In the shadows of the limelight – Part 2 of 3

As an optimist and a believer in the infinite potential of people, this was not a pleasant blog to write, nor to post. I do so none-the-less, in the hope that it will offer a useful contribution where it may be needed.

As cricket advances into the entertainment industry, so the limelight shines more brightly on the entertainers. Cricketers today enjoy more money, more glitz, more glamour and more exposure than ever before. It’s fun, but are they sufficiently prepared for what may lurk in the shadows of this limelight?

The obvious shadows, long known to those in positions of prominence, are often brought to us by the media. A scuffle in a night club, driving over the alcohol limit, sexual indiscretions, dodgy business liaisons, drug abuse, excessive boozing, the ‘honey pot’ and match fixing are commonly reported traps. These shadows are trawled by media vultures stooping to create or scrape up some dirt on players to increase their media rankings. Some celebrities feel they are above the law, invincible and sometimes immortal, which lends fertile ground for these incidents, many of which end up being excused by an admiring policeman, traffic officer or lawyer.

There are less obvious dangers lurking in the shadows, ones that slowly envelop the unaware.

Like models, actors and high flyer’s, and measured by success, cricketing stars are easily seduced into looking good, into defining themselves and their happiness by their name, fame, money and/or results. Scoring runs and taking wickets leaves the cricketer feeling happy and self-confident. He may feel inflated, be happy to go out and socialise, and find it easy to be nice to his partner, family, friends and/or fans. The cricket-watching public judge them positively, write complementary things, praise them on TV, ask for their autographs, sponsor them, grant them privileges and give them freebies. Fans are happy. A part of the fans happiness is attached to the results of their hero or favourite team.

When the cricketer hits low form, he feels bad, at least to the degree that his inner contentment is attached to his results. He may feel deflated and unenthusiastic, with his self-confidence having taken a blow. He is more likely to stay in his hotel room, sulking, and is more likely to be grumpy with other people. Journalists and commentators criticise, which sometimes serves to make the critic feel a bit better about themselves. Fans get grumpy. They blame the cricketer for having failed in their responsibility to make the fan happy.

A darker shadow of the limelight is where a celebrities buys into the image of fame (of being a special person) that fans and the media create for them. As they do this, they become more alienated from themselves, losing touch of who they authentically are. They begin to see themselves as superior to ordinary mortals, not only better at the skill that made them famous, but also better and more important as people. They become dependent on their popularity, and surround themselves with people who feed their inflated self-image. Often needing to be with others or out in public, they struggle to be alone, uncomfortable in their own company. Yet while surrounding themselves with others, they become incapable of genuine relationships. According to renowned spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle1, a relationship where there is a sense “me being the important one around here” can never be genuine.

During the good times friends flock. Sadly many are ‘false friends’ or ‘name-droppers’. According to Tolle, these people seek out their hero, and often unbeknown to themselves, are not actually interested in the star, but rather in enhancing their own identity and sense of self-worth. They believe that through knowing a celebrity, they become more, better, complete through the eyes of others. When times are good, this ‘relationship’ works for the star as he finds himself surrounded by people who fuel his celebrity status.

If the tough times last, through injury, low form, being dropped or retirement, times when friends are important, the celebrity may find few, if any, around. These false friends cannot have their needs met though a falling star, so they move off to nurture their associations with the next fashionable celebrity. With attachment to being a celebrity, the loneliness deepens when results no longer boost a fickle self-confidence, made worse by lack of genuine friendship or connection to others, and a now deeply-set alienation from their authentic self. There seems nowhere to turn.

Cricket is currently the sport with the highest suicide rate in the world, with South Africa being the country with the highest rate2. One in every 24 of South Africa’s test cricketers who have died, died through suicide3. Crickets divorce rate is apparently second only to Hollywood2. What these facts don’t allude to is the creeping emptiness, loneliness, depression and substance abuse that many cricketers and ex-cricketers may suffer. In an article on cricket suicides, a well-known English country cricketer related his story to Michael Atherton4; ‘I bottled everything up; I didn’t feel as though I could talk to anyone. I had nowhere to go, nowhere to turn. I felt like I was in a big black hole and there was no way out.’

