Hardman's Thoughts

Pretty much everything…


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All About Prevention

How can you tell when someone is suffering from mental frailties? The human mind is difficult to read, even when it’s our own. Body language gives a clue to someone’s emotions, however will never tell the whole story. Even if you’ve known a person for many years, subtle changes can mean any alteration in mindset becomes difficult to spot.

“It’s often very hard to pick up on any signs, however, it’s important to look out for uncharacteristic behaviour patterns.” Russell Discombe explains: “So players losing their temper, suddenly being more introverted, taking the easy way out of situations (e.g. fitness drills or gym work etc.).

“I think it is more noticeable to staff and players who know the individual well than it is to an outsider or the media.”

For the last five years, Russell, a lecturer at the University of Winchester, has worked as an applied performance psychologist at a professional cricket academy, as well as playing and coaching the sport. He’s contemplating how to notice if someone is struggling with mental illness. The behavioural patterns are the clearest sign, although, they usually come after the illness has manifested.

Russell likes to nip it in the bud before then: “We monitor all athletes on numerous occasions throughout the year using mental health questionnaires in order to try and highlight early if there are potential issues. If any issues are flagged then the psychologists will have a conversation. If these issues are deemed clinical, then the athlete is referred to a clinical psychologist.”

The questionnaires that Russell uses are called PHQ9 and GAD7. Both are similar forms that ask the participant to look back over their last two weeks and ask themselves a series of questions based on their anxiety levels in that period. The forms become quite personal, with enquiries such as ‘How often have you been bothered by thoughts that you would be better off dead?’

People can answer “not at all”, “several days”, “more than half the days” or “nearly every day” with scores nought, one, two and three applied to each individually. Based on the score, the form recommends action ranging from support to seeing a clinical practitioner.

That last step is particularly crucial for Russell: “I believe it is important that the athlete sees a qualified clinical practitioner rather than a coach, sports scientist or even a sports psychologist.” Russell explains that as a psychologist he knows he is not properly equipped to be dealing with mental illnesses such as depression.

Over recent years, English cricket has seen a handful of high-profile stars pulling out of England tours due to struggles with their mental health.

Despite this, former England opener Graeme Fowler believes the sport is doing more than others. During a BBC radio discussion on depression, which Fowler himself lives with, he said: “Cricket encourages people to be open, honest and to deal with it. A lot of other sports don’t really acknowledge it, they are frightened and it’s easier to shove it in a cupboard.”

Nevertheless, can the ECB do more to help prevent that number rising?

Russell thinks so: “They should introduce mandatory Mental Health Screening at all county and minor counties. This could be something as simple as getting players to complete a five-minute online survey twice a year. While this is obviously not ideal, if it helps one person then it will be beneficial.” He says that this should be a “centralised minimum requirement” rather than the current system of deciding who to screen and when.

Of course, it is worth noting that this wouldn’t have a 100% success rate. Currently, players might not be as honest as they should be because they don’t want to admit issues, or maybe they can’t recognise signs, as Russell believes cricket has an image problem concerning depression.

“There is definitely still a stigma attached to mental illness.” He tells me. And how do we lift that? “We need to keep educating athletes and the general public about the issues. Encouraging more athletes who have suffered from these issues to talk about their problems publically will definitely help this process and help people suffering from these problems. There is nothing to be ashamed of.

“We need to move away from the sentiment of ‘Just get on with it…things will get better’ or ‘Stay calm and carry on’.”

Russell believes the reason these issues have only just begun appearing in the public eye is because of “the traditional ‘old school’ attitude of suck it up and stop being so weak”.

A perfect example of this attitude was found when England spinner Michael Yardy left the 2011 World Cup due to his struggles with depression. Concerning the issue, former England opener Geoffrey Boycott went on radio and declared that Yardy was a liability, and clearly not good enough for that level, implying matters were cricket-related and not health orientated. More than that, Boycott used menial words such as “upset”, highlighting a severe lack of understanding of the illness.

