On the surface, modern athletes citing mental health battles as a reason they’re stepping away from the spotlight should be applauded as much as their respective sports and clubs or teams for encouraging anyone to come forward and get the help they might need.
We don’t have to go back too far to a time when the idea of speaking out wouldn’t have even been considered, and that the likely advice would have been along the lines of ‘just get on with it’.
Clearly, and like modern society itself, sporting bodies are much more aware of mental illness and coaches and team support staff are also much more attuned to the warning signs to watch out for; all of which helps the process of conversation about mental health, even it’s just a simple little question like ‘how are you going?’
Just in 2019, we’ve seen upwards of half a dozen AFL players cite mental health troubles as they took time away from the game. All of them stepped away with the blessing and full support of their clubs because they all know better than to say otherwise.
Last year, New South Wales and former Australian allrounder Moises Henriques spoke of being a “long time sufferer of mental illness” which manifested itself into a sudden withdrawal from the game while captaining the Sydney Sixers in the Big Bash League the previous summer.
Henriques spoke of crippling fear of failure that nearly forced him to walk away from cricket, after he got to the point that he was so scared of not performing that he began blaming the game for his anxiety.
“Physically I couldn’t have been any healthier, couldn’t have been stronger or fitter, and I couldn’t have been batting or bowling better than I was at the time. I’d just had no enjoyment of playing the game,” he told the ABC’s Leigh Sales in an interview for 7.30.
Henriques was diagnosed with clinical depression, which became an issue in itself for him: “When he diagnosed me I felt like I lost, and I think that was the biggest problem because I’d almost turned competition into a life,” he said in the same interview.
“I’d almost turned cricket and sport into me versus depression, or me versus my mental illness, and mental illness won and that made me feel horrible.”
But after getting the help he needed and returning to the game last summer, he’s become a role model for other players around the country. Australian and Perth Scorchers bat Nicole Bolton credited Henriques for getting in touch early as she faced her own struggle last summer, which included time away from the game.
“He messaged me and reached out to me and we were in constant dialogue for weeks. He doesn’t know the role that he’s played, but it’s just unbelievable really,” Bolton told The West Australian in June.
Tasmanian opener Jordan Silk has spoken of the pressures, as has Western Australian and Australian spinner Ashton Agar. Victorian batting prodigy Will Pucovski has had a well-publicised battle with mental health in his rise to first class cricket and the Australian squad, too.
Most recently, of course, we saw Glenn Maxwell pull out of the Australian Twenty20 squad mid-series, while Victorian middle-order bat Nic Maddison just last week withdrew from the Australia A squad that played Pakistan in Perth.
It’s the second time Maddinson has stepped away, his first not quite three years ago after he battled with his shock Test selection and then omission three matches later.
The reaction to both players’ decisions spoke volumes for the massive improvements made within the game.
“I’m not sure what prompted it before Adelaide, even though he played that incredible innings and fielded the way he did – I don’t think he got much joy out of it,” Justin Langer said of Maxwell, as the Australian side moved from Brisbane – where Maxwell’s break was announced – and Melbourne.
“Nic has made the right decision and we are all behind him,” Australia A coach Graham Hick said of Maddinson.
“It is braver to speak up than to suffer in silence and I applaud Nic for having the courage to put his health first.”
Again, the way Cricket Australia and the game handled Maxwell and Maddinson’s decisions should be applauded. No-one knows how long either player will be away for, nor what sort of support they might need when they do feel ready to come back.
And this is where I start wondering if cricket in a broader sense has done enough to help players in all situations.
Maxwell and Maddinson were two players in form already this summer; both were batting beautifully. Maxwell was speaking about how pleased he was that his technical tweaks were bringing early success, while Maddinson had rocketed into Test discussions, having belted more than four hundred runs in his last four games for Victoria.
But what about players who aren’t in great form?
Are team support staff able to tell if a player is having genuine mental health struggles, or is just a bit low on confidence? It wouldn’t be hard to link the two, obviously, but everyone out of form is not necessarily going through mental health concerns.
And what of selectors? Are they being properly equipped to become better communicators with players they’re taking an interest it? And especially players they lose interest in?
Can a selector make a logical selection decision with the confidence that the player dropped won’t split into a bad mental state? The same goes for contracting, at the national, state, and franchise level.
This is perhaps the most important part of it all.
Cricket has done a wonderful job in encouraging players to speak out and feel supported when they do. At all levels, the game is played by people who love the game and who spend a lot of time together; your ‘cricket mates’ inevitably see you at your best and your worst.
But the support networks need to extend beyond just the players and coaches. Everyone involved can play a part, and everyone involved can have some kind of impact on someone’s mental state.
It’s great that Maxwell and Maddinson most recently have sought help, but ultimately, we just want them back doing what they do best, and doing it with the confidence that even when the cricket side of things get rocky again, the right measures are in place.
Which goes to show that there is always more to do. Even when you think you’ve done it.
Editor’s note: Since publishing this article, news has broken that Will Pucovski has withdrawn from Test selection to have a mental wellbeing break.