Celebrities from the music, film, business and sport world have long had higher than average incidences of depression and substance abuse, which are known to be associated with loneliness and/or a lack of connectedness and relationship with others – the feeling of being all alone in the world, of having to fend for oneself1.

As with the theme of Paolo’s Coelho’s book5, ‘The Winner Stands Alone’, rock stars, models, actors and sport stars at some point will touch the inner emptiness that accompanies the world which has an over-focus on results, power, status, glamour, material success and looking good. The creeping discontentment drives the celebrity to find happiness or contentment by trying to become even more successful, make more money, acquire better possessions, improve their looks, or indulge in more alcohol, sex or drugs. The discontentment is quelled, but only temporarily.

As cricket graduates further into the entertainment industry, unfortunately these statistics are likely to increase. The more a cricketer buys into the glitz and glamour in his playing days, the more he loses touch with who he authentically is, the more he looks for happiness ‘out there’, the more he surrounds himself with false friends, the fewer genuine relationships he has, the more the likelihood of suffering this unfortunate hangover.

Sad are yesterdays heroes whose only solace is to regurgitate stories of their glory days surrounded by lonely souls at the bar counter, beer in hand around the braai, or at the blackjack table. Former England captain and psychotherapist Mike Brearley warns ex-cricketers of being lured into jobs that prostitute them into making money through fitting in with the star-struck desires of others. He also cautions those who move into the caravan of entertainers, after-dinner speakers, and so on, where a player risks compromising his integrity, and where the temptation is there to cheapen oneself and subtly denigrate one’s earlier career.

Most current players probably won’t hear this, or will pooh-pooh it. Why should they, they’re styling at the moment. Or maybe they have touched the emptiness, but there is little or no safe space in the sport to admit it, and thus address it. Rather they gel their hair and head for the party.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a happy ending (not the kind you’re thinking about though). As the world of fame and external measures of success dispense discontentment, so too it gives birth to a more conscious world; one where the outward search for name, fame, money, success or vice is balanced by the pursuit of inner contentment. Those who look out there, dream. Those who look inside, awaken. This shift is already happening. Hashim Amla is possibly one of crickets best examples of this. He has seemingly little interest in pursuing name, fame or money. Neither them nor cricket are his God. His self worth and contentment are largely independent of his results. The more that praise is heaped on him, the more he thanks and diverts it to others. Apart from relentlessly practicing to become a better cricketer, he spends much of his time reinforcing his values and strength of character – growing himself as a person. Little surprise that he enjoys an abundance of runs and success, and is so respected as a person by teammates, opposition players and fans. Not that any of this is overly important to him.

Hopefully cricket and cricketers will learn from other fallen celebrities. Ex-England captain Michael Atherton advises cricketers to ‘avoid the grasping claws of celebrity if at all possible, because it will chew you up and spit you out when you are at your most vulnerable’. Developing strength of character and living according ones own (not others) values and expectations is critical to sustaining successful performance and successful living. World-renowned adventurer Mike Horn is clear on this. “Developing talent is not enough. Everyday you have to do something to better yourself as a person. This will not only allow you to handle success, but will allow it to keep growing”

In developing our stars of tomorrow, hopefully ‘cricket’ will be more responsible in shining the light of awareness on the trappings of stardom. It starts with parenting and with schoolmasters, where sport begs a healthier balance between achieving results and developing healthy self-esteem, independent of these results. Funny thing is, the less attached to winning, the more likely it will happen.

The final part in this series will map out, in a little more detail, some of the path towards lasting contentment and better results – relevant to cricket, business and life. I promise it will be far less glum, as it discusses the light and not the shadows as in this article.

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Eckhart Tolle, 2005. A New Earth. Penguin. UK.
David Firth. 2001. Silence of the heart – cricket suicides. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.
P A H Upton. 2004. ‘Exploring the hypothesis that an instruction-based/external/performance focus prevails in the coaching of elite South African cricketers, with an analysis of why this might limit players personally and professionally, should it exist’. Masters Dissertation, Middlesex University, UK. (Awarded with Distinction)
Michael Atherton. 2003. ‘When the glamour dies’. Telegraph Group Limited.
Paulo Coelho, 2010. The Winner Stands Alone. Harpercollins Publishers. UK. ISBN 9780007306084