Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Key is to keep your head up

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The fact that more than one in five contracted cricketers in this country have sought psychological help over the past season trying to negotiate with Jung's enemy comes from two sources - proactive measures and cricket's unique pressures.

Proactively, players such as Jesse Ryder have sought help. Ryder has employed clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo to help him in the Indian Premier League; seeking solutions to reach best performance or overcome past problems.

However, others are groping for answers to the pressure and anxiety which mounts at cricket's top level. A split-second shot misjudgment, a running-between-the-wickets miscommunication, a delivery pitched millimetres from its intended mark or a catching concentration lapse can have a drastic, disproportionate impact on a player's future.

Examples this summer were wicketkeeper Reece Young's sudden test exit after a dropped catch and a series of batting blips against Australia; and Rob Nicol unable to find form opening in four test innings against South Africa.

No one is saying those two have sought psychological help - but they are examples of the sort of issues which can turn into something bigger. Regardless of whether it is a hunger to succeed or a fear of failure, more cricketers are facing internal enemies, be they depression, panic or low self-esteem.

Cricket claiming mental victims, in most cases temporarily, is nothing new. They include greats of the game like Sir Richard Hadlee who admitted he suffered from depression. Other top level cricketing existences ended tragically, like the dozens of suicides outlined in author David Frith's volumes By His Own Hand (1991) and - sadly updated - Silence of the Heart (2001).

Former New Zealand pace bowler Danny Morrison suffered depression, albeit in his post-playing days, but other New Zealand cricketers such as Iain O'Brien, Lou Vincent and overseas players Michael Slater and Marcus Trescothick struck similarly low ebbs during their careers.

Morrison says his problem stemmed from achieving his dream of international cricket early, with limited options to pursue afterwards: "I'd climbed my mountain and it was a case of 'where to now?' I struggled in my post-career, especially when my sister committed suicide, that's why I moved to Australia. I still have regular consultations with my wife and an 86-year-old Frenchwoman - a specialist on the Sunshine Coast - to confront stuff."

Morrison's advice to young players is to treat their mental and physical health as their greatest asset: "It can be a battle within, that's why I always try to get to a gym wherever I go in the world. It's more than just fitness; it's an uplifting, euphoric experience which keeps me in a routine. It all comes back to evolution: man is designed to hunt, gather, and move a lot, just like in the primate days. It takes me back to the discipline of my milk run as a teenager on the North Shore.

"Today, as a cricketer, you're on the road a lot. It can be a grind like any job and that's why you get cases in professional sport like Tiger Woods who needed the escapism. By the end of my career, going back to the hotel each night felt like I was being taken back to a cell. The transient lifestyle can get you. When we went to the West Indies [in 1996], I had my wife Kim tour, so when a couple of catches went down and I had figures of none for 100, she'd run a bath for me and I could wallow in self-pity for a bit. It really helped.

"Older generations might pooh-pooh my standpoint to get support with mental health but it is helpful. I can remember when those John Kirwan depression ads came on telly in the early 2000s. They were a revelation. People might think it's just soft, liberal stuff but it's just an increased awareness. I think it's great seeing players with the courage to speak out and say 'I'm not coping' or 'how do I cope better?' Failing to confront the demons has been a trend in New Zealand society for too long."

Gary Hermansson is author of the recent book Going Mental Through Sport: Excelling Through Mind Management and was sports psychologist for the New Zealand team from 2005-07 during John Bracewell's coaching reign. He welcomes the evidence more cricketers are seeking help. "Top level sportspeople are notoriously bad at seeking mental performance advice, whereas at provincial level [Hermansson also worked closely with Central Districts] I found they were open to help. When cricketers reach the top, they get self-conscious which shifts to embarrassment. They don't want to be seen to do it. Even now a bit of scorn surrounds it. People readily retort with 'didn't happen in my day', but the sporting environment has changed. Cricket is one of the more punishing mental sports because there is so much downtime when you fail.

"That's a major statement from Jesse Ryder, taking someone to help with his problem. If it was another cricketer, it might be seen by the public as an unusual move to get better performance but he is acknowledging it is a mental health issue.

"The increase in cricketing clients could be related to more people simply getting assistance with mind management. Huge expectations are laid on players. Careers can be defined in an instant. Sport is saturated with mental challenge issues."

- Herald on Sunday

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