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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ravi on July 30, 2011, 12:52 GMT

    "Sadly there has been little or no research into depression within specific sports" ... It may be asking too much from the ICC but I believe they could fund a Chair at the Australian Institute or elsewhere on this aspect. Sport is because of the joy that a sportsperson brings to its followers. I for one would like to see happier sportsmen giving their best and not fizzle out due to depression. Of course at the same time high art is rich with people who in spite of a plumetting mind reached artistic zeniths (Guru Dutt from India comes readily to mind). Lest we make exceptions defend our inactions though.

  • Steve on July 29, 2011, 22:16 GMT

    Any national level sports person will feel pressure due to high expectations from fans as well as from self. After all, it takes years of hard work, personal sacrifice often at the expense of academics. So, the fear of failure is high which can lead to depression if things don't go well for the player.

  • Pranab on July 29, 2011, 9:40 GMT

    Good work. Good to see someone writing about an 'issue' which is largely outshined by the glamour of the professional sport. It also leads to the conclusion that the highly successful cricketers the Tendulkars, the Pontings, the Bradmans, the Warnes etc. have exemplary mental resources to fight the demon of depression and continuously performing at a superlative level. Just because they were gifted, doesn't mean these guys never experienced any kind of depression. I believe with expectations always being exceptionally high from these blokes, their mental strength is exemplary.

    Mr. Cowan should continue playing cricket as long as he wishes and I wish him all the success. But the day he decides he has had enough, another great career awaits him - that of an author.

  • Rakesh on July 29, 2011, 5:05 GMT

    Not Indian cricketers. Once a player is average and able to accumulate he can play for ages ( say 2 generations) in India. Never mind huge population base.

  • Dummy4 on July 29, 2011, 4:57 GMT

    Excellent article. No wonder, Peter Roebuck feels threatened. Ed, you have an alternative career whenever u choose to quit cricket.

  • Dummy4 on July 29, 2011, 4:23 GMT

    The most recent victims of the malaise being Yardy and "STRESS cothick "of england!Brave men!Can wrecka life and career so easily if allowed to fester like a scab..I can think of David Bairstow(former yorkshire stumper and a contemporary of Geoffery Boycott) and Harold Gimblett,apprently a tormented Genius of Somerset whose lives might taken its toll as a result of the constant anxieties/stresses and the inevitable strains..reading Peter roebucks"IT NEVER RAINS" (a must read..absolutely unputdownable,btw!)A chronolgy into a journeyman English Pro's daily life ina fickle brit summer, its fluctuating fortunes,meshed with the player's trepidation/occasional highs,tardy preparation, constant travelling,away from near nd dear ones,is so illuminating and ever so articulate..i spose aving a introverted approach to life contributes a tad and aside ofcourse the gnawing selfdoubts, the gremlins, that plagues one..i s pose one must learn to laugh at one's self early enough to arrest the slide....

  • Dummy4 on July 28, 2011, 16:11 GMT

    Eish its not that good! (Only joking Ed- keep up great work- but keep playing a while as dont want to lose my job!)

  • Harsh on July 28, 2011, 16:05 GMT

    Players choose this sport because they are good at it and love playing it. It's a job that comes with lots of responsibility and specific mental toughness. I like the way you explain about difference between team sports and individual mentality dealing with constantly doing something for the team, players do end up comparing themselves with others in the team, esp., when they don't perform well. Is Cricket the sport itself is pushing players further towards mental illness like depression? May be yes or may be it's just like another profession that mentally it requires lots of effort to stay put. or Soldiers, Firefighters have massive cases of Post traumatic disorder or e.g. Musicians and physicians have very high cases of depression and suicides. Cricket is not that bad compare to those professions. Players won't get constant 'sports high' from game. The reward is like variable ratio/time, which is amazing itself. Players must be mentally tough as much as physically. Cheers. Peace.

  • Harsh on July 28, 2011, 15:37 GMT

    Very well described and written this issue. Look, we all know that Depression is multifactorial and chronic disease. It takes months to years to diagnose it and there are lot of check marks for this. Your habits, the way we grew up, food we eat, our nature to response to certain thing (eg. criticism), family support, age, alcohol consumption, weather, sunlight, availability of partner, or it's just genetics, our brain receptors' aren't good enough, may be enough neurotransmitters are not being made, many many criteria that can lead to depression. I want to talk optimistic and be positive about IOB's situation. There is big difference between being just sad and having clinical depression. IOB is very young, have amazing family and very passionate about the game. I don't know anything about his history or his feelings. But I am sure he will get through this. He has all the support he needs. Depression can be dealt, if you seek for proper help, and I am sure IOB is strong enough to do so.

  • Dummy4 on July 28, 2011, 15:18 GMT

    Bloody hell Ed. I considered your batting intelligent, but I didn't expect your writing to be. This could absolutely be your next career.

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