Dubai: When Glenn Maxwell came back after scoring a swashbuckling 62 off 28 deliveries against Sri Lanka in a T20 in late October, little did one know as to what was going on in his mind. The sudden announcement of an otherwise chirpy and fun character in the Australian dressing room taking an indefinite break from the game came as a shocker – though it’s not the first time that the sport was experiencing such a kind of admission.
“In one way it was very good for him, to have the courage to do that. Behind the mask of a great entertainer, great talent and great teamman and everything we see publicly, the guy is human and was hurting a bit,” said Australia coach Justin Langer. A man-to-man conversation between Maxwell, Langer and Dr Michael Lloyd, the Australian team psychologist, followed and the consensus was to let the all-rounder spend some time away from the game.
What did actually go wrong with the ‘Mad Max’ of Australian cricket?
Is it an overriding thought of him not often being able to fulfil the huge expectations from him – or was it something personal? While it’s the job of Dr Lloyd and his team to put Maxwell’s troubled mind at ease, recent history shows he is the most well-known cricketer since England’s Jonathon Trott in 2013 to be troubled with mental health struggles.
Trott’s case, however, was a clear fallout of performance anxiety – and he has dealt the subject in quite a candid confession in his book ‘Just Briefly.’ Until then very much the rock of England’s batting line-up, he was so devastated by the chin music and sledging from the Mitchell Johnson-led pace attack at the Ashes series that he abandoned the series midway to fly back home.
Everytime England’s dependable No. 3 had to duck below a bouncer, Trott recalled what it was like in his book: “I was being questioned as a man. I felt my dignity was being stripped away with every short ball I ducked or parried. It was degrading.” So agonising was the period that he even contemplated driving his car into the Thames or crashing into a tree.
The grey area of the mind is certainly the realm of the clinical psychologist – or a sports psychologist in the current context where enough support system is available for the players of even T20 franchise leagues. However, it’s quite a revelation to learn that the genteel sport had thrown up as many as 20 cases of suicide due to acute depression – with England wicketkeeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow’s father David being the last Test cricketer to commit suicide in 1998.
Delving into the possible theory behind Maxwell’s breakdown, Paddy Upton, one of the leading gurus in the field and the psychologist in India’s 2011 World Cup winning team told Gulf News in an exclusive
interview: “All top level athletes have two primary sources of pressure and stress, one of the actual on-field performance in front of so many people and their consequence, and the other from their personal lives. The personal stress is made worse by the fact that they spend so much time touring away from family and friends, and also by the fact that they are expected to be mentally tough – which drives them to try and hide these difficulties from others.
“When emotional or psychological stress is hidden or internalised in this way, it eventually comes to a head like the proverbial pressure-cooker. Maxwell might well have had a combination of the two,” said the South African, who had been part of the support staff of IPL franchise Rajasthan Royals for several seasons.
While the sensitive subject of depression among cricketers is an extremely subjective one, a breakdown of the case studies show an overwhelming number of cases are from countries like England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Leave aside the number-crunching of suicide cases, but important names like late New Zealand batting great Martin Crowe, England’s Ashes heroes Steven Harmison, Andrew Flintoff or South African bowler Andre Nel have all gone on record on the dark phases of their lives.
Contrary to such figures, any such admission from big names in the cricket-crazy countries of Indian sub-continent have been conspicuously less. There have been the odd occasions like that of a Maninder Singh, the gifted left-arm spinner who was once considered to be the heir apparent to the legendary Bishan Singh Bedi. Maninder, who apparently lost his way after making a sensational debut in the mid ‘80s, had once revealed in an interview: “I was scared if I went to a psychologist, people would write in newspapers.”
Is the support system that a cricketer receives from his inner circle of family and friends in countries like India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka make them less succeptible than the individualstic societies from where more mental health cases were reported? Upton agrees with such a suggestion, but only partly. “At a glance, it might appear that some reason for this could be the cultural differences. My experience is that the Western males tend to act tougher and thus they have a greater need to hide their mental and emotional securities than the Asian cricketers that I have worked with. This is a generalisation, but possibly a fair one.
“The Asian athletes that I have worked seem to have more of an acceptance of these so-called weaknesses, more so than the Westerners who invest more into fighting or hiding them. This said, suicide cases in cricket represent only a very small percentage of the population, and research shows that suicide rates in Asian nations are, in fact, higher than the West with comparatively more females and elderly committing suicide than their Western counterparts,” said the coach.
Upton, however, agrees with the familiar perception that it’s the batsmen whose fear of failure is more acute. “Batsmen have only one chance, and they come along pretty seldom. It’s one of the few sports where, regardless of how good a batsman is, they will always fail more often than they succeed. If one uses 50 runs as a measure of success in say 50-over cricket, the best batsmen in the world fail around 65% of the time. So batting is a failure game…and they fail one, often letting the team down along with fans and coaches. It’s a tough gig,” he signed off.
Scary, isn’t it?
Social media a big source of pressure on athletes: Upton
Paddy Upton, the celebrated mental coach in cricket, felt that cricketers – or any top professional athlete for that matter – should be able to develop a defence mechanism to stop themselves being affected by the social media.
Reacting to a Gulf News query on the subject, Upton said: “Yes, social media surely does make them more vulnerable but only to an extent that players read and allow themselves to be affected by it.
This is a new challenge, and one that can be resolved by helping the athlete become secure within who they are as people, building their self-esteem independent of what others say about them – good or bad.
In fact, these goes for all of us – especially teenagers.
STARS FROM OTHER SPORTS SPEAK OUT
“I remember sitting in my room for four of five days not wanting to be alive, not talking to anybody. That was a struggle for me…I reached that point where I realised I couldn’t do it alone”
Most decorated Olympian with 28 medals
“This is the biggest fight of my life…I could put all my opponents in one ring and battle all of them, but this monster is going to be the toughest fight of my life”
Oscar de la Hoya
“I wasn’t doing things that I should have been doing to maintain my mental well being and once you start getting into a spiral of secrecy and masking your emotions and running away then it’s exactly that; you spiral down and it’s incredibly difficult to stop”
Former England footballer
“I found that with depression one of the most important things you could realise is that you’re not alone. You’re not the first to go through it…I wish I had someone at that time who could just pull me aside and say, Hey, it’s going to be okay.
Professional wrestler, actor & producer
“Getting help (for depression), for someone like me who saw getting help as a weakness, was a big step. I did an awareness campaign and that first step was really difficult for me. I thought people were going to think I was mad”
All Blacks rugby great