July 28, 2011

Is cricket the black dog of the sporting kennel?

Are cricketers more pre-disposed to depression than the average man in the street?

It is estimated that one in six males will suffer from depression at some stage in his life. In line with this statistic, leading experts suggest that up to 15% of elite athletes are depression-sufferers. That implies it will on average affect about two men in every cricket change room. Perhaps the surprise is not how many players seem to be divulging recent mental troubles but how few.

A professional sportsperson is his or her performances. From experience I can say it can feel like you have ceased to exist when failure is the story of your day. Statistically, however, despite the perception that the pressures of professional sport may have a tendency to promote mental illness, they in fact are no different than those faced by the wider public - the pressures may differ but the outcome, it seems, is much the same.

Cricket, however, has long been touted as an outlier to these statistics. Sadly there has been little or no research into depression within specific sports, and so all cricket can hang its hunch on is the word of the sufferers who have been brave enough to come forward publicly, and the gut feel of the rest of the community.

Every cricketer knows anxiety, just as every cricketer knows relief and satisfaction. That full spectrum of emotion is actually, according to top sports psychologists, "good for cognitive development" of athletes, making them flexible in their ability to deal with a wide variety of situations. This was recognised long ago at Wimbledon, where the centre-court players' dressing room is graced with a line from Rudyard Kipling's "If": "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same".

However, to suggest, as some have recently, that all cricketers at some time will suffer from some kind of depression or mild anxiety disorder, is simply flippant. Depression is ongoing, self-normalising, and debilitating to the point of driving people to action beyond what they would otherwise ever consider - whether it be an angry outburst or, at worst, self-harm.

David Frith in his book Silence of the Heart: Cricket Suicides contends that cricket is by far the greatest sport for suicides. Although some of his case studies bring forth tenuous links between cricket and the sad ends to several lives, his central thesis certainly has some validity: that the game promotes the thought patterns and anxiety levels required to tumble people into the desperate hole of depression. In an illustration arguably more significant than that offered by Frith's cricket sample, Major League Baseball players - perhaps the only brothers to international cricketers - have been shown to be two and a half times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the American male population.

Few who know the game could argue against the notion that cricket contains triggers for depression. Despite being a team sport, it is perhaps the only game where one's contribution is entirely objective. There is no escaping the black and white of failure - among other things, it is statistically tangible. Nothing engulfs you like the self-doubt and frustration of sitting in the corner of the change room, cursing your own inability, wondering what you could have done to avoid the finality of dismissal. Your team may win, but more often than not, you are not even going to be partly responsible if they do. Your contribution, not only self-analysed, has the perceived added weight of 10 other sets of critical eyes. You can feel as though you have not let not just yourself down, but worse, those around you. While this may occur in other team sports, it rarely does with the frequency it does in cricket.

The time scales inherent in the game - the lag between a failure and the opportunity to make amends - can mean this cloud of doubt has the opportunity to precipitate into a sea of introspection. In a game that is often a one-chance saloon (and a chance that is sensitive to the adjudication of others) the margin for error is slim, and emotions on polar opposites of the spectrum are only ever a feather edge away.

Few who know the game could argue against the notion that cricket contains triggers for depression. Despite being a team sport, it is perhaps the only game where one's contribution is entirely objective. There is no escaping the black and white of failure - among other things, it is statistically tangible

On a professional level, no sport takes you away from home for extended periods without your support network like cricket does. In the next three years Australian cricketers will spend on average 44 weeks a year away from their own beds - only two of which are allocated to be fully funded family time. Families are welcome on tour at any stage, but the logistics for them to actually go are largely unworkable. Children still need to go to school, wives still need to lead their own lives. A travelling, brooding cricketer can be left to his own devices for extended periods - more often than not in this age of security, solely in the confines of a hotel room - which feeds the anxiety monster.

These absences can also create a multitude of strains in relationships with loved ones, which, though certainly not exclusive to the game, also need to be considered when looking at the relation between cricket and depression. Ryan Campbell, a former sufferer when he played the game professionally, recognised his recovery started when a medical expert provided clarity about segregating the three facets of his life: work, family and the social aspect. No game blurs these boundaries like cricket, in which the team, particularly on the road, are your work colleagues, your friends and your family.

Sadly, despite growing awareness about mental health issues outside of the change room, it is still something of a taboo topic within. While cricketers know there is a fantastic support network available through the players' associations, these issues are rarely, in my experience, openly discussed among the players themselves.

Cricket team dynamics can be changeable at best. Most players are pursuing higher personal honours, while trying to maintain a supportive team environment. In close and often successful teams, those comfortable within the hierarchy will often be counsellors to the more fragile members. Nonetheless, some team environments are so competitive that to show fear, insecurity or weakness leaves you on the periphery of both the group and also your own delicate mental sanity. For all the increasing popularity of sports psychologists, and their role in "management" of mental states, their focus is usually on training the mind to win, not to be happy - not the same thing when it comes to cricket.

Although the game itself may be to blame, one of the least discussed issues surrounding depression in cricket is cricket's seeming tendency to attract a type of individual pre-disposed to mental illness. Iain O'Brien alluded to this when he bravely went public about his depression. "Go back to the very start," he said, "and you have to ask the question, is it cricket that acts as a catalyst for mental illnesses or is it the people who are drawn to it?" While such a question will always be contentious, it is worth opening up the forum for discussion.

The game, buried in statistics, may attract the analytically inclined - the sort of person who wants to obsess about technique and dwell on statistical comparisons to justify his worth to the team. Perhaps it attracts a certain kind of high achiever. Cricket has traditionally been a middle- and upper-class pursuit in many parts of the world - attracting people who in other walks of life know and chase perfection, a trait common among depression sufferers. Some of these people are left empty-handed when it comes to cricket; "perfect" and cricket certainly don't co-exist particularly happily in my experience.

The game, well known for its rituals and superstitions around preparation and success, has always - to adopt "bush" diagnosis - attracted people with strains of obsessive compulsive disorder. What is fact is the link between OCD and depression - two-thirds of those who have the former also suffer from the latter.

Cricket will continue to have players who struggle with mental illness. We can only hope that an increase in awareness and mental health literacy will enable the game to be at the forefront of their rehabilitation. We can also hope that future research will finally provide us with a few definitive answers.

Ed Cowan is a top-order batsman with Tasmania