Over recent years, the situation has improved – mainly because of honest and chilling books by Marcus Trescothick, Fowler and most recently, Yardy. All detail their battles in an open and refreshing manner, lifting some of the myths associated with depression.

In all of their cases, they found help too late. For all of them, their international careers were effectively over. Nevertheless, Russell firmly believes that a cricketer can be open about his or her struggles and still have a fruitful career at the highest level: “If people deal with the issues correctly then there is no reason why they can’t continue to have a long successful career.”

The theme throughout our chat on how to help cricketers revolves around the importance of seeking help early. For any youngster beginning in the sport who might be struggling, Russell recommends finding a professional to listen as soon as possible, adding: “Admitting that you have a problem takes guts and shows how tough you are.”

As the years go on, it should become easier for cricketers to find a safe environment in which to discuss such issues. Every professional side travels with a full-time sports scientist these days, although in Russell’s experience these are more “physiology based rather than psychology based”.

While he says the sports scientists are helping to improve the game, and making athletes mentally tougher, he stresses they should never be used for clinical help. His message is the same, when in doubt seek a clinical practitioner rather than anyone else.

But then, like all things, there is always more than one way to help someone. For example, cricketers have used hypnosis and holistic therapies in the past as ways to de-stress and release negatives. Yet even then, as Russell confirms, having a chat with someone you trust and value, and eventually a psychologist, is the best way to find the optimal method of help for the individual.

To say that the first step is the hardest, and that the first step is admitting you have a problem is both a cliché and not. For matters revolving around depression, it’s obvious from my chat with Russell that even a small change in mental well-being can signify something more serious.

If you’re reading this and think you can relate to some of the emotions and experiences detailed here, Russell recommends that you seek professional help as quick as you can. But above all else, Russell stresses that you shouldn’t be ashamed about your problems – you are not alone; a lot of people have suffered what you’re experiencing.


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Eurovision

I love Eurovision. I remember finding out Emma loved Eurovision too, I was delighted. It was one of those so-called dealbreakers. I couldn’t be with someone who wasn’t prepared to spend three evenings at the beginning of May listening to the best of Euro-pop.

We are too dismissive of Eurovision in this country. It’s not British, it’s too flashy. It’s not what it used to be. All are used as arguments to cover the truth: we can’t deal with having just a little bit of fun. In truth, there have been some absolutely awful songs entered into Eurovision (arguably, mainly by us), but then there have been some amazing ones too. And it’s those to which I dedicate this blog. Remembering the incredible songs, ones I still listen to all year around.

But first, when Britain inevitably do badly tonight (we have a good song – but that won’t matter), how many people do you reckon will blame European politics, Brexit and the like? How many people will actually realise that the problem is far deeper than that? We don’t take it seriously enough. Ireland haven’t qualified from the semi-final for a few years now, and yet they are supposedly loved on the European stage. The fact is that Ireland are stuck in the 90s, entering boy bands and power ballads willy nilly without truly understand how pop has evolved since Westlife had just taken the mantle from Boyzone.

Yes, politics plays a part. I’d be stupid to say it doesn’t. But the fact that we don’t win, in my opinion, is more to do with the fact we don’t enter the semi-finals. As part of the big five countries (France, Italy, Germany, Spain and us) who contribute the most money to the EBU, we are allowed to enter the final directly. But it hinders us. Since the semis were introduced, only one of the big five entries has won. In 2015, we finished ahead of France and Germany, the two most loved countries in the EU. If the EU mattered to Eurovision, that wouldn’t have happened. Brexit may have a small effect, but I’d be surprised if it means we lose tonight.

Turkey have stopped entering because they oppose the big five idea. I do too. But mainly because we don’t have the chance to perform the song to a full audience (it makes a difference to the competitor), the public are only voting for us once and the song doesn’t have a few days to sit in the minds of the people who watch it.

