Ethan speaks with fellow professional players about their approach to mental wellbeing in cricket

Sport is often described as a ‘metaphor for life’; games, series and seasons reflect in miniature the full spectrum of the human experience. That said, with the exception of a few tragic occasions, these lessons are taught softly, without the absolute consequence of ‘real’ life; anything ‘learned’ is done so within the parameters of a game after all, isn’t it?

However if sport is indeed a replica how, then, do we view the athletes? For them their career, their life, is no metaphor and there is nothing ‘miniature’ about it. The average fan can turn the television off, but for those who have played and who have succeeded or fail so publicly, there is no off switch. As you read this article, I ask you to hold that in your mind.

What follows documents a conversation I had with Steven Finn, a son, brother and friend who is also an England and Sussex fast bowler. Propelled into international cricket at just twenty one years old having debuted for Middlesex five years before in 2005, Steve experienced rapid and deserved success, and was surrounded almost exclusively by fame and excitement. There have, though, been more difficult moments. Finny spoke with a great honesty about his journey on the field and in the mind. His path seems to have touched every point on that spectrum mentioned above, and we discussed in depth the effect of this on his wellbeing. In his reflections there seemed, now, to be an acceptance of what he had been through, a degree of self-awareness that perhaps can only be found through adversity.

“I am going to have to work on this for the rest of my life”, he said. There was no denial or excuse, only a courageous recognition that we are never a finished article, and that each step forwards is in itself an achievement.

A lot has changed in the world and the game of cricket since Finny started playing, so I began by asking what, if anything, mental health meant to him back then. “In the cricketing system…mental health wasn’t really something I became too aware of…I had been involved for seven or eight years before I was even aware of it”. I then asked what it meant now, and what had informed this shift in understanding.

The ‘lightbulb’ moment, he said, was the “Jonathan Trott situation in 2013…no one knew how to describe it, it was described clumsily to the press”. Steve recognised something in Trott’s experience; “it was seeing other people struggle and go through it and then subsequently realising that I was going through very similar things…I wish I’d had spoken up sooner about I was feeling”. It seems difficult, though, to talk about something you cannot identify. Finny now views mental wellbeing as something personal rather than professional, something related to health rather than performance.

Whilst he acknowledges that “they are intertwined, and bits of mental health find their way into your professional life whatever you are doing”, Steve speaks of menta health as something connected first to the person, not the athlete.

He suggested that early in his career his understanding of himself was linked inextricably with how he was performing as a cricketer. There was a sense that anything affecting the person could be solved by the athlete. “For a long time, when I wasn’t feeling ok, I just put it down to having to work harder, almost punish myself by having to work harder and more relentlessly….I felt like that was my only way out of that rut”. A healthy separation is not an easy thing to achieve. On one hand, you “have to deal with the ups and downs of emotions that come with playing sport and with failing or succeeding”, and on the other you are expected to check in with yourself as a human being; “It makes it harder to decipher what is you not feeling ok or you being down or just disappointed about performances”.

We spoke then about how success at such an early stage can, almost subconsciously, link one’s identity and self-worth to their craft. Steve spoke about how at the crest of his first wave he felt “almost bulletproof”. The good feelings came from cricket, and so perhaps it is no surprise that, when things were more difficult, he looked to cricket again to find answers; “when for a long time I wasn’t feeling ok… I wasn’t willing to accept that that was ok for me, I had this idea that I had to be perfect all of the time , and if I wasn’t then my value as a human and as a person was far less”.

It seems cruel that a sport most of us start playing because it brings joy and fun and happiness can strip someone of themselves. “I felt worthless outside of cricket if I was not performing well”…there is nothing metaphorical about that.

Unfortunately I fear that Steven’s feelings are ones shared by many sports people and high performers. Often these people are so committed, orientating many aspects of their life towards their goals and ambitions, that to remember that we are not defined only by our achievements or failures can seem impossible. I asked how he approaches these thoughts now? Is he able to over come them? “I speak to someone now…things have become natural through working on them. Allowing yourself the understanding that you’re not defined by what happens on a cricket pitch or what happens in training…”.

However, Finny was quick to reiterate that this process is ongoing; “I still come away from sessions frustrated and I have to catch myself, but I have got a lot better at being able to recognise the moments when I am thinking negatively about myself and catch myself and stop it before it gets too bad…. Not letting yourself fall too far is the most pertinent thing that I’ve worked on or tool I’ve managed to find”. So there is no elixir, no silver bullet.

Just as Steve employed hard work and discipline to reach the top of his profession, he now deploys those same characteristics to his mind and his thoughts. Whilst it is perhaps less glamorous than an Ashes Test match, Steve might argue it holds an even greater value.

Professional sport has one thing that many other high performing jobs do not have, public exposure. In the introduction I touched briefly on the ‘average fan’, the person who loves their game, who loves their team and who feels every defeat and victory. At its best such connection and devotion is a beautiful thing, eliciting genuine emotion, inspiring awesome atmospheres and giving energy to the players and teams.

However, in the wrong hands the same passion can grant people a sense of entitlement. They feel entitled to answers, and perhaps more powerfully, entitled to share their opinions. Couple this dangerous potential with a media designed to engage these very same people and what can result is a toxic cocktail of vitriolic language and sensationalist opinion. Few people, I would suggest, have experienced the media’s good, bad and ugly sides to quite the extent that Steve has.

Following a difficult tour of Australia in 2013, Finny was labelled as ‘unselectable’ by Ashley Giles. To a young man whose ‘mental health was at its absolute lowest’ and who was already experiencing “feelings of worthlessness and embarrassment” the effect of such a public indictment must have been truly shattering. “Reading all this stuff…on the front and back pages… just affirms what you are thinking, that you are useless and no good”. 

