Few lifestyles are as alien to what we accept as normal as that of a professional sportsman. I grew up with a father who was an international sportsman; the irony therein is the description that I ‘grew up with a father’ – simply put, he was never there, constantly away on the grind that is the international cricket circuit.
If difficult for families, and I suppose I never saw it as such as I knew no differently, it is equally difficult for the sportsman or woman. There is a common notion that the life of a professional sportsman is that of Riley, a glamorous vacation in the spotlight; fame, stardom and glitz. And yes, fame is often achieved, but at what cost.
Our sporting icons are often touched with genius, with seemingly unnatural ability. However, this is in most cases the result of incredible dedication, a life of practice, and unparalleled mental application. And all along, they are all subject to the same characteristics that epitomise each and every one of us – fear, doubt, vulnerability to criticism and failure. In fact, they are so programmed towards achievement and success, they are often more fallible when things go wrong.
They live a life in which failure is not an option, where display of even the merest self-doubt it pounced upon by opposition, media, those aiming for their place, coaches, and self. Yet, I live with doubt every day; in my line of work, will I complete a transaction, will my candidates turn up for interview, will I hit target? And it rattles me, and this is in front of my manager and a handful of colleagues, not the world’s media and fanatical audience. Imagine having your flaws dissected in front of a global audience and tell me how you would feel.
This is a life that is anything but normal. At the end of the most difficult day, which all of us have, these individuals go ‘home’ to a hotel room to ponder alone on the goldfish bowl that they inhabit, whilst the rest of us return to our families to critique them. They live out of a suitcase, out of the country for at least half of the year in the case of cricketers, and playing away for much of the time that they are at home.
They have a non-stop flow of media commitments, sponsors pay them but expect flesh and bone in return, and the media are ever present. And all the time, in the distance, they have a family that looks on. The most a cricketer may see of his wife is the fleeting moment when he notices her in the stands whilst he is playing, and as for their young infants, they may literally only see them asleep.
Yet, especially in this Social Media age, we judge them ruthlessly, and not always for their sporting ability alone. There is an incessant thirst for blood as the media and public savagely look to expose personal and physical weakness, then ruthlessly ‘critique’. Still, the sports star is expected to smile and be positive at every single turn.
It does not help when you have those of yesteryear, and I refer back to comments when Michael Yardy returned home from the 2011 ICC World Cup, heap criticism on mental frailties. At least in the case of Geoffrey Boycott, he would later admit that he ‘didn’t understand depression’ and retract his statement.
Jonathan Trott, who today returned home from the Ashes series in Australia, is the latest high profile casualty of stress related illness in the sport. The only surprise is that it is not more common. However, I suspect that it is the mere tip of the iceberg as the highly complex mindsets of the international sportsperson attempts to assimilate the life which they live, one invaded by media, surrounded by fans, separated from the comfort of family.
In the same way that sporting heroes are ruthlessly judged in terms of performance and lifestyle, we can draw a parallel with the type of stigmatising and judgemental attitudes faced by those with mental illness. Neither is deserved, and if you are Jonathan Trott, you suddenly have both.
Michael Vaughan, the former England cricket captain, earlier tweeted apologies for comments made over the weekend about Trott’s mental state of mind. He had no need to; his comments were not about Trott’s mental health, or a judgement therein, but to do with perceived mental weakness in the sporting arena. Vaughan was doing his job as a pundit.
Trott does not need apologies for what has already been said, but what he deserves as a human being is our sympathy for what he is experiencing and a deep respect for his privacy. He has not reached the pinnacle of his sport without being a fighter, and whilst this may be the toughest fight of his life, I have every confidence that he will prevail.
Original article by Rohan Kallicharan who is a supporter of Time to Change – a mental health anti-stigma programme, run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness
Poppy Jaman, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England commented: “Stress is something that many of us experience at different stages in our lives but for the elite sportsperson, the pressure that they put on themselves is compounded by being in the public eye and scrutinised at every level – from their managers, coaches, fan and peers. In the past couple of years there has been an increase in the reported incidents of high profile sportsmen and women suffering mental health issues and tragically for some this has resulted in the loss of life. It is therefore reassuring on one level that England Cricketer Jonathan Trott has recognised the negative impact that stress is having on his health and taken steps to protect and encourage a speedy recovery.
“Although sportspeople don’t necessarily have the same access to an HR department as many other employees, there should still be a structure in place to allow for a good mental health policy to be implemented. We are currently working with the Rugby League which has trained all their coaches in Mental Health First Aid as part of its wellbeing policy. This sporting organisation is leading the way in terms of recognising how vital mental health awareness is within the context of sport and how best it can support its community to respond to individuals who may be experiencing stress related illnesses or depression.
“It is also important to highlight that is it not only active sportspeople who are at risk of mental ill health but also those who have perhaps retired from their sporting career through age or injury. For retired sportspeople it is important that family and friends are trained in Mental Health First Aid so that they are well equipped to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and how best to guide the affected person to a place of support and improve their recovery.
“We would urge sporting organisations across the UK to provide their coaches and players with Mental Health First Aid training as this is the first step to improving the mental health outlook for those who we would consider to be vulnerable to the effects of extreme stress and high expectations. “
Ali Shalfrooshan, Senior Consultant at a&dc: “There have been numerous recent examples of sports professionals exiting an event or even their profession due to stress, with Jonathan Trott becoming the latest casualty. However, while there may be arguments suggesting that the absence of an HR representative in such an area leaves these individuals with nowhere to turn, I beg to differ. While sports professionals don’t have the HR resources available, they do have a full team of coaches, medics and peers around them to provide the support needed for their professional, physical and mental needs – much more than any HR professional alone could provide.
“If we consider that CEO’s and Senior leaders are operating in a similar high-pressured environment but without this level of support around them, it’s perhaps understandable that there are increasing numbers of professionals suffering stress related illnesses. Sir Hector Sants’ recent resignation from Barclays is just one of the latest high profile stress related stories circulating the business world. This highlights to me that, just as with sports professionals, employees need to be given the resources and skills to effectively manage stress and high pressure situations.”
On Thursday 6 February 2014, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness will be asking more people than ever to come together on a single day to show that it’s time to talk about mental health. For more information on how your organisation can get involved go to www.time-to-change.org.uk