But enough about that, let’s look at some of the best tunes from recent years. In my opinion, 2014 was the best year Eurovision has ever had (in my lifetime). Rise Like A Phoenix, Calm After The Storm, Silent Storm, No Prejudice, La Mia Citta, Something Better and Undo are all songs I listen to pretty regularly. Indeed, Emma and I have since bought both of the The Common Linnet’s albums.

After the success of that year, our expectations were high for 2015. It wasn’t as good, but that isn’t to say there weren’t good songs within it. Belgium’s Rhythm Inside (see up) was the best, followed by Norway’s A Monster Like Me and Estonia’s Goodbye to Yesterday. Wars For Nothing, De La Capat and Love Injected are also worth a listen from that year.

2016 wasn’t as good as the two that it followed, but it still contained the brilliant If Love Was A Crime (complete with excellent dancing) and If I Were Sorry (which I heard being played by chavs in the arb). My point is that we shouldn’t devalue the competition, it is a serious music contest and has genuinely good songs if you actually look away from all the dodgy jokes, awful hosts and fun of the occasion. But enjoy the fun, the fun is amazing. We should have more fun in our life.

So I haven’t posted videos of all the songs listed here, just a selection of my favourites (and a couple of others from earlier years). If you want more to check out, look at New Tomorrow, Standing Still, Alcohol is Free and I Feed You My Love. For now, enjoy these songs and enjoy the contest. You might be surprised by how much you like the music, I can guarantee there is something for everyone in it tonight.

 

 


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No panic necessary – why betting shops aren’t worried by cricket scandals

In the last six years since Pakistan toured England, a new word dominated coverage of the sport. So, how are those handling money dealing with potential corruption?

Any cricket fan can tell you where they were on the morning of the 29th August 2010.

England’s Lords Test against Pakistan that year should have been remembered for the host’s first innings, as they recovered from 102-7, to post 446. Mohammed Amir, then 18, had ripped through an impressive top order, before Trott and Broad rescued England, with the latter scoring his first (and to date only) test century.

Pakistan collapsed when replying. And by lunch on the fourth day, England had won by an innings and 225 runs, yet the mood was far from celebratory.

Why?

Just a few hours earlier, three members of the Pakistan side – Amir, fellow fast bowler Mohammed Asif and captain Salman Butt – had been accused of cheating. The News of the World ran a sting operation against a Pakistan agent, who claimed that certain balls were going to be no balls.

Spot fixing.

The term, relatively unheard of away from the subcontinent before, has dominated cricket news for the last six years, culminating in Mohammed Amir’s return from his ban. In a coincidence to end all others, his first test match just happened to be where he played his last.

All sports fans want to watch a contest, trusting that every moment is genuine, that no battle is decided prior. So, need they be worried? Is the integrity of cricket beyond all help?

Rupert Adams, the media relations officer at William Hill betting company, has a reassuring message for worried followers: “It is extremely hard to defraud the industry for certain sums. The reality is, the turnover is tiny.”

William Hill, and Rupert assures me they aren’t alone, have a method for detecting and flagging suspicious bets.

“We have risk systems which are extremely good. They are based on an algorithm which knows what average bets and payouts are likely to appear from every outcome.” He explains: “If there is a deviance, even of not that much, the bet is red flagged.

“We put these in front of our senior compilers and see if they can find a reason. If there is no explanation, we speak to our competitors and see if they are witnessing an abnormal pattern. If they are, we speak to the gambling association and say the bet is not up to scratch.”

If that is the case, the company will suspend betting. Rupert describes these occasions as “rare”.

Even so, recent years have shown that spot fixing happens at the highest level. Essex bowler Mervyn Westfield admitted to accepting money in return for conceding a certain number of runs during an over of the Pro-40 match against Durham. Over in India, numerous editions of the IPL have been hit by spot-fixing allegations, suspensions and arrests. So clearly, despite Rupert’s confidence, spot fixing still goes on.

He concedes that his assurances are only valid for professional, legal bookmakers: “The illegal bookmaking side is where it happens. The illegal bookmakers are run by gangsters.”

