What can cricketers do about mental illness?

Counselling, clinical hypnosis, guided-imagery techniques, reiki and the like are among the options. Making preparations for life after the game while you're still playing it doesn't hurt either

Crispin Andrews
Gary Cosier pulls away from a delivery bowled by Ian Botham, Australia v England, 2nd Test, Perth, December 1978

Gary Cosier batting in the 1978 Ashes. After a bout of depression following enforced retirement from cricket, he trained as a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist  •  Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, former England bowler Alan Mullally was banned from driving in Perth, Australia, where he lives. He was more than five times over the limit when he crashed his car, and it was his fourth drink-driving offence since he retired in 2004. Mullally had also been struggling with depression, the court heard. Since retiring, his father died, he split with his wife, and lost A$100,000 after a business deal went wrong.
More recently Sarah Taylor has also revealed that she has been suffering with mental-health issues. The England wicketkeeper-batsman said she had been having intermittent but severe panic attacks, usually when she was waiting to bat, but sometimes when she was out on the field. Taylor is taking time off to try and sort this out.
More than a few high-profile cricketers have suffered from mental health issues in recent times. Marcus Trescothick's depression first flared up when he was away from home, on tour with England. Monty Panesar says his anxiety issues were brought on by loss of self-esteem and issues in his personal life. New Zealand bowler Iain O'Brien battled depression throughout his career. Shaun Tait took time out from the game when injuries and the pressure of unfulfilled expectation got too much for him. Andrew Flintoff said his depression got better when he gave up drinking.
"Stress that we suffer for a prolonged period of time is debilitating and can lead to depression," says Middlesex CCC's team psychologist, Steve Sylvester. "Prolonged stress itself is a mild form of depression and can lead to poor mental health."
The Professional Cricketers' Association in England says that the first two years after retirement are the most difficult time for cricketers. In 2013 the Australian Cricketers' Association found that one quarter of former players who had retired or been compelled to give up playing state and international cricket had subsequently suffered mental health issues. Forty-three per cent of the former Australian players surveyed felt they had lost a sense of their identity after finishing their cricket career.
It doesn't help that most cricketers give up the game, and all its trappings, at an age where people in other walks of life are coming into their peak years as high-earning, senior professionals. Some, like Gary Cosier, stop playing earlier.
Cosier was just 26, and vice-captain of Queensland, when he retired from first class cricket in 1980. He suffered from depression when he first quit the game, but has since trained as a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist and now runs his own consultancy, Positive Imagery, out of Brisbane.
"Sports players spend so much time focusing on their sport, their career, their fitness, that they neglect themselves. They don't think about what they need, to be healthy people"
James West of the Sporting Chance Clinic
"Many players will transition easily and there is no problem, outwardly at least," Cosier says. "Others may become depressed and handle this by turning to alcohol, cigarettes or social drugs."
James West, clinical director at former Arsenal and England footballer Tony Adams' Sporting Chance Clinic, treats sports players with addictions. He explains that unresolved emotional and psychological issues are usually at the root of why people become addicts.
"If people aren't in an environment conducive to talking about their issues, they can bury the feelings, turn to drink, drugs or gambling to change the way they feel," he says. "We call that self-medicating. Then, whenever you feel a bit down or pissed off, you turn to what you turn to."
West says: "Sports players spend so much time focusing on their sport, their career, their fitness, that they neglect themselves. They don't think about what they need, to be healthy people. Relationships break down, life becomes unmanageable, and they spiral into depression and addiction."
Paul Smith was one of those players. The former Warwickshire allrounder openly admitted to drug and alcohol use after he stopped playing. The ECB banned him, at a time when football supported Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne through similar problems. Smith subsequently lost his marriage, his home, and for a while lived rough in the USA, before eventually turning his life around. These days, among other things, he works for the Prince's Trust, mentoring kids on their life and career choices.
"Not everyone can be a Michael Vaughan, who goes straight from being England captain into a well-paid, high-profile position," he says. "There aren't enough coaching jobs for everybody, and some people might not want to work in an office or for one of their former cricket team's sponsors."
Cosier was the only member of the Australian team that lined up for the Centenary Test to not be asked to join World Series Cricket. At the time he had played nine Tests and was averaging 40, with two hundreds, one on debut against West Indies at the MCG.
Cosier played nine more times for Australia, when the Packer players were banned, but he didn't have much success, and when the WSC players came back to first-class and Test cricket, he was pushed down the international pecking order. He also started having problems at Queensland, where, he says, returning captain Greg Chappell didn't want him as vice-captain, and where there was tension between the Packer players and the rest. Deciding he didn't want any part of it, he moved back to Victoria, his home state, but couldn't get a game there either. "Back then, if you were approaching 30 and not in the frame for an international call-up, state selectors were looking to bring in someone younger," Cosier says.
Now he says he realises that carrying unresolved stuff from a playing career, or the way it ended, into retirement, can cause problems in later life. "So that's resentments, regrets, what-ifs, and if-onlys," he says.
Cosier uses clinical hypnosis, coaching and guided-imagery techniques to help recently retired players deal with lingering doubts, or thoughts of poor performances that haunt them. Negatives are placed back into the past, positives are exaggerated to create self-esteem. "We bring those positive images and feelings into the 'now'," he says, "and then let the player project them forward and see where this invaluable education could lead them in the future."
