping to foster public understanding.
In late July, the Tasmanian batsman Ed Cowan published on Cricinfo a brilliantly succinct article on the link between cricket and the ‘black dog’ of depression.
As Cowan readily concedes from the outset, cricket shares many of the anxiety-inducing pressures common in other professional sports and among the population at large. Also, as he says, there are good reasons for thinking some of that anxiety is performance – enhancing. But he goes on:
David Frith in his book Silence of the Heart: Cricket Suicides contends that cricket is by far the greatest sport for suicides. Although some of his case studies bring forth tenuous links between cricket and the sad ends to several lives, his central thesis certainly has some validity: that the game promotes the thought patterns and anxiety levels required to tumble people into the desperate hole of depression. In an illustration arguably more significant than that offered by Frith’s cricket sample, Major League Baseball players – perhaps the only brothers to international cricketers – have been shown to be two and a half times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the American male population.
So what is there about cricket that makes it more likely to lead the vulnerable down the path of depression? Cowan has this to offer :
Despite being a team sport, it is perhaps the only game where one’s contribution is entirely objective. There is no escaping the black and white of failure – among other things, it is statistically tangible. Nothing engulfs you like the self-doubt and frustration of sitting in the corner of the change room, cursing your own inability, wondering what you could have done to avoid the finality of dismissal. Your team may win, but more often than not, you are not even going to be partly responsible if they do. Your contribution, not only self-analysed, has the perceived added weight of 10 other sets of critical eyes. You can feel as though you have not let not just yourself down, but worse, those around you. While this may occur in other team sports, it rarely does with the frequency it does in cricket.
Again, Cowan links it back to the structure of the game that James justly celebrates, and to the tangible evidence of failure :
The time scales inherent in the game – the lag between a failure and the opportunity to make amends – can mean this cloud of doubt has the opportunity to precipitate into a sea of introspection. In a game that is often a one-chance saloon (and a chance that is sensitive to the adjudication of others) the margin for error is slim, and emotions on polar opposites of the spectrum are only ever a feather edge away.
At this point, family can be a crucial support. Yet as Mills has indicated, few – if any – games remove the players from the support of family quite as regularly and for such long periods as cricket does. Marcus Trescothick’s undoing as an international player via depression was not due to the pressure of playing top level competitive cricket per se, but to his inability to handle being away from the supportive reality check provided by his family. Cowan, again, hits this nail on the head :
In the next three years Australian cricketers will spend on average 44 weeks a year away from their own beds – only two of which are allocated to be fully funded family time. Families are welcome on tour at any stage, but the logistics for them to actually go are largely unworkable. Children still need to go to school, wives still need to lead their own lives. A travelling, brooding cricketer can be left to his own devices for extended periods – more often than not in this age of security, solely in the confines of a hotel room – which feeds the anxiety monster.
Iain O’Brien has spoken about this convergence of the natural performance anxiety felt by the professional sportsman, with the isolation of being on tour, in his case in South Africa in 2007 :
“I’d just got back into the Test team after two-and-a-half years out of the mix, but for the first two weeks of our tour to South Africa, I didn’t really leave my room. I was just too scared. I went and played cricket, went to training and did a bit of shopping. But most nights I’d eat by myself and order room service. The rest of the time I’d either hang out in my room or sit by the pool. Wrapped up in it is how you value and see yourself. I didn’t feel as though the guys I was on tour with were equals by any means. I didn’t want to bother them so I looked after myself. That’s still how I deal with it sometimes even now. If I’m having a few bad days, I’ll try to get away from people. I can still go and play cricket and have good days on the park, but the rest of it can be quite hard work.
At the time in 2008 when Lou Vincent went public with his battles with depression, NZ Cricket selector Dion Nash spoke to the media about his view of the contributing factors. Again, it was the combination of the game’s intrinsic pressure with the prolonged absence from family support that cropped up as being causative :
Cricket, [Nash] said, was one of the toughest games mentally – often it was about battling your own head more than the opposition. Players had to ensure they stayed consistently calm, positive and in a neutral headspace – this was particularly hard on overseas tours when players were away from friends and family.
Not everyone has been understanding, or supportive. The British mental health charity Sane has made it clear that depression is a serious condition that should not be regarded as weakness, or as an excuse for inadequate performance. The need for the organisation to speak out was triggered by formerplayer/media commentator Geoff Boycott’s uncomprehending attack on Michael Yardy, after Yardy returned home early from a tour to Sri Lanka, due to the onset of depression. To Boycott (who freely confessed he didn’t really know what he was talking about) succumbing to depression ( or not) merely came down to whether you were a good enough cricketer in the first place.
Boycott expressed sympathy for Yardy, who has returned home to his wife and two young children in Brighton after spending all but four days of the last four months playing in New Zealand, Australia, Bangladesh and India. “It’s obviously very sad,” said Boycott. “But I’m not a medical man, so I can’t tell you what it’s like to be depressed. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been good enough…”.
For Marcus Trescothick, the separation from family was (once again) a crucial factor. Being isolated for long periods on tour would exacerbate the probing questions about self that top level cricket naturally poses. In an interview with the Guardian, Trescothick talked about the times he had broken down on tours of India, and especially about the occasion in 2009 :
That took time to get over. That closed everything in the sense of me thinking: ‘Right, I’m not going to do that again. I have no ambition to travel abroad any more.’ Clearly, it only makes me worse so why should I even put myself in that position? The winter just gone has been great for me, the best since I’ve really started to struggle with depression, so maybe I’m now taking control.”
Not that the battle is ever entirely over.
But “the beast” still lurks inside? “Clearly,” Trescothick nods. “It’s not me. It’s somebody totally different who takes over. I think it always just lies dormant until the anxiety rises up. It’s more an anxiety issue I have, rather than a depression. Of course they’re two sides of the same coin but I can flip into anxiety state very quickly – because my brain doesn’t cope well with anxiety. At the same time you learn how to do all the good things so you can say: ‘OK, let’s get back to normal.’
Finally, if Trescothick, O’Brien and Cowan are right and the risks of depression are at their height when players are on tour overseas – for the New Zealand team, that means being beyond the reach of family support and whatever counselling is available via the Players Association back home – the onus comes back onto team management. As Mills says, the individual first has to recognize he may have a problem – but a climate also needs to exist where those concerns can be brought forward without fear of the consequences.
The need for early intervention also means that management has to be alert to the possible signs, and be willing to be pro-active in an appropriate fashion. “On tour,” Mills concludes. “we have to see to see that we get some support to them immediately. With all those things, there is a huge lot of work still to be done.”