Hardman's Thoughts

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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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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?