In the past month, various Australian cricketers such as Glen Maxwell and Sophie Molineux have decided to take a break from the game, citing mental health reasons as the dominant factor behind their decisions. This has once again raised questions about the challenge of mental health in cricket, which, with its highly particular demands, has long been associated with psychological problems.
Cricket Australia has been quick to come out and say that the problem isn’t unique to their sport, and that the recent incidents of players struggling with their mental health is merely an extension of the problems that wider society seems to now face.
This was supported by Ben Oliver, the executive general manager of national teams, saying, “This is not a sport thing. It’s not a cricket thing, it’s a society thing.” The evidence seems to agree with him, as psychological research finds no correlation between professional sport and worsened mental health than that of the general population.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the pressures of modern day society have combined with the demands of cricket to produce a surge in issues with mental health amongst players.
First of all, there is the dilemma of social media. For all its benefits, it leaves prominent sportspeople open to ridicule and abuse on a daily basis. Maxwell himself has previously talked about the mocking he received after his infamous episode of leaving a ball on his stumps during a Big Bash Game in 2014, and how the torrent of derision he received left him feeling extremely low. Social media exacerbated this, as the clip went viral within minutes, and Maxwell, famously nicknamed the ‘Big Show’, suddenly became ‘no show’.
Crammed scheduling, in part due to the power exercised by TV and broadcast companies, has also been raised as another factor behind mental health problems in cricket. Players now play far more than their counterparts twenty years ago, and if you’re a big name such as Maxwell, then your annual calendar looks rather full when you add in national team commitments, domestic requirements, the Big Bash and all the other t20 tournaments that take place across the world.
This involves long periods away from home and loved ones. Former England cricketer Marcus Trescothick notably struggled with this, leading to an onset of clinical depression that forced him to retire from the international game.
However, there are also factors entirely unique to cricket that arguably exacerbate the problem. Cricket, although a team game, is actually almost entirely composed of individual battles, which expose players’ individual weaknesses and can really play on vulnerability and self-awareness. Moreover, as those who know the game are aware, cricket is wrapped in anxiety and tiny little superstitions that reflect the idiosyncratic nature of the sport, particularly for batsman, who, the evidence suggests, experience more mental health problems than bowlers.
In cricket there is little chance for hiding. It’s not like rugby, to take one example, where if you miss a tackle you can move on to the next one. Cricket places a high reward on the avoidance of failure and requires extremely long periods of concentration, which is a recurrent theme for other members of society who struggle with mental health.
It’s very easy to be sceptical about international sports stars struggling with mental health, but it’s crucial to understand that almost their entire identity and self-worth goes into their performance on the pitch. Moreover in a game such as cricket, where failure is rewarded so brutally, the compounding effect of a series of sustained poor performances accumulates rapidly, which can do serious damage to the mental health of its players.
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