Organised crime. A murky theme that has run through sporting contests for generations; one which is yet to fade.

As recently as 2014, the director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, David Howman, told a conference that criminal groups control “at least 25% of the world’s sport”. Ranging from drugs to fixing, it’s a shadow that will be hard to cast.

Nevertheless, Rupert’s overall message can be summed up in his line: “We think it’s a lot less endemic than people think.”

But what is the view within the game? Alastair Cook caused some controversy this summer when, on the eve of Amir’s return, he declared: “If you are caught match-fixing you should be banned for life.” He later confirmed that he was fine with Amir playing, as the Pakistan bowler had served his sentence.

There are, however, huge waves of support for Amir. Simon Goodley, wrote in The Cricketer: “Amir made a reprehensible mistake – but which of us does not regret any actions at that age?”

He went on to say that the story has been reported wrong – that it isn’t a betting scandal and that without the News of the World’s intervention, nothing illegal would have happened.

While possibly a fair point, it won’t undo the damage that the last six years have done. Has the fall-out turned punters away from betting on cricket?

Rupert doesn’t believe it has: “We feel largely comfortable with all sports. If people are betting on sports, they know what is going on.”

Indirectly referring to the Amir incident, he states: “We don’t bet on no-balls, but if we did, even £15 on the next ball to be a no-ball would be too much, and we would red flag it.”

At any one time, William Hill will have as many as 30 live markets running on cricket matches. These include outright winner, first or second innings score, lead by and next dismissal.

Rupert said that they don’t bet on the “minor moments” which could be fixed, adding: “A batsman could potentially impact on how he gets out, but it would still be difficult to make sure he’s caught or bowled etc.”

In a summer dominated by a major doping scandal before the Olympics, Rupert recalls a meeting with the IOC during which “a man stood up and said fixing was the biggest threat the Olympics face, not drugs”. Rupert remembers thinking that none of their evidence suggests that. Interestingly, Rupert can’t recall ever having a meeting with cricket’s authorities regarding any suspicious betting patterns.

Overall, Rupert Adams is very confident that punters can continue betting on, and watching, sport, without fear that their money is being wasted on an already decided outcome. More so, he doesn’t believe that continued scandals will turn people away from sport. The only worry comes from illegal dealings.

Mohammed Amir accepted money as an 18-year-old in return for bowling no balls. It will almost certainly happen again in the future, but the message from bookmakers is clear: there is no need to worry; these incidents won’t affect the future of cricket.


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Ramble #16

The Derby

I wonder what it must be like to wake up on derby day morning and actually feel like your team has a chance of winning?

Everton have not won one since 2010, we’ve only won four in this millennium and the last victory at Anfield saw Francis Jeffers sent off. Our last three performances at Anfield are amongst the worst I’ve ever watched (Jagielka’s last minute leveller two years ago was brilliant but lucky). 

So I’m not excited for today. I’m not even expecting a draw. We will lose, there’s no doubt about that. Especially without Seamus Coleman and Morgan Schneiderlin. 

But BBC Breakfast’s coverage has annoyed me. They started the segment on the derby by talking about how Liverpool have lost two key players, therefore making today harder for them. But they didn’t mention in the same breath how Everton have also lost two key players (and, for the record, Funes Mori and James McCarthy as well). 

They ended it by finally talking about Coleman, except they even got that wrong. They said Koeman had an argument with Martin O’Neill over the Irish managers treatment of Seamus. I mean, did the writers ever stop to ask themselves if that made sense? The argument was about the Irish treatment of James McCarthy who they selected even though he wasn’t 100% fit. For all of O’Neill’s faults, he couldn’t predict Coleman’s leg break! 

I don’t mind that we’ll lose the derby, I’m honestly used to that. I mind when the coverage is biased and wrong. Both clubs have pretty big histories, both clubs are in the top half of the biggest league in the country. Neither have ever won the Premier League, so give both the same level of detail and fairness to your coverage. 

