Dylan Cleaver on sport

Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Dylan Cleaver: Mental health issues - cricket just the starting point

Lou Vincent fought his demons away from the crease. Photo / Richard Robinson
Lou Vincent fought his demons away from the crease. Photo / Richard Robinson

"Twenty professional cricketers have used mental health support programmes recently, and a clinical psychologist says more are waiting to be seen."

That was the introduction to a story I wrote about the prevalence of New Zealand's best cricketers seeking professional health. It appeared on the front page of the Weekend Herald in March last year.

As there were fewer than 100 professional cricketers in the country at the time, the number seemed extraordinary.

It encouraged me to apply for a NZ Mental Health media grant; I wanted to talk to enough people to establish whether there was a feasible link between the unique pressures of professional cricket and, for want of a better term, mental health issues.

I believe the answer is yes, but the more people I spoke to, the more the parameters of this series changed. Cricket remains the starting point, but the issue quickly branched out to high-performance sport and a growing awareness among athlete advocates and some coaches and administrators that mental health is the next great "breakthrough" area.

"Historically everybody has focused on the physical side of sport - the physical preparation and fitness of individuals - whereas I would argue in high-performance, especially rugby, but in all sport, the biggest gains to be made are in the mental side of sport," says Rob Nichol, head of the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association.

"I get the sense great opportunities and massive gains can be made in elite sport around more investment in time and knowledge and attention to the mental wellness of people in the environment."

But elite sport and mental health issues have never been easy bedfellows.

Part of that is perception, part of it conditioned. We, the public, expect our heroes to be flawless and when chinks in their armour are exposed, we can be merciless. Look no further than Zac Guildford and Jesse Ryder, two extremely talented young men battling with common addictions.

What is not common about their situation is that they are doing it in the full glare of the spotlight. If Ken the apprentice plumber falls off the wagon, his family and close friends might learn about it; when Ryder the cricket star slips up, the country knows.

That is one of the reasons no cricketers who are playing at a high level and are struggling with issues requiring clinical help, were prepared to talk on the record. It was disappointing, but understandable.

Thankfully, recent cricket internationals like Lou Vincent and Iain O'Brien were able to illuminate the issues, as were those who work with elite athletes on a regular basis.

There is also a growing body of research being formed on this topic. Slowly but surely, discussions about mental health and wellness in sport is going from taboo to topical.

In the late 70s, several players began to question why some premier sports teams were sent away without medical support staff and it is almost unthinkable now that a professional team will not have its own physiotherapist, doctor and strength-and-conditioning trainer.

Yet when the subject of psychologists comes up, you hear the usual complaints and cynicism - often driven by the sports media - about bloated support staffs.

We accept that a healthy body aids in a healthy mind, but have been slow to understand the reverse is closer to the truth.

Five ways to well-being

1. Connect - People are stronger when they pull together.

2. Give - It feels good to give. Everybody has something to offer.

3. Take notice - Be curious. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling.

4. Keep learning - Seek out new experiences and challenge yourself.

5. Be active - Do what you can, enjoy what you do, be active and move your mood.

- Source: mentalhealth.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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