Feeling the strain
Professionalism in women’s sport is growing in a positive direction, but with professionalism comes responsibility, longer working hours and emotional demands.
There has never been a bigger need for mental health support than now in the White Ferns camp and former captain Suzie Bates says cricket has more need for it than most sports.
Due to the mental energy cricket often demands of an athlete, the sport has one of the most alarming rates for sporting suicides around the world.
The complicated and fascinating game is also a mental health ticking time bomb.
Touring for long stints away from home, the individualism of the ’team sport’, success measured on statistics and perhaps the ugliest part of the game sledging - all contribute to a sport proven to exacerbate mental illness in players.
"It is probably one of the worst sports, well I think, for mental health," says Bates.
Bates played her first game for her country in 2006.
On the side she studied, worked, which gave her the perfect balance around the game she loved. Today, however, her schedule reads a lot differently.
Bates spends nine months of the year in the United Kingdom either playing professional club cricket, or touring with the White Ferns.
"I think previously in women’s cricket that wasn’t such a major issue. You have your work life, or your uni life, and then you went on tour for maybe three or four weeks then came back into that routine.
"Now there is your life with cricket and you are away. Also when you come back you are not necessarily coming back to work and study to get away from it, you are coming back to train again.
"Cricket has definitely brought a lot more challenges than it used to when I first started to play."
At times Bates has struggled being away from family because they are her support network. Her nature is to talk over things and when she can’t do that, due to time zones or cricket demands, it can take a toll.
Not only that, when Bates and about half her White Ferns team-mates return home from the end of the UK season, they jump straight in to the demands of the southern hemisphere season.
"You do, a little bit, just get used to it. Which perhaps isn’t always healthy, but I know the first year I played in England I absolutely loved going over to the England summer and playing over there. It was a new environment, a fresh environment.
"I remember coming home and it was the start of our season and I was like, whoa, I feel like I am at the end of my season and I have got to start again. I remember the first year I really struggled with that.
Bates admits she has often struggled with emotional and physical fatigue, as there is no real opportunity for a proper break from cricket.
"After the first year I learned that I had to be a lot better planned with my time off and actually block out times to completely get away from cricket.
"I don’t think I will ever nail it, but I do feel that in the past 18 months I have learned a lot more about how to cope with being a full time athlete."
Cricket is tough on the mind
Touring aside, cricket is a mental game. More than20 years ago, research by well known cricket author David Frith showed top class international cricketers had taken their own lives at a rate of 1.72 per cent, much higher than the average male suicide rate at the time.
Frith wrote two books on the topic and by the second he had amassed details of 151 English cricketing suicides, among them 23 test players.
The England test scene has had two notable examples in recent years of players opting out of tours because of the mental pressure on them.
English test batsman Jonathan Trott took an extended break in 2013, disrupting his Ashes campaign against Australia due to a stress-related illness.
Test veteran Marcus Trescothick twice flew home from overseas tours, once from Australia in November 2006 to rebuild his life in Somerset. He has since spoken out about depression and reached out to former Black Cap Lou Vincent, who went through depression himself and has spoken openly about it.
Frith’s research showed that in South Africa 4.12 per cent of registered players had taken their own lives. In New Zealand the rate was 3.92 per cent and in Australia 2.75 per cent.
A number of Black Caps are known to have suffered from depression.
Bates says it is becoming increasingly important for the women’s game that their leaders and organisations are aware of the mental fatigue cricket can often bring.
"Just because of the individual aspect to it in a team game. At times when you might have a poor performance and let yourself down and the team down."
It is exacerbated by being a key player at the top level. "Once you have made that level there is a lot of mental skill rather than physical skill."
"You do learn to deal with it but there are some tough times especially when you or your team aren’t going well. It is a lot harder to be away then, than when everything is rosie and you are winning."
