World Mental Health Day: Andrew Flintoff, Marcus Trescothick and other cricketers who battled with depression

Andrew Flintoff © Getty Images

In the hectic cricketing schedule, more and more cricketers are susceptible to not just physical injuries, but the psychological challenges that come as a package in every sporting career. On World Mental Health Day today, Abhijit Banare looks at cricketers who have set an example of dealing with such problems.

Vinnie Jones was considered as the hard man of football. When Andrew Flintoff interviewed Jones as part of BBC documentary ‘Hidden Side of Sport’ very few could fathom that Jones, such a colourful footballer in the 90’s once walked into the woods with a gun in his hand thinking to end it once for all. Jones, now 48, is a successful actor and speaks about depression openly and in one of his interview with The Guardian, he says, “It took me 40 years to see a psychologist. I often wonder how my life might have been different if it had been four years, or four months.”

Jones is just one of the many sportspersons Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff spoke to in his documentary. Flintoff himself admitted being affected by depression. Most significantly, the former England skipper broke the notion that sportspersons are strong enough not be affected by the talk around them. And it’s interesting when he confronts Piers Morgan — once a tabloid editor on how journalists criticise the player without thinking of the pain they been through.

In the video below, Flintoff explains to BBC’s David Eades, how speaking to other sportspersons helped him to rediscover what he went through.

Before Flintoff, Marcus Trescothick is considered as a classic example of someone who successfully fought with it and he was among the earliest sportsperson who came out in open. To recount a part of his career, the left-hander returned mid-way from the 2006 tour to India citing personal reasons. Trescothick shuffled his career returning and withdrawing far too many times before he admitted the real demon within — depression.

In his book ‘Coming Back at me’ the cricketers recounts various phases through which the trouble went
through. Much has been written about the former England opener.  However, what’s equally essential to understand is the immense support that Trecothick received during the stage from the board and former players around him. Hence, after recovering, the left-hander has become a hero by walking back to the field and continuing his fruitful run with Somerset. Despite fighting such a long exhausting battle, Trescothick said to The Guardian in 2011, “You still get it at odd times, when you think something is going to happen. You’re always only one step away from it and that’s why you need to maintain the good things in your life.” His book was well received and many other sportsmen came out in open finding it comfortable to discuss their problems.

As psychotherapist Philip Hudson puts it briefly, “If the mood inside isn’t the same as the applause outside, they can’t admit it.” Fortunately in England, the atmosphere surrounding such cases have eased up and players are accepted and supported for what they are.

There are many examples in English cricket, Steve Harmison — also part of Flintoff’s documentary — spoke about the problems he went through. Former New Zealand cricketer Iain O’Brien was among the prominent ones who came out in open after watching the BBC documentary on the subject. O’Brien recounts that he could identify with the symptoms of depression at the early age of 20 but it took him 15 years to deal with it.

Unlike Trescothick, who struggled on tour, the former pacer was in fact much more comfortable on tour, but struggled to get along socially when at home. In an interview to The Cricket Couch, O’Brien explains, “Back in 2009 when we travelled to South Africa, we had a sports psychologist Gary Hermmanson. Even back then which doesn’t sound like that long, there were a lot of guys used them. There was a little bit of stand-offish [sic] sort of behaviour. Why is he talking to him? Is he having some mental problem? There was some stigma attached to it. Part of it changed when we saw a senior player spending a lot of time with Gary. And that was a pretty decent indication that it was probably a chance for me to go and find some stuff out that can help me play cricket better. Now it has changed a lot in the structure how quickly they can get to it. Twenty two out of 95 First-Class cricketers sought some help. The structure back in New Zealand has improved a lot.” Following on one person it became a lot easier for the rest of the players to put their hand up.

In India though, you get to hear very little of such cases of an active cricketer. It wouldn’t account for sweeping generalisation to consider that cricketers in India who come from little known cities have a raw sense of mental fitness which doesn’t easily break down. They not just go through the rigors of fighting to sharpen their skills and move up the order but each story has a personal struggle as well. Not that such players are immune to psychological problems, but they are equipped with the ability to bend themselves more than others.

Nevertheless, it is still important for a cricketer to come out and lead the way. Even though it’s still a taboo, cricket in India hogs the limelight more than others and a personality representing from this popular sport can go a long way in making it comfortable for many sportspersons. Considering the baggage an Indian cricketer carries, it would be astonishing if none of the cricketers faced the challenge.  And if Flintoff’s documentary is believed, at least one in every 10 sportsperson deals with it.

Depression is just one major aspect among various challenges. Sometimes a player can also fail in a team if there’s no predefined goals set. Harsha Bhogle recounted an incident about Yuvraj Singh during his lecture at IIM Ahmadabad in 2006. Still a young and fit Yuvraj was concerned about not scoring enough centuries. The thought could have easily pulled him down. But Paddy Upton helped the south paw to redefine his performance goals. Upton helped Yuvraj understand his role batting for the Indian side coming in at No 5 or No 6. At such a position Yuvraj was asked to focus on finishing the games instead of scoring centuries. When we just put that though in the games that we have watched him till now, you say, ‘no wonder he’s such a good finisher.’ But the journey through the little adjustments can be a long haul for any sportsperson.

In the demanding schedule where players travel and play a lot, stay alone, deal with their form, the role of mental conditioning or a psychotherapist becomes an invaluable asset for any team. If you think we haven’t discussed enough about the challenges in the playing days, the ones after retirement are much more harrowing. As time progresses, the support system in every team has increased. One can just hope that dealing with sportspersons even after their active life gains credence as well.

(Abhijit Banare is a reporter at CricketCountry. He is an avid quizzer and loves to analyse and dig out interesting facts which allows him to learn something new every day. Apart from cricket he also likes to keep a sharp eye on Indian politics, and can be followed on Twitter and blog)