Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“The downward spiral began and then every little thing added fuel to the fire, and in the end, I exploded.” Ryan Campbell and Chairman of the PCA Daryl Mitchell on Mental Health in professional cricket

Posted on 16 February 2020 by Alex Bartlett
Ryan Campbell with colleague ahead of Netherlands world T20 Qualifiers. (credit: Ryan Campbell)

The mental pressures of being a modern day professional sportsman are well documented. The last decade or so has seen an awakening across a number of elite level sports in mental health awareness.

But it still remains a major problem that can threaten the careers and lives of professionals.

Perhaps, no greater example of this is in the sport of cricket, in which the added pressures of being an individual in a team sport can cause severe mental stress

Marcus Trescothick and Jonathon Trott are two of the more well known cases of cricketers suffering and last year, one of England’s greatest female players, Sarah Taylor, announced her retirement due to mental health issues.

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Another cricketer who suffered throughout his career with mental health issues is Australian Ryan Campbell. The 48-year-old enjoyed a successful career representing Western Australia and Australia before retiring.

He would return to play for Hong Kong and is now head coach of the Netherlands national team.

Last year he spoke to the Sports Gazette after his side successfully qualified for this years T20 world cup in his home country.

Since his retirement from playing he has become an ambassador for the Australian mental health advocacy group Beyond blue.

Campbell told Sports Gazette: “My mental health issues came to the front of mind when I had major knee surgery post season in 2000. I had never been injured before, yet I was facing an issue that was going to threaten my career.”

“With Australian men, in fact men in general, talking about your worries is seen as weak. So I bottled it up, even keeping it from my wife and family.

“The downward spiral began and then every little thing added fuel to the fire, and in the end, I exploded.”

Some of the little things Campbell notes that contributed to his breakdown include losing a car sponsor and Western Australia recruiting a new opening batsmen which threatened his place in the side.

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“I ended my marriage, wanted to quit cricket and basically wanted to escape the world. I was dropped from WA cricket due to poor performance, my mind just couldn’t drag me through.”

“It took the help of some very good people to finally bring me back, but this took nearly a year.

“Eventually I was put on anti-depressants to try and help level off my anxiety, and slowly but surely I came out of my cave and started to talk about my issues.

Even after he received help, Campbell was not able to come forward and speak about his issues until his retirement in January 2006.

“At my retirement speech to the media I aired my fight against depression and everyone was completely shocked as I had hidden it so well.”

Campbell hoped by talking it may encourage others within the cricket family to come to him for support and advice.

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“Later that week the Premier of Western Australia announced he was stepping down due to his own fight against depression and we had a great chat about our issues.”

“We knew that more people in the spotlight needed to voice their issues to help shed some light on this issue.”

“To be honest, I don’t think cricketers suffer more from depression than other sports. Elite sportsmen and women, need to be at their very best at all times. This quest for perfection takes sacrifice and we often push aside many people close to us.”

It is this final point he makes that can often be taken for granted by fans of professional sportsmen. They are humans too. These are normal everyday people who have the challenge of living their everyday jobs in the spotlight.

“To add to this, the world of social media makes everyone a critic and sometimes you just can’t escape the grind of being a high profile sportsman.”

“Don’t get me wrong, being a sportsman is a fantastic profession, but it also brings some very big pitfalls that we must educate youngsters about.”

These issues are none more apparent than in the county game in England, with players regularly fighting for not just their cricketing careers, but in many cases their livelihoods too.

It has become one of the main aims of the Professional Cricketer’s Association (PCA) to help educate its younger players. At the centre of this is their Mind Matters series.

The Chairman of the PCA, former Worcestershire captain Daryl Mitchell, spoke to us about their initiatives to support players.

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Mitchell said: “The wellbeing of our members is obviously of paramount importance to us and mental health support is a key part of that.”

The list of things that they are doing does not end with the Mind Matters education series. Alongside this, they have a confidential player helpline and plenty of useful support on their website.

As well as this, they have their own Mental Health Ambassadors which include Andrew Flintoff and Trescothick, a new PCA stress-free app and signposting for support with emotional management, mental health concerns and conditions.

And finally, the PCA have signed up to and have support The Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation since its inception.

Mitchell added: “I think there’s more awareness within dressing rooms and in society in general now. It’s a case of keeping an eye out for your mates really, spotting the signs and just being open and letting people know you’re there for them when needed.”

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Like Campbell, Mitchell agrees that social media has seen a rise in the pressure on professional sportsmen and contributed to the increasing number of cases.

“I think that is sports in general, you’re in the public eye, more accessible for criticism than ever before in the social media age.”

“Cricket is potentially unique being an individual game with in a team sport and spending time away from home for long periods.”

On that last point he is not wrong. This very factor caused Trescothick to retire from firstly overseas tours and then all international duty.

This winter England will have toured New Zealand, South Africa and Sri Lanka by the end of March, playing a total of eight Tests, three ODIs and eight T20Is.

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After that tour, certain members of the squad will play in franchise competitions in India and Pakistan before returning to England for the start of the English summer. Mental burnout is becoming a serious factor in international cricket.

The mental strain on the players spending so much time away from home has had a far greater impact than the physical issues.

This is where player management is going to become a bigger factor, not just from a physical standpoint, but mental as well.

Throughout the winter, England cricket team coach Chris Silverwood and his management team have rested various players, to give them time to spend with their families and offer rest both physically and mentally.

“I think cricket is ahead of most sports in this area, but you can always do more, create more awareness. Prevention is always better than the cure, but we can continue to develop our support networks and treatment programmes,” said Mitchell.

It is clear that this is an issue that is not going to go away, but with the support of former players such as Campbell and the PCA is a major step forward in cricket’s battle with mental health.