If organisations like BBC can’t give fair coverage, then we have to get all our news about our club from local sources and the club itself, which is far from ideal.


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Everton Goalscorers

At the weekend, Everton beat Hull 4-0. In the process, they became the first Premier League side this weekend to have 15 different goalscorers. For a team apparently too reliant on Romelu Lukaku, this is definitely a positive sign!

Of course, the reliance is obvious when you look at the number of goals scored by each player. Lukaku has 21, the next best is four.

But how many of those 15 players can you name in 15 minutes? Click the link below to have a go!

//www.sporcle.com/framed/?v=7&pm&gid=10cf754849b4&fid=58d3a6dd6ea5a&width=580


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Three sports, three players, three hundred words

Romelu Lukaku has now scored more league goals than any other Everton player in the history of the Premier League. People are, ridiculously, making a big deal about it. Let’s put this into some perspective. He’s scored 61 goals, one more than Dixie Dean scored in the 1927-28 season (yes, football existed before 1992). Everton have been in the top flight since the PL was created, along with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham. Their top goal scorers have 175, 180, 128, 147 and 97 goals respectively. Yes, Lukaku breaking Ferguson’s record is a little bit of history but that doesn’t mean we should be celebrating it.

Eoin Morgan scored another one-day century this week. Only seven players (four from South Africa) have scored more runs than him in the format this year, and only one from the same amount of innings. Our captain is fourth on the all-time list for English players, while the century in the first match against West Indies pulled him level with Kevin Pietersen. It means only Marcus Trescothick has hit more tons. Trescothick’s 12 centuries is well within reach, as is Ian Bell’s record of 5400 runs (Morgan is about 900 behind). England’s greatest? Possibly, at least until Joe Root catches up!

Andy Murray has remained at number one for the 18th week in a row. That makes it sound defensive, the truth is he’s comfortable there – at least until the French Open! Djokovic has points galore to defend at the next two tournaments – Indian Wells and Miami, where Andy lost in the third round at both last year. Andy won in Dubai last week as Djokovic lost to Kyrgios in Mexico. Djokovic will almost certainly still finish the year top of the pile, but March is a great chance for Murray to continue cementing his place in tennis history.


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The Struggles of Cricket

The walk to the crease is a long one. There is so much that can go wrong. Even before you get to the middle. Not easy on a good day, if you are a batter struggling with form, the walk can feel like a marathon. Every step will pose a new question, every breath a new worry.

When Jonathan Trott quoted stress as the reason for leaving the 2013-14 Ashes, he followed Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardy as England players leaving overseas tours in the past ten years. But then, every sport has stresses. Every sport will produce struggles. If that’s true, why do more cricketers seem to stumble and quit at the highest level?

“I think the nature of the sport means that players are away on tour, or travelling a vast amount of the time.” Russell Discombe is a lecturer in Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Winchester, working in cricket for the past 15 years: “Cricketers are used to living in hotels and having to make do with Skype or phone calls to loved ones for a large amount of the Summer, if not year round.”

The reality is, we’ve heard all this before. Why, despite years of coverage, does nothing appear to be changing?

Russell describes cricket as a “unique sport” when it comes to the length of tours, but believes the concerns do not stop with visiting foreign countries. He explains: “You are an individual within a team environment. You are part of the team, yes, but there is a lot of pressure for you to produce individual performances. It is also a lot easier [nowadays], with stats for example, for the media and fans to pinpoint players that might be letting the team down.”

The format hasn’t changed, the sport hasn’t altered, and therefore the problems still occur.

Does the combined pressure of being away from families for long periods of time and being out of nick in the public eye make cricket mentally a tougher sport than others? Russell pauses for a moment to consider that: “That’s a hard question to answer. The game is much longer so you might argue that this is more challenging than other sports.”

