Be mindful of their problems

Updated: Dec 26, 2019, 07:54 IST | | Mumbai

The mental issues that sportsmen have shared are in some ways similar to those of soldiers who suffered during World War II

Glenn Maxwell took a mental health break from local and international cricket, claiming that self-imposed pressures ruined him mentally and physically. File pic
Glenn Maxwell took a mental health break from local and international cricket, claiming that self-imposed pressures ruined him mentally and physically. File pic

RudiIn the early 1980s, I worked with many Australian Rules football coaches and spoke to them about the dangerous effects of high levels of continuous stress on their players' performance and mental and physical health. Concurrently, I tried to show them the benefits of adequate rest, relaxation and recreation at critical periods during the season.

Last October, Glenn Maxwell an outstanding Australian player, took a mental health break from local and overseas cricket, claiming that self-imposed pressures and the stress of being constantly on the road ruined him mentally and physically. He said that when he decided to take time off for rest and rehabilitation, he was pretty cooked. He added: "I think I was eight or nine months on the road living out of a suitcase, and that had been going on for four or five years, just constantly on the road and it all just caught up with me at that time."

With guidance from medical professionals, quality rest, recreation, support and loving kindness from family, friends and colleagues he underwent a psychological revival. He is making good progress and will soon be on cricket fields doing what he does best. In fact, just a few days ago he was one of the most expensive acquisitions in this year's IPL auction.

When Brian Lara heard about Maxwell's mental health problems, he sympathised with him and stated that mental health issues in sport are real and serious. He admitted that he himself struggled with similar mental health problems in the middle part of his illustrious career. He feels that debilitating mental issues should be identified and treated early.

Virat Kohli also understood Maxwell's plight and admitted that he too experienced mental issues in England when James Anderson, England's fast bowler, got the better of him.

From the start of his first-class cricket career, Lara was exposed to unrelenting pressure, not only from opponents but also from team members, administrators, the press and the cricketing public whose expectations of him were sometimes too high. Breaking the world records for the highest scores in Test and first-class cricket catapulted him to superstardom at a young and tender age.

Unfortunately, he was not properly trained to deal with the huge demands, high expectations and intense pressures. Moreover, he did not have a strong support network to guide and protect him from the disruptive effects of those pressures. The burden of captaincy compounded his problems. Inevitably, he succumbed to the inner and outer battles that he was constantly fighting.

Between 1995 and early 1999, the middle period of his career, he experienced despair, dejection, performance slumps and persistent conflict. Thinking was unclear, confidence and concentration were sub-standard and his actions and behaviour were at times questionable. During one of the West Indies tours, things got out of hand and Lara threatened to retire from the game. Famous fast bowler Wesley Hall is quoted as saying that on a number of occasions, Lara made it known that the game he once loved was now 'ruining his life'.

In 1999, after the disastrous tour of South Africa, I became a member of the West Indies support team and witnessed first-hand Lara's psychological rebirth during a period of good support, effective rest and recreation. With a clear, calm and rested mind, he embarked on a most productive period in his great and distinguished career. He made a double century against Australia in Jamaica, a virtuoso and match-winning 153 in Barbados and another century in the fourth Test match in Antigua.

The mental issues that these sportsmen shared are in some ways similar to those of soldiers who suffered from battle fatigue or combat fatigue during World War II.

In that War, extensive research was done on the effects of chronic stress on the health and performance of soldiers exposed to continuous combat. In his book, Battle For The Mind, William Sargant described the research findings of Sir Charles Symonds, a neurologist in the Royal Air Force. He found that the constant and prolonged tension of battle resulted in a breakdown of performance and a deterioration of the mental and physical health of many of the soldiers.

Sir Charles observed that in the early part of a campaign, most soldiers faced their fears and learned to control them. Soon after, they gained confidence and became competent in battle. But after three or four weeks of constant battle, the signs of combat fatigue began to set in. Soldiers complained of continuous tiredness that was not relieved by sleep or rest. Then they became disoriented and could not tell the difference between their own guns and the enemy's. They were easily startled and became tense and confused. Moody and irritable, they over-reacted to trivial stimuli and as concentration and judgement declined, they lost control of their thinking, emotions and behaviour. Performance then plummeted.

Later on, these signs and symptoms were replaced by dullness, apathy, physical slowness and even depression.

Today's militaries prevent battle fatigue by limiting the exposure of their soldiers to continuous combat. After a few weeks of combat, they are afforded a period of rest and recreation, after which they are returned to the battlefield.

Individuals with signs of battle fatigue are best treated by being kept near the front lines, given quality rest and recreation and administering sedatives or appropriate psychological techniques. As soon as recovery takes place, individuals should return to the battlefield. In some cases, the militaries use troop rotations and grant leaves from the war zone.

With busy schedules and heavy workloads of today's cricketers, selectors, administrators and players' agents should look carefully at mental fatigue and mental health problems, and ensure that their players get adequate rest, recreation and support in order to stay fresh, alert and in control throughout the season.

Clayton Murzello's column, Pavilion End, will be back next week.

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