Mental health and elite sport: Cricket captures the highs and lows

By Dylan Cleaver

Clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo says she's seen a lot of the younger guys having trouble maintaining any sort of relationship. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo says she's seen a lot of the younger guys having trouble maintaining any sort of relationship. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It was a former New Zealand star that offered the thought unprompted.

When asked why he thought cricket was known as the divorce sport, in reference to his own failed marriage and many like his, Lou Vincent said: "The 'divorce sport'? Try 'suicide sport'."

Even with his famed sense of hyperbole, it is still a dark observation.

The founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine, David Frith, wrote a book in the early 90s titled By His Own Hand, which looked into the subject of cricketers and suicide. In the decade following the release of that gloomy tome, so many other incidents were brought to his attention that he released another, Silence of the Heart: Cricket Suicides, to deal with a "casualty list far in excess of any other sport".

It is a curious read that heavy-handedly tries to answer the big questions, such as: "Does cricket, more than any other game, actually attract the susceptible by virtue of its wicked, teasing uncertainties, its long-drawn-out routine, its compulsive, all-consuming commitment?"

The foreword was written by former England captain Mike Brearley, a fiercely cerebral cricketer who is now a psychoanalyst. He wrote: "I [don't] really believe that cricket offers a uniquely dangerous environment or a particularly alluring prospect to men or women who are especially sensitive and susceptible."

It is the "uniquely dangerous environment" part of that equation that bears closer analysis. Having spent several years closely associated with cricketers from different walks of life and across the spectrum of ability, I believe there are unique pressures associated with the sport that lead, not necessarily to suicidal thoughts and depression, but towards situations that require a reservoir of mental wellness to cope.

This belief is shared to a degree by Karen Nimmo, a clinical psychologist seen by a high proportion of New Zealand's professional and semi-professional cricketers.

An individual sport in a team context might have become cricket's ultimate cliche but it doesn't make it any less true. Cricketers veer towards the self-obsessed and you can see why - success and failure is measured by black and white numbers, but that success or failure is often down to luck, which has a more lurid palette.

Even in victory, there will be at least a couple of players in the dressing room looking over their shoulder because they have failed with the bat or performed poorly with the ball.

Look at Hobart, Australia, two years ago, when New Zealand pulled off a dramatic seven-run victory, a rare bright spot in a grim period for New Zealand cricket. There was chaos and joy in the dressing room, but for two of them it was the last test they played. Jesse Ryder will surely get another opportunity, but Reece Young, who has since retired, will not. What should have been one of the sporting high points of Young's career was, in a way, its end-point.

Young has the fortitude to deal with such vagaries, others are not so fortunate.

'Guys looking after their individual stats while trying to be part of the team [can] lead to all sorts of internal conflicts and difficulties among teammates and coaches," Nimmo says.

It is far from the only "quirk" that can make cricket one of the most challenging of all games. There's also the conflict between the different formats.

The best players are being asked to spread themselves across three different modes: tests, one-day cricket and Twenty20. The first has all the prestige, but none of the cash. The final one is the glitzy new kid on the block.

Every cricketer wants to play all three, but some are naturally more suited to different formats. Specialists in the shorter formats resent the attention and gravitas associated with tests; while long-form specialists resent the money earned by those in T20.

Teams have to be exceptionally well managed, with different personnel coming in and out on a regular basis, for tensions and cliques not to develop.

"There is also travel and downtime," Nimmo says.

"Travel for the impact it has on relationships - missing milestones, the amount of time away and the pressure that puts on partners, then coming home and trying to reintegrate back into the family, like an army deployment. It messes with lives."

At one point last year it was calculated that coach Mike Hesson had spent seven nights in his own bed in six months.

"All the guys have got stories like that," Nimmo says. "I've seen a lot of the younger guys having trouble maintaining any sort of relationship at all because they simply don't know how to run one; to even be in the same town as a woman."

Yesterday, Vincent spoke of the strain infidelity put on his marriage and the mental health issues that exacerbated. But Nimmo says the pressure isn't always about not getting caught; it can be pressure to cheat in itself.

"Sometimes the guys that don't do that sort of thing feel ostracised," Nimmo says. "Sometimes they'll even pretend to do a little bit of that to get them off the hook."

Some of these things can be alleviated with what coaches and administrators would call "self-discipline" but, says Nimmo, there's not much you can do about the "relentless uncertainty" and "general weirdness" of cricket.

"You're almost waiting for the next failure. Mistakes are punished mercilessly. Sometimes not even your own mistake - an umpire or a teammate might have run you out. The nature of the game is very mentally tough. I don't think there's a tougher game out there. It's fantastic to work in psychologically because there are a lot of components."

Vincent says it is a game that highlights failure to an excruciating level.

"There's a whole new world where modern, professional sportspeople almost have to be trained to deal with criticism. It's not something you can really teach unless you've been through it or are aware of it."

What you find a lot of, even at the top level of the game, is a conditioned negativity; because even the best players fail more than they succeed (the incomparable Don Bradman perhaps being the only exception).

Mark Richardson, one of our finest batsmen and also one of our more tortured thinkers, wrote a book called Thinking Negatively, which sums up nicely the start point for many world-weary cricketers.

"This is really interesting," says Nimmo. "You see a lot of emotional flatness in cricketers because they almost set themselves, at a certain point, to be able to deal with the highs and lows. They don't get too excited, because it protects them against falling too far. That's almost a shame, because it's hard for them to celebrate success in the good times."

The good times don't always last and when careers end, new problems emerge.

When they are no longer cricketers, rugby players, netballers, many professional sportsmen and women have a void they struggle to fill. This is something the NZ Rugby Players' Association has become acutely aware of. It will be analysed in closer detail next week.

This series was produced with the support of a NZ Mental Health Media Grant from the Mental Health Foundation and the Like Minds, Like Mine programme.

Mental health by the numbers

* About 20 of New Zealand's 100 or so professional cricketers had sought mental health support programmes - close to 1 in 5

* That tallies with the 20% figure of New Zealanders who have "experience of a mental disorder", according to Te Rau Hinengaro - New Zealand Mental Health Survey.

* Opinion is split as to whether that figure is surprising. Some believe that there is no reason that cricketers should be any different to the general population; others are of the mind that fit, young athletes should be less susceptible to mental health issues.

* According to the World Health Organistaion, about half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14. Around 20% of the world's children and adolescents are estimated to have mental disorders.

* The WHO recognises depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide.

The series

Yesterday: Lou Vincent's battle with alcohol and mental health

Monday: Rugby's bold steps towards enlightenment and the JK effect.

Tuesday: The addictions harming our sports stars and the way forward.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 29 Aug 2014 01:36:32 Processing Time: 522ms