When this question has been approached in the past, the tendency has been to look at cricket and where cricket can go wrong, rather than compare it to other sports. A comparison with other team, and individual, sports could be necessary to understand as to why cricketers face more battles.

Again, Russell considered this for a minute before answering: “I think all of the on-field challenges are very similar. You still have an opposition doing their best to try and beat you, and you still need to be mentally prepared to perform.” This would imply there is something fundamentally different about cricket, which Russell goes on to explain: “Having said that the games can last for up to five days, so the ability to manage concentration – not switching on and off – is vitally important.”

Concentration. It’s the buzzword of cricket psychology. Alastair Cook, England’s highest run scorer of all time, is renowned for his concentration whereas the opening partners he’s had since Andrew Strauss retired have all suffered from vital lapses in it at crucial moments.

Retaining concentration for one ball is a little thing, however, when repeated for hours on end can become a huge problem. It’s along this path where Russell believes cricket is fundamentally different to other sports.

“I do feel that there are a lot more organisational stressors placed on cricketers. Things such as travel, living in hotels, living with teammates, short contracts, training all winter indoors, the hectic schedule, switching formats etc. These can all impact on the mental health of the individual. They might seem like small things but after years of doing this they can be impactful.”

Short contracts are an interesting factor. Rarely mentioned in most discussions regarding mental struggles, Russell believes they bring uncertainty, explaining: “Unless you are a well-established player or international you might go through your career and not receive a contract longer than two years.”

This factor is made more worrying given Russell’s belief about when complications are more likely to manifest: “I think these issues can happen at any point during a career. However, I believe they are particularly prevalent during transitions within the game. Changing or uncertain times can certainly add pressure or worries to the players.”

Russell points out that depression can have a disastrous effect on a player’s career, adding: “It can bring careers to a premature end.” And that is a terrifying prospect, given that Russell believes not every sufferer is aware of his or her problems.

Why is this? “I think in general the public knowledge of mental illness is very poor, and there is a lack of awareness and stigma attached to mental illness.” Russell adds that more education is needed. He even makes hints during our conversation that this is necessary within the game itself.

A, not entirely unexpected, recurring theme during my chat with Russell was the issue of family. Touring takes the player away from their, sometimes young, family, and it is the family who has to deal with the brunt of the illness. This means a stress-related illness can have a negative effect on life at home.

“Mental illnesses don’t just affect the on-field performances; these issues encompass all aspect of the individual’s life.” Russell explains: “It can affect relationships, jobs/careers; sleep patterns, general health and fitness etc.”

On top of his lecturing, Russell is a coach at a local cricket club, where he also plays regularly. As part of these roles he has played with, and coached, many youngsters looking to make their way in the game.

I asked whether he thought the fact that cricket publically struggles with mental health is putting children off taking up the sport. In positive news, he wholeheartedly believes it doesn’t, but warns that more needs to be done.

“I feel that numerous younger players view travelling as one of the exciting ‘perks’ of the sport. They often don’t realise, however, that the novelty of it and being away from family can soon wear off. I think we could do more to educate younger players about cricket’s stressors.”

So, why do cricketers seem to struggle more than other sportspeople? When disclosing their troubles, Russell doesn’t believe that cricketers are necessarily more honest than other athletes. So, this could mean that the answer lies with the unique nature of the sport. This may lead to challenges that other athletes don’t face. While it can be said about most sports, the difference in cricket is, as Russell mentioned, the organisational stressors stemming from long tours and three formats.

From the travelling involved with international cricket, to the media pressures that come with being out of nick, to the short contracts handed out to the young professionals right down to just switching formats. Through the eyes of a psychologist, cricket’s problems are prevalent everywhere and at every level of the sport.

Russell clearly does not believe that cricketers are born more vulnerable to mental illness. However, for every bad shot, or every drop, the walk to the middle gets longer, the struggles, as Russell referred to, become greater. Yet, the question still remains – how do we help those who are suffering? Is the sport doing enough? How do we make sure that another promising career doesn’t come to a devastating, premature end?