Cricket’s month in the spotlight after three players decided to take mental health breaks has again highlighted the toll that elite sport can take on those striving to make it to the top.
With Glenn Maxwell, Will Pucovski and Nic Maddinson all declaring they require time away from the game to deal with issues in their personal lives, there’s been a renewed focus on the structures and demands of the game at first class level.
In recent years, it’s become more acceptable for elite athletes to take a break to recharge and reset after burning out on the road.
In AFL, Sydney forward Lance Franklin stepped aside during a final series and former No.1 draft pick, Western Bulldogs Tom Boyd, received much support for walking away from a big contract to concentrate on his mental health battle.
Famously, this year’s French Open tennis champion Ashleigh Barty left the demanding tennis circuit and dropped out of the rankings when it became apparent she was exhausted and depressed.
Barty played cricket for fun then returned this year to the top of the world rankings after rebuilding her confidence.
Her success has been nothing short of spectacular, and her relaxed demeanour on and off court proves that with the right support an athlete can return to the field better than ever.
There’s also a growing understanding from sports officials that players need to be shielded from the worst excesses of media scrutiny, particularly the wild west of social media commentary.
Earlier this year the head of the NBA US basketball, Adam Silver, claimed at a sport conference that many of the highly paid players in his competition were “truly unhappy”.
Silver said professional players were now always wearing headphones to shield themselves when out in public.
“If you’re around a team in this day and age, there are always headphones on,’’ Silver told the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
“[Players] are isolated, they have their heads down.”
It’s this isolation that sports officials are working to break down, and it also reminds us that an active sports life is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle for all Australians.
Mental illness support service Beyond Blue advises that the social aspect of team sport is something that can actually play a vital role in helping people avoid or recover from depression.
In an elite environment the pressure may be on players to perform at high level all the time,
“Sport is a proven de-stressor,” Beyond Blue says.
“It forces you to apply yourself fully to the task at hand, leaving behind thoughts and worries you may have had beforehand.
In their place, sport stimulates the release of endorphins, which are your body’s natural happy chemicals.”
The organisation also says social sport provides participants with leadership skills, how to build resilience and promotes healthy sleep patterns.
All of which goes out the window when sport crosses a professional threshold and becomes a serious business.
In recent years sports teams have moved to group sessions where teammates are encouraged to speak openly about their vulnerability and recognises stress before it manifests as depression.
Beyond Blue calls it a “human-first, athlete-second philosophy”, which helps both individuals and teams.
Cricket Australia is reportedly now planning a review of the stress and travel that players are exposed to, while there will be further discussion on how to fine tune elite pathways for younger players.
As an experienced player Maxwell, in particular, has endured a heavy playing schedule this year and although the all-rounder was still performing well, it’s been suggested he was feeling the strain from not having time at home with family and friends.
That cricket had three players within several weeks decide to step away shows how far elite sport has come in accepting that sometimes a break is the only way to maintain a healthy and more competitive team.
As for the rest of us – like Ash Barty playing cricket – more sport for fun could be the answer to ensuring a more active and happy work-life balance.