Sylvester believes that if broader goals drive what a player does when they're still in the game, they become detached from performance and outcome pressures. That way the player's self-esteem and sense of self are no longer determined solely by how many wickets they take and runs they score.
Think of Imran Khan, Viv Richards, Steve Waugh. Fierce competitors who wanted to win, obviously, but whose impact lay beyond personal statistics and win-loss ratios. When any of those three stepped onto a cricket field, they were representing something more than themselves. And when people like this can no longer compete, they find other ways of making their statement, of having an impact.
Sylvester says Moeen Ali, who he has worked with, has a similar outlook. "Mo has a deep religious perspective," he says. "He feels that there is something more to his performance than just him, which means he's more selfless in what he's doing. For him, playing cricket is how he's serving others, and his God, and as a result, he's much freer as a performer than someone who's quite self-obsessed or quite self-centred about what I do today, or what my performance will be tomorrow."
"Our complete self-esteem is built on whether we win, and we cannot accept losing. Results are scrutinised and measured at school, at work, in sports matches"
Steve Sylvester, Middlesex team psychologist
At the highest level cricketers face many stresses. The ups and downs of winning and losing, performing or underperforming. Long periods away from home, constant pressure to keep a place in the team, their contract and a living.
Expectation, scrutiny and criticism can come from team-mates, coaches, selectors, the board, sponsors, fans and the media. Not just about how many runs and wickets a player gets, but also, sometimes, about how they get them, when, and against whom. Occasionally it is even to do with what sort of a person the player is.
Sylvester believes the obsession with winning, losing and performance can lead to some players developing mental health problems. "We're told from a very young age that if we lose we're no good," he says. "Our complete self-esteem is built on whether we win, and we cannot accept losing. Results are scrutinised and measured at school, at work, in sports matches. Then, as soon as we compete, we trigger the need to survive, which is almost like fight or flight."
Many people have a tendency not to process negative experiences at the time they happen. They deny, detach, blame someone or something, or simply ignore what has happened to them. As a result, unhelpful emotions, thoughts and beliefs subsequently stored in the mind and body continue to cause problems. There are ways to deal with this.
Panesar realised that his difficulties got worse when he didn't take his medication. Taylor says she is using cognitive behavioural therapy to deal with her problems. Graeme Fowler, who opened up about his battle with depression in his recent book Absolutely Foxed, used a mental health scale of 1 to 20, (where above ten is good), to help him assess and communicate his state of mind daily, to his family and to himself. Trescothick and Jonathan Trott quit international cricket.
Mainstream medicine will tell you that mental health issues can be controlled but not cured. And then, only by talking about them or taking medication. Other practitioners disagree.
Holistic therapies like reiki and feng shui can help people relax, de-stress and release negatives. Kiniesiologists believe that trauma is stored in specific parts of the body and can be released once the location is identified. Meditation calms; affirmations and visualisation can help train the mind and emotions to see and feel things more positively.
Holistic practitioners all over the world deal with the sorts of mental health issues cricketers face every day, and offer alternative approaches to the problems at hand. However, the fact that their treatments don't necessarily meet the approval of mainstream medical science and pharmaceutical companies makes people less ready to try such therapies than they would traditional ones.
Some cricketers already use them, though. The Sri Lankan team used to visit Russel Arnold's cousin, Ranjini Woodhouse, in Milton Keynes, for reiki sessions when they toured England. Kinesiologist Charles Krebs worked for India, when Greg Chappell was coach. Geoff Boycott has said that he tried reiki when he was fighting throat cancer, and that he called in a feng shui master to sort out the energies in his house.
Both Smith and Cosier think that the best way to help cricketers with their mental health issues is to catch them early, and like Taylor, to take action straightaway.
Cosier suggests that before players retire they would be well advised to speak to experts about what they're going to do next, and undergo some sort of test, with a professional, to find something that fits them. "People need to find a way of being peaceful about what they do and who they become after they've finished playing," he says.
The Sri Lankan team used to visit Russel Arnold's cousin, Ranjini Woodhouse, in Milton Keynes, for reiki sessions when they toured England
Smith thinks that taking such forward-looking steps will help people match careers to personalities and desires, but realises that professional cricket, particularly at international level, can be so intense and all-consuming that there is often little time to do this. "The last four years of my career with Warwickshire was like being on tour with a rock band. We never stopped," he says.
Smith adds that players these days spend a lot of time around other players and coaches or fitness instructors, all of whom are driven by performance outcomes. "They also need a mentoring figure, who can look at the person and ask them if they're okay," he says. "Someone who might notice a player has the propensity for mental health issues, by seeing how they react to highs and lows, during their playing career."
Bob Willis fulfilled this role when Smith was a young player at Warwickshire. "He'd take you to a bar and find out if everything was okay with you," Smith says. So, later on, did Bob Woolmer, when he was Warwickshire coach. "I had hundreds of these types of conversations with Woolmer," Smith says.
Willis and Woolmer, experienced, intelligent senior professionals, knew that a player had to be okay in themselves if they were to play well, help their team win matches, leagues, tournaments, and as a result, please selectors and secure contracts.
Cricketers, after all, aren't just players of sport, entertainers, celebrities and corporate assets. They're human beings too.