Former Surrey bowler and clinical psychotherapist Nick Peters explains the relationship between mental health and the unique sport of cricket
In the first instance, cricket is like any other sport: it has the potential to draw upon primal competitive urges and fuel an intensive desire to win; sometimes at the cost of everything. When played competitively, the psychological demands of all sports can be overwhelming. They engender a culture of winning from which the ‘winning mindset’ is born. But I believe that cricket is also very different from other sports, as it can be regarded as an individual sport played within a team dynamic; hence its idiosyncratic nature. As far as team sports go, cricket exposes the individual like no other: the batsman’s long walk back to the pavilion amidst the ghostly silence of the spectators after a ‘first- baller’, or the bowler’s downcast scuffing of the crease as he is hit for a third consecutive ‘4’. This potential for public scrutiny and humiliation is unparalleled in any other sport.
The winning mindset
In the beginning we are drawn to cricket, (or to any sport for that matter), for a variety of reasons. Whether they be social, health related, competitive, or for a general fascination and love of the game, the cricketer takes up the sport with the hope of gleaning plenty of individual, and collective, positive experiences and outcomes. Indeed, cricket does offer us wonderful experiences and positive feeling states. And, whilst in the main, it brings joy to many throughout a lifetime, things go wrong; often through physical or psychological injury. But in the case of mental health, I believe it is the winning mindset (and/or individual desire to succeed) that can play a destructive role in a cricketer’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.
I define the ‘winning mindset’ as the attitude and philosophy which puts winning at the top of the agenda. However, there are also individual connotations to consider here, concerning individual performance. Winning for the team is one thing, but a poor individual performance can evoke debilitating negative feeling states too, and if either of the two dynamics, or both, are sustained over a period of time, mental health can be seriously affected. Of course, the ‘psychological stakes’ vary according to the level and seriousness of the game: ranging from the intensive competition of the professional game, to the more socially orientated Sunday afternoon fixture on the village green.
When the cricketer adopts a winning mindset he endeavours to conquer, to win, and to undermine the opponent, (both team and individual): the batsman’s intent is to dominate the bowler, and the bowler’s desire is to terminate the batsman’s innings. Thus, this winning mindset encapsulates a sense of mastery, control, strength, dominance and superiority. However, whilst this psychological approach is appropriate and indeed essential on the field of play, it becomes hugely problematic when taken out of context and applied to off-field, ‘life’ scenarios. For example, there is the unreconstructed, stereotypical ‘alpha’ male, and the ‘macho individual’, who adopt this very rigid and domineering mental approach to conduct their relationships, business negotiations and regulate painful emotions and complex feeing states, such as anxiety or depression. Indeed, it is this cricketer’s intrinsic need to be always strong and in control that is so destructive and dangerous, personally and collectively. This crucial point is illustrated well in the excellent book, Depressive Illness: The Curse of The Strong (2012). Dr. Tim Cantopher, explains that clinical depression is a disease often suffered by the ‘strong’. These are people who can’t take failure, who will push beyond boundaries to succeed at all costs – such as those that engage in competitive sport.
In my own experience as a clinic psychotherapist and a schoolboy, amateur and professional cricketer, these are individuals (I include my ‘old self’) whose pride and sense of self doesn’t easily allow them to put their hand up and say: ‘I am struggling’, ‘I need help’, or ‘I can’t manage’, when dealing with personal difficulties. And this is because when the winning mindset is all encompassing, cricketers (and other sportspeople) are, to varying degrees, solely interested in winning and exhibiting their power and prowess (over their opponent); they train to conquer! Hence, the notion of vulnerability is an anathema to the self-respecting sportsperson; particularly on the pitch, and often off it! Furthermore, any such declaration would be an admission of defeat, or weakness.
What makes cricket different?
In the professional game, depression and other and mental health related issues, have been comprehensively documented through all channels in the media. All those (and those who don’t) follow cricket are familiar with the cases of Jonathan Trott, Andrew Flintoff, Marcus Trescothick and Mike Yardy, to name a few, in recent times. Furthermore, English professional cricketers suffer the highest rates of suicide amongst all professional sportspeople (Frith, 2001). Clearly professional cricketers are exposed to a specific set of pressures, including: long periods of time away from home and incubation in hotel rooms, intensive travel, anxieties around selection and injury related issues, career insecurity, and the transitional period that every professional faces at the end of his career. But cricket, in its broader context, can be considered to be psychologically demanding, as at the grass roots level of schools and clubs, cricketers also suffer.
