Depression and anxiety attacks are major concerns in professional sport but few choose to discuss them because of the stigma associated with mental health issues
It is intermission time for ‘The Big Show’. Glenn Maxwell, the Australian swashbuckler, has taken an indefinite break from cricket citing mental health issues. Backing his decision to open up about his anxiety concerns, Indian run-machine and skipper Virat Kohli said that he too had gone through a mentally low phase in 2014, in England, and neither knew how to get out of the rut nor who to discuss his problems with.
Depression and anxiety attacks are major concerns in professional sport but few choose to discuss them because of the associated stigma.
Bjorn Borg walked off the courts after winning 11 Grand Prix titles at the age of 26. He had had enough of the 24/7 grind and his mind could no longer take it. Andrea Jaeger reached the Wimbledon and French Open finals in the early ‘80s, when she was still in her teens. At 19, after a shoulder injury, she gave it all up and became a nun. Serena Williams also briefly suffered from depression after she was forced to take a sabbatical from tennis because of injuries.
The legendary English snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan turned professional at the age of 16. He has won five World Championships, seven UK Championships and seven Masters titles. The ‘Rocket’ as he is known, O’Sullivan has struggled with issues of alcohol and drug abuse and has gone through periods of depression in his two-and-a-half decade long career. Boxer Frank Bruno and footballer Paul Gascoigne were similarly treated for alcoholism, drug abuse and bipolar disorder after they had called it a day. Mental health problems are common among football and basketball players in the US too. Driven to the wall on a daily basis, they end up mentally fatigued.
Probably the greatest Olympian ever, swimmer Michael Phelps had attention deficit disorder when in school. He won 28 medals at the Olympics — 23 of them golds — but suffered from a mental health issue during his swimming career. Phelps says that he would often lock himself up in a room and keep away from friends and teammates for long periods. It was only when he opened up about his depression that he was able to emerge from the condition.
Marcus Trescothick, one of England’s great openers had to walk out of the England team following anxiety attacks while on an Indian tour. He later revealed in his autobiography that he had been facing mental health problems since he was 10. He wrote that he felt ‘safe’ only when he was within driving distance of his family. Another England batsman who lent considerable value to the team, Jonathan Trott left the Australian tour halfway, in 2013, citing stress and anxiety as reasons for his sudden departure. After an aborted comeback attempt, he retired from international cricket in 2015.
England all-rounder Michael Yardy, Australian fast bowler Shaun Tait, and England’s left-arm spinner Monty Panesar have also fought inner demons during their cricket careers and have had to give up the game prematurely to look after their mental health and well-being. Depression has taken the lives of many a famous cricketer. Aubrey Faulkner, Jack Iverson, Sydney Barnes, Harold Gimblett and David Bairstow are only a few of those who committed suicide, not being able to handle mental health issues. In most sports, players aren’t able to handle post–retirement blues and therefore are susceptible to depression.
One cricketer from the antipodes who decided to call an early halt to his international career described the dressing room as a place where backbiting and selfishness thrived; where the senior players’ ego needed to be massaged. Therefore, the players who are in and out of the side, the fringe players, are always under pressure. If star players find it stressful to live up to their fans’ expectations, juniors find it stressful just to be in that changing room.
Discussing mental health issues in sport, Trescothick says that he would often feel like hurting himself physically so that someone would pay attention to his hurt. “People see you are injured,” he says. “But when you are hurting from the inside, nobody notices.” Sportspersons are supposed to be ‘super-humans’ and therefore, most of the times, even if they have a mental health issue, they don’t show it just to live up to that falsehood of being a tough person. Most stars are buttoned up and display a tough exterior even if they are suffering from the inside.
Homesickness is one issue that is common to most sportspersons, especially cricketers, who play throughout the year. Prolonged homesickness usually leads to anxiety and depression. Partners and spouses travelling with players may have partially solved the problem but then living out of a suitcase, 12 months in a year, is debilitating, both physically and mentally.
Competitive sport at any level can be merciless, even cruel.
A former India cricketer once said to me, “I’ve suggested that you be included in the Mumbai team on several occasions but every time they tell me that you are a bad fielder. Why is that so?” I was interviewing the legend for a magazine article prior to the Indian team flying Down Under for the B&H World Championship of Cricket in 1985.
That was the tipping point. Having chosen cricket as a profession — much against my parents’ wishes — over several other career options, I could see my aspirations sinking. The result was anxiety attacks. My reputation as a ‘bad fielder’ had been carefully — rather maliciously — built over several years.
In the summer of 1980, our team had travelled to Lucknow for the all India Sheesh Mahal Trophy tournament. We had spent 48 hours in an unreserved train compartment, in the heat, and had to play Tata Steel, a team consisting of first-class players from Bihar and Delhi the next morning. After bowling eight quick overs on the heartless track, I was fielding at short square-leg when the Tata skipper miscued a sweep and the ball ballooned towards me. On the wrong foot because of the miscue, and weary, I had made a hash of that catch. I was labeled a ‘bad fielder’ based on that dropped chance, by my friends, and that label stayed with me for my entire playing career of 12 years.
My reputation in cricket badly damaged, I concentrated on preparing for a career in public relations, besides contributing cartoons and articles for a few publications. I was suffering from depression but could neither tell my parents nor my friends — for they were my tormentors. It took a lot of grit to come out of that mental illness but no, I never contemplated suicide, only because I could divert my attention towards things I loved doing other than cricket.
Depression and other mental health issues are illnesses and they need to be treated by specialists. And it is more common than you think. The ‘grin and bear it’ attitude will only make it worse. Therefore, as Maxwell did, the first step towards recovery is to admit you are feeling mentally low and to talk to someone about it. Remember, it is a cry for help from your subconscious.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and sports administrator, he believes in calling a spade a spade.
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