Paddy Upton

Towards resolving mental illness in sport

Virat Kohli recently revealed that in England in 2014 he felt like it was the end of the world, admitting the he “just didn’t know what to do, what to say to anyone, how to speak, how to communicate”. It was only after Glen Maxwell and other cricketers had the courage to admit their mental ‘struggles’ that Kohli admitted his, saying that he didn’t do so earlier because of how this might have been interpreted.

The list of cricketers who have publicly admitted their mental struggles and illnesses is growing. England’s Marcus Trescothick and Jonathan Trott both ended their careers prematurely due to mental health issues, whilst Steve Harmison admitted to homesickness, anxiety and depression, as did Andrew Flintoff and Monty Panesar to the latter. Recently four Australian cricketers took a break from the game due to mental health issues, including test hopeful Will Pucosuvki, Nic Maddinson, Moises Enriques and Glenn Maxwell. Indian youngster Aryaman Birla cited taking a sabbatical due to ‘severe anxiety related to cricket’. Of greater concern, is that the list who have suffered in silence is likely to be a lot longer.

There are a number of factors that cause anxiety, loneliness and even depression in athletes, many of which are sufficiently manageable to not interfere with or prematurely end a player’s career.

Performance anxiety is the most obvious and prevalent stressor in professional sport. Although this anxiety is a very normal and natural part of any competitive environment, it remains manageable. The more a player attaches their self-worth to their results, which seems them needing to do well to feel good about themselves, the more they will experience pressure. The reality is that many top athletes lack deep seated self-confidence, which in turn sees their insecurity driving them to train harder, to get better and feeds their hunger to win. yes, you have read right. Many top international athletes carry deep-seated insecurities. They are also experts at hiding these from others, and at the same time they manage to succeed despite them. In fact, as the case with almost every one of us ‘normal’ folk, I’ve seldom ever met or worked with an athlete that is fully secure within themselves, their knowledge and/or their ability.

Some key antidotes to performance anxiety is to separate who you are from your results, knowing that win or lose, you are still perfectly ok as a person. It’s useful to realise the temporary nature of results, thus to not hanker excessively after success nor being overly fearful of failure. Whatever the last or next result, that too shall pass. Perspective is another useful antidote, which can come from comparing a sport result with say a family member with terminal cancer, someone living with severe disability or even with those in war-torn or famine-stricken areas.

Parental pressure is another common cause of pressure, anxiety and stress, as is pressure from other family members and even friends. I’ve worked with more than a handful of athletes, including Indian cricketers, who have brought up the fact that their friends phone them on the day of a game to tell them that they ‘have to’ score a century and that the team ‘must’ win. Only some athletes have the awareness and courage to address this directly with their family or friends. Others need to find way to make these comments ‘white noise’, hearing them as well-meaning chatter that does not register any relevance.

Being away from home can be stressful, especially for those leaving home for the first time. Homesickness can be exacerbated by being a non-playing reserve, with the associated boredom and/or inability to make a meaningful contribution, or being a newly selected member and thus not yet accepted and integrated into the inner sanctum of the team. Introverts who keep to themselves might suffer more than extroverts who find it easier to engage with others. The antidote is having a welcoming and caring team culture, which needs to be driven by the leadership, and can be helped by having healthy induction and orientation procedures.

Unfortunately, there are still some teams that allow thoughtless bully-boy or humiliating initiations that do way more damage than good to new members.

Loss of form, being dropped or getting injured contribute to anxiety and can lead depression. Like with being away from home, having a caring team culture, sensitive to the feelings of those enduring any of these difficult situations is a powerful antidote. Far more impactful than this is probably the difficulties that many experience when they retire. The transition from being in the limelight, having clear goals and routines, systems and structures to follow on a daily basis, to… well, nothing in particular, is difficult for most. Many folk who retire in business have the same difficulty, but a key difference is their age and what retirement means for a 35 year-old athlete versus a 65 year-old businessperson.

A modern-day stressor, which is ever growing and not yet fully understood is the impact of social media on athletes’ mental well-being. I suggest that those who give most weight to what people say on social media are those who will suffer most. These are often the ones with fickle self-esteem, and who find themselves relaying on likes, number of followers and people saying good things about them to feel good about themselves. These same ones will likely to be most negatively impacted by critics and criticism. These athletes will do well to find security and sufficient feel-good within themselves, to know that what other people say about them is none of their business. I often share with athletes that “if someone says you’re good, it doesn’t mean you’re good, and if someone says you’re useless, it does not mean you are useless”. And add that, “there are people who dislike Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and any other you could name, so why then do you think everybody should like you?”

Off filed distractions are also big, the most common of which I’ve encountered are relationship troubles (with either a partner, family member or a friend), financial worries, legal tangles and illness or passing of a loved one. Some of these might require support of an expert outside of the team, unless the team has a mental coach or sport psychologist, which in reality very few have. I worked with one international cricket team that was knocked out of an ICC tournament in the early stages. Through all the expert analysis of their failure, nobody actually discerned the real reason. I couldn’t reveal it, and still won’t reveal detail, except to say that it was actually because of girlfriend problems. One leading player made himself unavailable due to ‘personal matters’, and another senior player had changed his eating, sleeping and behavioural patterns (for the worse) in the three months since his emotional breakup, which directly contributed to him getting injured. The team lost because they lost two of their best players due to ‘relationship break-ups’. This is currently not recognized as a ‘performance limitation’, yet it happens!

Finally, there are some athletes who are genetically predisposed towards mental illness, and this will often manifest due to high stress associated with professional sport.

Thankfully the subject of athletes suffering from mental illness is no longer a taboo subject, thanks largely to those mentioned about who have had the courage to publicly acknowledge their struggles. Hopefully the relevant stakeholders in each sport will actively introduce measures to help with the early detection of mental ‘illness’, and will then provide necessary means of support.

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