One of the biggest differences between the Black Caps and White Ferns environments is while many Black Caps are on the path to professionalism at a young age, the White Ferns are thrown in to the national team sometimes much later.
This is a big adaptation for them, says Bates.
"Sometimes we will get girls who come into that environment at 24 and they have never been exposed to the professional environment because the women’s programme isn’t like that. So there is kind of a bit of a shock and there is some learning as you go, rather than being ready when you hit that environment."
Bates says New Zealand Cricket is realising mental health is an important part of the women’s game.
"There is a handful of their female players constantly playing around the world and they are starting to realise they need to manage that a bit better as well."
NZC - what they are doing
New Zealand Cricket believes it is doing everything right for the mental health of its players.
NZC’s head of high performance Bryan Stronach admits cricket has failed some players in the past, with some high-profile careers coming to an end prematurely because of struggles off the field.
However, he believes the organisation is moving in the right direction through supporting players of the mentally challenging game.
"I think there have been some failings in cricket, I think there’s been some failings in any sport, I think there’s some failings in life.
"Sport is just a subsection of the community. . . and just like any other sport we have a responsibility to help in this area (mental health)."
The New Zealand Cricket Players Association (NZCPA) is tasked with looking out for the wellbeing of 20 Black Caps, 15 White Ferns and 90 domestic cricketers.
Four development officers oversee this entire group.
Stronach does not believe NZC is under-resourced in the mental health space.
"If something goes wrong, do we have enough to help them? I have never heard of anyone in our system where we didn’t have enough resources, or we haven’t been able to supply what they need. I don’t think we are under-resourced.
"How long is a piece of string with resource, I think you can never have enough resource in that area.
"I can’t say we will ever have enough in that area, but we are definitely not under-resourced."
Meanwhile, the NZCPA national personal development officer Sanj Silva says while he is satisfied with processes, they could be better resourced in this area. When a player is in need of counselling or psychological examination, it is outsourced, rather than having professionals embedded in the team environment.
For the first time this year, the White Ferns had a contracted clinical psychologist go on tour with the side.
"We don’t have the resources to have an expert on all of the fields." Silva says.
"It’s definitely mentally tough, it is probably out of all sports, one of the toughest sports as far as the mental side is concerned. For the simple fact the duration of the game, it is so long.
"Most sports are shorter and over within two, three hours. Once it is done it is done. With cricket it can be played over six or seven hours and all five days. That in itself is quite mentally taxing.
"The other part is it is a stats-driven game. As a batsman you only get one chance and if you fail in that first opportunity you can be sitting for a couple of days stewing on those failures and so on. That happens day in and day out over twelve months."
Silva said it was important for these players to develop a life outside of cricket so that they have other aspects to fall back on.
"It is quite a skillful game but the mental side of things is another dimension as well as far as stress and anxiety is concerned."
"If you are a batsman there are 20,000 people watching and you are playing against 11 other people and you are on your own. They call it a team sport, but it is a sport full of individuals who are part of a team so to speak."
Frith’s conclusion after 30 years of research was rather than cricket being a game that attracts the vulnerable, it puts a strain on nerves that can be as destructive as the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by war veterans.
Therefore, cricket can trigger or develop mental illness.
Golfers, footballers, tennis players and boxers all have an assurance that they have a chance to recover from early setbacks in the game. Cricketers face uncertainty on the grand scale and on a relentless daily basis.
"I don’t think it attracts vulnerable people. The game itself can be quite demanding. It’s not a game that after two hours you can switch off," says Silva.
‘‘It is probably one of the worst sports, well I think, for mental health.’’
Former New Zealand captain Suzie Bates says now more than ever NZ Cricket needs to keep an eye on the health of players in the women’s game.
Former England batsman Jonathan Trott opened up about the mental health issues that caused him to unravel during the back-to-back Ashes series of 2013.
Former Black Caps opening batsman Lou Vincent has spoken out about his depression, and a suicide attempt after his cricket career had ended.