I asked whether his recent work in punditry was at all motivated by a desire to model a more empathetic style of reporting. ‘Yeah I think that’s one of the biggest thing I’ve tried to do…try and give a perspective from a current player. (It is) Such an easy thing to make big statements and have nothing to substantiate them with….it’s why when I have gone into the media I will never be the person to jump on the band wagon and say things off the cuff”.

He spoke about his need to substantiate any statements he makes with some piece of knowledge, but he did not mean just statistics or technical jargon; “Being a current player…gives me the ability or the knowledge to be able to try and help people understand why people may be making mistakes or to better understand what might be happening on the pitch…I can give some back story or some context as to why decisions are made…as opposed to doing it on the rooftops shouting”.

There is something almost old fashioned about Steve’s uncompromising drive to fairly represent the players (or as he importantly distinguishes, the people) on the field. This is even more important to given the prevalence of social media and his experience of it. “Anyone can give you criticism, they can find you and get to you….I think ex-players who didn’t experience the age of social media…they struggle to understand…players are thought of as almost soft”. 

There was a brief moment of silence after these words. I felt there was something deeply personal in them. Finny then mentioned how he has recently deleted Instagram from his phone because he “found it unhealthy to be looking at how amazing everyone else’s life is…it can make you feel rubbish about yourself”. It seems that there really is no hiding place for the modern athlete, but I feel reassured that in Steve there is now a voice of reason, empathy and genuine care. Representing people fairly and with kindness seem to sit at the heart of Steven’s approach to both his work and himself. 

So how then might our game come closer to these values? “Cricket is catching up…but it has a hell of a long way to go when it comes to understanding human beings and how their minds work’ he said. Being ‘tough’ in the older sense of the word is ‘not how young people work these days’. Until this changes, he suggested, there will be an ‘apprehensiveness of players to speak to someone within the institution” which “makes it more likely to bottle things up and not tell anyone”.

As ever with Finny, there was a measured understanding of the situation, too. ‘Education is important…but mental health cannot be forced upon people…that can be a toxic thing for them…it’s about having support there…so when people are ready to speak it’s there…and they may never want to…but there needs to be an avenue between players and help, whatever that is”. 

In one sentence he encapsulated the purpose of these interviews perfectly, ‘to provide an avenue between players and help, whatever that is’. There is a recognition that professional help might not be for everyone, and that reaching out to a friend of finding a passion away from the game may be enough. That said, Finny’s highlight the responsibility our game has to create pathways to help. People must feel they can explore these options without ostracising themselves from their team or inhibiting their career. ‘I would like to see a more individualised approach towards it….that allows people to find someone that they trust and have a relationship with in order to develop that side of their games’. It took Steve four years to find that person, “I went through those things 2013 and was aware but I never actually spoke or entered any degree of therapy until November 2017”. Of course he was aware of the financial and logistical limitations to an individualised wellbeing plan, but his message is clear, people should not have to endure years of feeling alone.

I was conscious that we had spoken a lot about difficult things, about overcoming and learning. Yet in the five years I have known Steve it has been his generosity, kindness and patience that have stood out to me. Alongside these traits a constant desire to get better and what I have recognised as a genuine enjoyment of bowling and learning have been present. Having been through what he has, I asked him how he had maintained or cultivated these qualities. “With difficulty”, he smiled. He spoke then about developing the “strength of character” and trust in himself and his game to say “this is my career and my opportunity to express myself”. But what had changed from then to now, I asked, from the eighteen year old to the thirty two year old? “I always wanted myself to do well, I didn’t want to waste the opportunity…in my own head I think I saw it as a way to repay my parents”. 

He emphasises that there was no explicit pressure or expectation from them at all, but even within himself, such a weight seems a heavy one to carry. He suggested that as he has grown he has become “more accepting” of making mistakes, and perhaps more sure that his performances on the field would never affect how his parents saw him; “experience and time and other perspectives….allow you to understand that there is always a bigger picture”.

Would he have equipped a younger Finny with experience and knowledge he has now? His answer surprised me a little; “no I wouldn’t change….I played cricket care free, carried no baggage, tried my hardest and if it worked it worked and if it didn’t it didn’t…”.

There was a nostalgic tone in these words, as if he was describing something that he may not find again, but in the next sentence he mentioned that with age and experience comes a greater understanding of oneself, a more full “idea of what you are and what you want to be” . Therefore whilst the free, unbridled naivety of his early career may have gone,something of truly great value seems to have taken its place.

‘How are you doing now?’ I find myself asking. This may not be a traditional or strictly professional way to finish an interview, but it seemed like the natural question. Steven paused before acknowledging the difficulty of the last eighteen months. Last summer he left Middlesex after nearly sixteen years on the staff; “that triggered a lot of emotions and a lot of those feelings of limited self-worth…memories of 2013 and the rejection and embarrassment of that”. He quickly returned to the present however, speaking with a renewed energy about his “excitement at the prospect of a fresh start” and concluding “I’m doing well, but it’s been a challenge to get there again”.

Having read this conversation you might have anticipated that Finny’s answer to my question would be overwhelmingly positive. That would, after all, fit into a ‘fairytale’ narrative of victory over struggle. Unfortunately real life has more nuance it seems, more ‘challenge’… it is not a zero sum game. What seems clear however is that Steve is better placed to deal with difficulty than he was in the past.

The phrase ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ has become vogue in recent years, and it carries some weight, recognising the power in acknowledging one’s struggles. To begin to take steps forward however, requires yet more courage. To this end, the clinical psychologist Dr Amy Izycky has championed the idea that ‘it’s okay to do the work to become okay’. Finny has done and continues to do the work. He has not only spoken, but he has stepped forward, and that is a development which should be celebrated.