Monty Panesar interviewed by Viraj Bhatia and Sam Jacot
Mental health is an important subject that has been brought to the fore this year. For many, this latest lockdown has been difficult. Being trapped within the four walls of your house can become extremely lonely, and this has long been the story for many International athletes.
In modern times, professional sport has become an economic powerhouse, with increased sponsorships and contracts to keep up with. This has led to an extremely taxing schedule, with almost no time for rest, or to spend with close friends and family. Players end up traveling from city to city, living in hotel rooms from their small suitcases and it can make them extremely lonely.
Speaking from his personal experiences, Monty Panesar, former England spinner and Ashes hero, suggested that one of the reasons he struggled was because he didn’t truly connect with his teammates off the cricket pitch.
“Looking back at it, I probably had a common connection with the players in terms of cricket. For me, it was brilliant to be amongst all of those players.
“But then, the question I asked myself, let’s take cricket out of it now, do you have anything in common with these players? Could you do something with them, if it was nothing to do with cricket? And for most of them my answer was no.
“I believe if you’re a young cricketer coming through, then I highly recommend doing things away from cricket because then your relationships become a bit more fun.
“There are a lot more things you can talk about rather than just asking ‘How’s my backlift?’ or ‘Are my triggers all good?’ There’s more to you than just cricket.”
For most athletes, adrenaline keeps them going while on tour. Games come thick and fast, and there is barely any time to think about anything else. But once performances start to dwindle these players get dropped from the squad, and it becomes even more crucial for them to have a purpose outside of their main passion.
A lot of athletes find themselves suffering from anxiety and depression. This is often due to a drop in confidence, or sometimes from not knowing what the next step in their career will be.
Panesar credits the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA) with playing an important guiding role as he dealt with his anxiety: “I was very lucky. I was at Essex, and I remember Paul Grayson saying to me, ‘Look, go and have a chat with the rep at the PCA.’
“He managed that quite well. Paul Grayson was really good at helping me at Essex, when it was probably my toughest time, where I wasn’t at my best. The PCA just said look, go and see a sports psychologist, they set that up and gradually I got help from a psychiatrist as well.
“For us, as cricketers, we are very lucky that the PCA is there to help you and support you through times when you need that support and I think that’s really important.”
But even before a person seeks professional help, Panesar has a ‘Rule Of Five’ that he believes every individual should follow to keep their mental health in check:
“Do you have five people you can speak to? If tomorrow you think, actually I don’t feel great, pick up the phone and talk to these five people.
“If you don’t have that, that’s a sign, that’s the first step to say, actually, mentally you’re not as well as you think you are, because one of the tick boxes is having healthy relationships with friends and family.
“Talking is important. Talk to someone, ring them up about something in common. Having a common topic to talk about with your friends and family that you know they are associated with is actually the easiest way to speak to someone and know how they are.”
Professional athletes spend most of their life perfecting their craft in the spotlight of high adrenaline environments. At the same time, they could be tackling loneliness, homesickness and more. They rarely get the time to think ‘what next?’
This latest lockdown serves as an eye opener as to just how difficult being a professional athlete can be and how, behind all the glamour and spotlight, lie multiple personal challenges. While the situation is extremely challenging, having the right support system is pivotal to their well-being.
Panesar is not alone in his hopes that more and more attention will be paid to the mental health of athletes, both by those close to those athletes and the wider sporting community.
If you or someone you know is struggling, UK mental health charity Mind maintain a list of helplines and services.
And if you’re reading this from outside the UK, you can find a service near you at CheckPoint.Org.