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The sounds of silence need to be heard

Mahavir Rawat

Playing the game that you have loved as a child at the highest level, representing your country, thousands of people cheering your name from the stands, millions in your bank account, darling of the social network, fans throwing themselves at you wherever you go – if this is not a dream life, then what is? As a kid, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my instant answer was always: ‘sports star’. But no one would have believed or imagined that under the layer of smiles and happiness was the darkness of loneliness. Mental issues? No way. Those are the terms used for weakness, failures, weirdos of the society. No one thought that the razzmatazz life, sports persons led could be riddled with mental issues.

In the last one month, especially after Australian shorter format expert Glen Maxwell took break from the game due to mental illness, people have been forced to understand the complex life of cricket players. Virat Kohli, too, made a statement that after the dreadful series of England in 2014, he thought the world had come to an end and he found himself at the abyss of darkness.

Depression within the cricket fraternity has hit the headlines and now other players are opening up about their own experiences and battles with mental illnesses. One study suggested that the suicide rate among English Test cricketers over the years is almost double that of the UK’s male population. I am sure the issues are greater with sub-continent teams but just that as a society we still believe these things as taboo.

The real question though is, why is this the case? Is it something about the sport that is triggering such incidences? Or is it more likely to be a reflection of the type of personalities that tend to take up the game? There is no concrete answer.

Let’s firstly look at the characteristics of cricket that could be deemed as risk factors for the onset of depression. In professional cricket, time away from home can be a huge issue for some players, with as much as 44 weeks of the year being spent in hotel rooms. The huge amount of time spent alone on tour, as well as the time on the field whilst waiting to bat, etc, provides perfect opportunity for introspection, or analysing one’s thoughts and feelings, which can therefore also lead to rumination, which consists of persistent negative feelings. Studies have shown strong correlations between both introspection and rumination and incidence of depression.

On top of all that, there is then the pressure of a game that is quite unique in its need for individual performance while being a team game. Individual performance is tangibly measured and compared through the use of batting and bowling statistics, with averages and number of runs scored or wickets taken regularly being used as performance indicators. This is much more objective than most other sports, for example football, where a player might not score a goal, but it can still be subjectively perceived that he had a good game.

In other words, poor performances are harder to hide in cricket. This is capable of creating a huge amount of self-induced pressure; wanting to contribute to the team, pressure on one’s self to do well, and a high fear of failure. It can also create insecurity, with the constant worries of whether one’s contribution is being valued as well as the looming question of one’s own ability. If you play an individual sport, and play poorly, that’s one thing; you may feel that you’ve let yourself down. If you have a poor individual performance in a team game, you may not just feel that you’ve let yourself down, but also your teammates, your captain, your coach, etc. So in a game where individual performance is so easily measured, this can be a huge issue.

Not long ago, NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, made a statement that was both shocking and profound: many of the league’s players, who have an average salary of seven million dollars a year, were “truly unhappy”. He informed, “The outside world sees the fame, the money, all the trappings that go with it, and they say: ‘How is it possible that they can even complain?’ But a lot of these young men are genuinely unhappy.” Indeed, one superstar had recently made a comment after winning the NBA championship that from getting off a plane to the game, to showing up in the arena, he sometimes did not see a single person. He said: ‘I am going to get to my room, stay in my room, get room service and go to the game Sunday.” He knew if he said it publicly people would brush it off with a ‘poor baby’. There was a deep sadness around him. But of late people have been coming out in the open and are ready to address the subject, which was welcome given how mental health issues remain largely taboo in elite sport. No Alpha Dog wants to be seen as being soft or weak. But there is increasing evidence that it is a bigger problem than might have been thought.

One study of 50 swimmers competing for positions in Canada’s Olympic and world championship teams, for instance, found that before competition, 68 per cent of them “met the criteria for a major depressive episode”.

The research, published in 2013, also found that the incidence of depression doubled among the elite top 25 per cent of athletes. The authors noted: “The findings suggest that the prevalence of depression among elite athletes is higher than what has been previously reported in
the literature.”

Tellingly the authors of a study – among footballers in five European leagues – suggested that mental health issues might be higher compared with the rest of the population but pointedly added: “We would like to emphasise how difficult it is to gather scientific information
about mental health in professional football, since such a topic remains taboo.”

Of course elite sport is brutal. Failure is common, career development uncertain. And injuries, overtraining and concussions can also affect mental health. But an additional factor these days is social media.

It is hard to argue with that. A couple of decades ago sports stars could make mistakes that were the equivalent of bears defecating in the woods, given that no one heard about them. Now the scrutiny and attention is unrelenting, especially when every phone doubles as a video camera and every fan has a hotline into players’ brains via Twitter. It is hard to ignore a bad game or poorly worded comment when it is met with a 24-hour barrage of bile on
social media.

There is no doubt that it’s lonely at the top. It takes a lot of courage and strength to accept the problem and come out with it. During such testing times, players need support from every corner. It’s high time, that along with the roar of triumph of these sports stars on the field, that we listen to the loud and disturbing sound of
their silence.

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