November 27, 2013

Hold the judgements and the congratulations

Hasty assumptions will not help Jonathan Trott, or our understanding of mental health

I was very sad to hear that Jonathan Trott has returned home from the Ashes with stress-related problems. I admire him as a player on many levels. He does not owe his England career to being a favourite of power brokers inside the English game and media. He had to force his way into the team through weight of runs. Once in the side, to keep the critics at bay, he has had to keep scoring runs. Very often, he has done exactly that. He has been a strong, resilient batsman, an "absolute rock" in the England side as Andy Flower said yesterday.

As an opponent in county cricket, I found Trott to be relentless in his pursuit of self-improvement. His instinctive answer to the sport's challenges was to spend a few hours in the middle and battle his way through. Like Alastair Cook, Trott has come close to maximising the talent he was given. In terms of character, there is no higher praise in professional sport.

If the news itself saddened me, the reaction to Trott's withdrawal has been saddening in a quite different way. A few days ago, Trott's batting, and his character as a batsman, was being brutally deconstructed across the spectrum. With the news of his withdrawal, expert opinion has performed a convenient 180-degree turn.

Analysis need not always rely on assumption. It is possible to interpret the facts we do know without guessing about those we do not. Sadly, the discussion of Trott's departure has encouraged a worrying series of related assumptions.

The first is a problem of language, or, to be precise, labelling. Where mental health is concerned there is a tendency to blur categories that ought to remain distinct. The subject of stress is bracketed together with mental health, and then depression becomes synonymous with mental illness. That is a dangerous series of lapses in language.

Yesterday I was asked to appear on several radio and television programmes, presumably because I have sometimes written about the subject of depression. But we do not have any evidence that Trott has depression, in the clinical sense of the term. Trott may have a version of depression. He may have an extreme case of stress. He may have reached the limit of his psychological resilience for a variety of reasons, some public and others private. We simply do not know. What gets lost here is a very different truth: some people, though they never suffer from any form of clinical depression at all, nonetheless experience phases in their lives when they are unable to function in their professional capacities. They are no less deserving of our sympathy.

A second problem arose from the humane desire to avoid heartlessness. I want to be clear. I have no time for the old-school view that stress-related problems can always be solved by a matey drink or a stiffening of resolve. It would have been inexcusable if Trott had been ridiculed for coming home. Crucially, however, it does not follow that he will be helped by a mood of hasty congratulation. Trott's withdrawal, about which we know very few real facts, was instantly recast as an act of bravery. In this analysis, Trott is described as "confronting an issue", as though he was consciously acting on behalf of thousands of people in a similar situation. Note that Trott himself has said nothing of the kind. In saddling him with the role of fighting for a just and humane cause, we further burden and complicate the life of a man who is already searching for greater simplicity.

There are also serious dangers in rushing to announce that Trott has "made the right decision". What does that phrase mean? Who really knows, objectively, whether it is the right decision? Only time will tell. A man has made a judgement about his own state of mind, and we have leapt to judge that judgement as "correct". Correct according to whom? The assumption here is that we are in position to affirm Trott's own judgement of himself. That demands many guesses. Rather than judging his withdrawal as "right", we might use a different phrase. It is right that the decision is Trott's. Beyond that, let's stay silent. In rushing to decree that Trott "made the right decision", we make a speedy return for him more difficult, not easier. In blindly praising his decision, we accidentally bolt the aeroplane door behind him.

Fourthly, language matters. We use words, hopefully, in an attempt to describe reality. Problems follow when words slide from describing the world as it is, and instead become slippery approximations for the world as we would like it to be. When it is stated that he has "done the brave thing", or that playing on might even have been cowardly - given that, in his words, he was "not 100%" - the phrases are intended to support Trott. In fact, snap judgements accidentally demean others. A moment's logic will suffice. What about those players who have faced stress-related problems and decided to play on - and found that the decision suited their circumstances, and the stress once more receded to manageable levels? Were they cowards?

Making assumptions based on little or no evidence does nothing to help Trott, nothing to help the understanding of mental health, and nothing to educate people about the nature of depression.

Jonathan Trott has gone home. I hope he is back soon.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jason on December 2, 2013, 18:21 GMT

    Who cares if Jonathan is a coward or a hero? He needs time to find out what is best for him, and it is not for anyone else to judge or comment. As a fan of excellence, I hope to see him back in the England side, but as a man, I hope to hear that he is happy. His life is his, not ours, no matter how much media coverage this gets. As an Aussie, good luck, mate.