So, beyond the pitfalls of the ‘winning mindset’, what is it about cricket in general that makes us so vulnerable? Well, I believe that brutal self-analysis and scrutiny (statistics make this worse), the length of the game, reflections on one’s failures, individual exposure and intense frustration play on the emotions in a way which is unparalleled in other sports. Furthermore, there is something of the extreme in cricket such as the time factor: a batsmen’s game (sometimes a whole day) can be over in one ball, and a bowler may have to endure the public humiliation of being pummelled to the boundary 6 balls in a row, before being taken off, and not being brought back on. Hence, cricket can be cruel to the psyche. The psychological stakes of playing cricket are high; consequently, mental health is a serious issue for all involved in this beautiful game. Furthermore, suicide and depression are not limited to the professional game; they afflict amateur players too!
The paradox of vulnerability
One of the principal characteristics of the human condition is the struggle to acknowledge vulnerability – taken to its extreme we are talking about our mortality. Existentially, every human is in a frequent state of unconscious denial of his/her mortality; we devise ingenious ways of deflecting it, through acquisition of power, the anti-ageing processes, financial and material resources etc, (Cooper, 2003). And sportspeople are amongst those who experience this need for denial more acutely than most. (In fact, any intensely competitive environment which embodies an intrinsic need to win, or to be strong at the expense of more humane conditions, will evoke a dynamic where individuals’ mental health is potentially at risk).
Of course, the problem here for cricketers (and other sportspeople) is that vulnerability is counter-intuitive to the demands of sporting competition and the winning mindset. The cricketer who embraces his vulnerability on the pitch is in danger of making a fool of himself and betraying his team mates.
But, for life, we need a different set of psychological tools. Ones that allow us to process and integrate our vulnerable feeling states and emotional pain, such as: sadness, anger, fear, shame and depression. This way we can become more self-possessed, with a stronger sense of self and more robust emotional and psychological wellbeing. (Indeed, there are elements of a winning mindset which are useful, but for sustainable and robust emotional wellbeing and psychological health, we need something else).
When individuals exclusively adopt a winning mindset to life, things go wrong. We pay the price of psychological pain. We become depressed, anxious, unfulfilled and adopt addictive and destructive behaviour patterns. Moreover, the rather crude mentality of ‘soldiering on’, ‘getting on with it’, ‘putting on a brave face’, might have helped the soldiers to go over the top during the Great War, but with regards living in this deeply complex and modern age, we need a more psychologically nuanced, sophisticated and resourceful approach. And this involves a completely different attitude, involving a movement towards our vulnerability. Hence, a winning mindset and psychological wellbeing are essentially conflicted paradigms.
But I believe that education can change this. We just need to grasp the paradox: in order to be mentally healthy and ‘strong’ we need to embrace our vulnerability!
I presented this topic in a webinar and wrote an introductory article on this subject for a conference at The Maudsley Hospital, London in July, 2014. For more information on the dynamics of vulnerability, conflict and integration please look at my presentation on the webinar – I am the second speaker. (http://www.maudsleylearning.com/mental-health-sport-webinar-nick-peters/)
So how would this look in practical terms?
Well, in an intimate relationship with a partner, vulnerability might involve expressing our insecurities, our anxieties, our anger, our heartfelt desires, or our sense of inadequacy. At work, it might involve a conversation with our boss explaining we feel overwhelmed, unsupported, or even out of our comfort zone. Socially, down the pub, it may involve opening up to a good friend: when asked how we are getting on, instead of replying with the familiar ‘not too bad’, we could say: ‘Well, I’m actually feeling really down. My wife has been spending lots of time with her friends and I am feeling upset, and neglected and unimportant’. It requires us to be authentic in our relationships.
Relationships and Science
Interpersonal neurobiology and neuroscience inform us that attuned and nurturing relationships provide the bedrock of mental health and wellbeing. Of course, there are other contributory factors such as diet and exercise, but relationships are the key. And it is not a question of having lots of friends – on facebook or social media. It is the quality (not the quantity) of relationships which is crucial. Numerous clients during mental health assessments explain to me that they have many friends, but when I ask them to whom they can openly express their true feelings, many look perplexed and struggle to find someone. Of course, we don’t open up to anyone and everyone, but we need to be authentic and to share our feelings and vulnerability with someone! We have a neurobiological disposition to find meaningful human connection. Put simply, in order to process difficult feelings, we need to open up to an ‘attuned other’, so we can regulate and subsequently, self-regulate (Wallin, 2007).
So, ultimately, our mental health depends on the quality of human connection with others, and our capacity to live authentically. I strongly recommend this wonderful tedtalk
Best of luck to you all,
Nick Peters MA (Psych); MA (Hons); BA (Hons); UKCP. (www.nickpeterstherapy.co.uk)
Clinical psychotherapist and ex-professional cricketer at Surrey CCC
Cooper, M. (2003) Existential Therapies. London: SAGE Publications
Cantopher, T. (2012) Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong (3rd Edition) Great Britain: Sheldon Press.
Frith, D. (2001) Silence of The Heart: Cricket Suicides. Great Britain: Mainstream Publishing Company.
Wallin, D, J. (2007) Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: The Guildford Press