At just 23 years of age, Max Holden has already written his name into Middlesex history by becoming one of just four players to have scored a century for the club in all three formats of the game. I have had the privilege of playing a lot of cricket with Max, and feel fortunate to call him a good friend. Alongside being an extremely talented cricketer he is a very thoughtful, self-effacing and dedicated individual and someone who has, even in his young career, encountered both successful and challenging periods. It was for this reason that I wanted to talk to Max in an effort to better understand the experience of a young cricketer in relation to mental health.
Conversations around this topic within professional sport are now becoming far more commonplace as more people open up about their own journeys of mental wellbeing. Amidst all of this discussion however, the question of how young person might begin to understand themselves both as an athlete and a human being remains? To balance self- expectation and external pressure is a challenge in itself, and the added weight of a topic as serious as mental health does not ease the burden; I wanted to find out what this was like for Max.
The joyful innocence most young people have when they first encounter sport can be a challenge to hold onto as one moves through the game. Since he can remember, Max “loved the game, everything about it’“,he recalls ‘”just playing for fun’“without “too many worries or concerns’.” When I asked him whether he was aware at that time of the mental aspects and effects of the game, a wry and slightly nostalgic smile appeared; “I wouldn’t have thought too much about it”, he admitted.
The professional game should be the expression of a young person’s dreams but the expectation, external judgement and perhaps the realisation that performance was now a way of life has affected many athletes. Max reflects on the past few years as a time when scoring runs, or not, severely altered how he felt. It “affected my life and my mood away from cricket. Performing well or performing badly almost relates to how I am feeling in my life….my value as a person can sometimes be altered.” To hear one of your close friends speak so honestly can be disarming, and in the silence there was a mutual acknowledgement of some shared experience; he had articulated a vulnerability I recognised.
Anyone who has performed in anything at any level will relate to the physiological effect that either good or less good games can have, but to carry the challenges and difficulties with you everywhere, to feel ‘less’ because of how a match went is serious, there is no doubt. Max knows that “so much more comes into a person than just batting or bowling” , but recently cricket has been “all encompassing” and has provoked performance anxiety and anxiety which he has battled with. I have been witness to his growing awareness of these issues, and his true commitment in trying to overcome them.
I asked about whether he had employed any practises or changed any behaviours to try and achieve this; he said that he has always felt a “big need to be liked and accepted in the workplace”, and as cricket went up and down, he might have “said or done thing he didn’t want to do…to be liked or to fit in”. One of the most powerful adjustments he has made, then, was simply to ‘”realise what makes me happy” and to do more of that.
The nature of team sports, and particularly one as drawn out as cricket means that it can sometimes be hard to get away from things to do with the game, and yet Max says he has “always needed time and space” for himself. He has, recently, had the courage to reclaim this time and space, and used it to both recharge and to check in on himself using note taking and journaling to better understand how he is each day or each week. Mindfulness, too, has been an important tool in allowing him to be more present, and to put fears and worries into perspective; “I have been at my best when I am living in the moment, focusing on the job right now…not what-ifs and maybes”.
His answers are testament to what I think is one of the strange conundrums regarding mental wellbeing; difficulties can be so acute, the effect on all areas of one’s life so profound, and yet often when solutions and steps forward are found they can appear to be so simple. Although it is the implementation of these things which is most important, their simplicity is I think, is encouraging. We all have mental health, and at some point or another we all might struggle with it…Max’s ongoing journey demonstrates this.
Since this discussion is such a prescient topic and, as I have mentioned, applicable to every single person, I wanted to see how Max viewed the wider game’s relationship with mental health. It was encouraging to hear that he felt the understanding of these issues was “certainly getting better”, though there is still “a lot of work to be done”. He highlighted a subtle but interesting piece of evidence to support this, that at Middlesex there are three full time S&C coaches, but only one part time psychologist…this, I think, speaks for itself. I found myself wondering if the Max Holden of 15 or 16 would have made this point, or even been aware of the discrepancy; what everyone said about the young Max was how hard he worked and how much he loved the game, that cricket was the very essence of who Max was (as I’m sure it was and is for many young players).
Now however, his perspective has shifted slightly; “When people realise that if you look after someone as a person they will achieve better things with their cricket and with their work….and realise the two are linked, it will create an environment that’s more focused on improving those areas”. It felt almost as if this was someone who was synthesising and understanding their own relationship with themselves as a person, and themselves as a cricketer. Max seems comfortable now in the understanding that if you are a “happy person off the pitch you’ll probably perform better on it” and I wonder if this correlation could only be realised by experiencing and overcoming the challenges that he has; when previously it was the score sheet that mattered, it is now “being true to (himself) that brings fulfilment and happiness.”
There is a much misquoted line from the great boxing coach Angelo Dundee who was asked what it was like to coach such amazing athletes; “I don’t work with fighters” he said, “I work with men who happen to fight”…That Max is able now to realise and embrace his value as a person away from the cricket pitch made me, as his friend, extremely happy.
As with all empathetic, loyal and caring people they can often give so much that they forget to take time for themselves. This conversation reassured me that Max is starting to do that, and although he has had many phenomenal performances thus far, and there are many, many more to come, I hope he holds this as one of his greatest achievements.