  • Jeff on November 29, 2013, 3:49 GMT

    I feel for Trott but I am disgusted that the Aussies and Warner in particular are criticised for their comments on Trott's batting. Please note that the English coach and selectors picked him to tour knowing full well he was out of form and at risk on the tour due to his issues. They pushed him to the limit, not Warner. They knew about his illness, not the Aussies. And they wish to blame others for their mistakes and the risks that they took with Trott's health. I wish Trott all the best.

  • Dummy4 on November 29, 2013, 1:14 GMT

    Clinical objectivity which takes no unstated assumptions! This adds another dimension to the article on the same topic by Martin Crowe.

  • Michael on November 29, 2013, 0:24 GMT

    Such common sense brilliantly articulated. Only came to this article after the disappointing generalisations and assumptions made by the fantastic former cricket Martin Crowe. Whether mental illness, stress, just not being up for the 'battle' these Ashes have become. We celebrate those who excel at the height of the contest, but no-one should condemn, ridicule or be patronising towards those who don't.

  • Jason on November 28, 2013, 13:50 GMT

    @Englishfan, I suspect it will be Root to come in at 3, Although Bell did play in that slot a couple of times in 2011 against india when Trott was injured.

    Both with Robson and Moeen i've not seen enough of them to pass judgement but they both seem to have made scores in the Latest EPP game in Aus so are both in country as it were, though I'm not sure Robson is available for the Test squad until the summer of 2014.

    That said, Trott may well make a full recovery having had a break. Dont forget that, to my knowledge, with the exception of 3/4 games hes not missed a test since the Oval test in 2009. He'll be back for the Bears in the summer and it will be for him to let his bat do the talking in regards to selection to the test squad.

    The end of 2014 might be optomistic, more likely part of a touring squad in 2015 touring party to the WI's (Post WC series?) and that summers tests against the aussies,

    Who knows especially as we dont know the exact nature of his condition.

  • David on November 28, 2013, 13:43 GMT

    Ed Smith is about right - Jonathan Trott should be neither condemned, nor canonised for what he has done. Rather we should keep in mind that sportsmen are still human beings, something which fans, commentators and even journalists seem to regularly forget. The other misapprehension is that mental stress is a new phenomenon in sport. By chance I came across an old Wisden match report, where a solid and heavy-scoring England batsman missed the last 3 tests of a home-match series because of "physical and nervous strain through playing too much cricket over the past 6 years" Like Trott, Ken Barrington was a calm and reassuring presence at the crease, while being complex and highly-strung off it.

  • Ramesh on November 28, 2013, 13:13 GMT

    Writing about Trott's condition seems to be the flavour of the week. Whilst Ed's is one of the better articles written on this subject, I get this feeling that everyone is falling over themselves to get their say on the subject. Also, whilst everyone is showing a lot of concern for a fellow professional, no one is showing genuine concern for the subject. I feel that true concern would be have a self-imposed media blackout on this subject and give Trott all the space he needs to recover. Imagine what would go through Trott's mind if he reads this article (Im sure he will read it because thats the only thing discussed in cricket in the last few days). If it were me, it would be "Thanks, but I don't need anybody to speak up for me" I don't think the fans, at this time, need to know anything more than what was officially communicated by ECB and Andy Flower. Give the man some space!

  • Paulo on November 28, 2013, 11:28 GMT

    @YorkshirePudding while I believe Trott will play for Warwickshire, I doubt his performances will be enough to win selection due to anything other than sentiment. Unless of course, England choose to move Bell or Root up to 3 as a "long-term" option as opposed to selecting Moeen, or even Taylor (perhaps not so likely in tests as a number 3), or even Robson (but I don't think he's ready yet).

  • Jason on November 28, 2013, 5:59 GMT

    @Englishfan, I'm not so sure, I think we will see trott play for england again, as a number of cricketers around the wprld have taken a hiatus from the game, in a lot of cases its comes across to being Dropped, due to a severe lack of form, and often they go away and come back stronger.

    It was a shame tresco didnt get to have time out before his public implosion, I suspect we will see Trott turning out for the Warks next year in the county season and if he plays well during the first half maybe a recall for the India series, either ODI or Test.

  • Sarthak on November 28, 2013, 4:49 GMT

    I have to say though the overwhelming reactions to this news is neither of criticism and nor congratulatory in essence. Most people are basically offering their support and sympathy towards Trott. Even some of those who are congratulating, perhaps mean it as an encouragement, more than anything else. I agree with you we know little about the case and so it is better not to form judgements about it. However, most people are in reality showing their sympathy towards a person suffering, perhaps at times, without realising they are also making some assumptions while doing so.

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