Top batsman forced out of Ashes by ‘stress’

Under pressure: Australian fielders goad Jonathan Trott as he prepares to bat © Getty Images

Cricketer Jonathan Trott has returned home from England’s tour of Australia due to a long-term stress-related illness. Is sport’s psychological toll even heavier than the physical strain?

On the cricket pitch, Jonathan Trott is known as a model of consistency and calm. His skill and reliability at the crease have earned him the number three spot in England’s batting line-up. He has scored an impressive average of 46 runs per test innings, with nine centuries since 2009.

But as England began the first match of this winter’s Ashes series against Australia, it quickly became clear that Trott was not his usual self. Struggling with the fast balls and taunts that his opponents were hurling at him, he managed no more than 19 runs over the course of two innings.

The commentators were critical, and Australia’s David Warner leapt at the opportunity to bait a rival. ‘It does look like they have scared eyes,’ he said of the English batsmen, labelling Trott’s performance ‘poor and weak’.

Yesterday morning, however, the sad reason for Trott’s poor showing became clear: the batsman revealed that he had returned home due to a stress-related illness. He had been struggling with his condition for years, his coach told the press. Now he has chosen to take a break from cricket, for his own sake and that of his team.

The cricketing world is no stranger to problems of mental health. Another England batsman was forced home in 2007 amid a battle with depression, and a number of high-profile players have tragically killed themselves. According to one study, the suicide rate for South African cricketers is an astonishing 4.12%. Sports psychologists say that the marathon matches, intense pressure on batsmen and long winter breaks can take a heavy mental toll.

In the past, sport stars who suffered from mental illness have faced stigma from the media and been labelled as ‘weak’. But the response to Trott’s departure has been much more sympathetic. Warner apologised for his comments, and messages of support flooded in from all quarters. ‘Forget cricket,’ said England’s Nasser Hussain. ‘Go get yourself right.’

A dangerous game?

Fans and professionals know that physical injury is a threat to every athlete. Many clubs spend millions on teams of physiotherapists and fitness coaches working at the cutting edge of their science to ensure that players’ bodies are honed to their maximum abilities.

But are we overlooking another equally serious occupational hazard? Repeatedly thrown into tense confrontations under the merciless gaze of pundits and fans, sports stars put their mental health under enormous strain. If commentators are right that the biggest part of a sporting struggle takes place in the brain, a player’s psychological condition should receive just as much attention as their physical fitness.

You Decide

  1. Do fans and the media put sports stars under too much pressure?
  2. ‘No muscle is more fragile than the mind.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. List three mental qualities that contribute to sporting talent, then compare your answers with the rest of the class.
  2. Design an exercise to help athletes develop their mental toughness and resilience.

Some People Say...

“Sporting success is 90% down to psychology.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Everyone gets stressed sometimes. You just have to be strong and deal with it.
Everyone has hard times, yes. And developing your psychological resilience is important, although there’s nothing shameful about taking some time out if you need it. But mental health disorders are another matter: they are just as serious as physical conditions and need to be treated professionally.
So stress can genuinely make you ill?
Absolutely. It can contribute to a whole range of mental conditions, including depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, and plenty of physical issues as well. A small amount of stress can be good for you, but putting yourself under too much strain literally takes years off your life.

Word Watch

Test innings
Test cricket is traditionally the most prestigious form of the game. It features long matches which take place over the course of five days, during which time each team must take two turns at attempting to bowl their opponents out. Each period of batting or bowling is called an innings.
Ashes
A cricket competition contested regularly between England and Australia since 1883, when an English paper mourned over England’s ‘ashes’ after their defeat on the other side of the world. It is often said to be the oldest and greatest rivalry in any sport.
Fast balls
There are two main types of bowling: fast and spin. All bowlers have a specialty and batsmen must learn to deal with both.
Taunts
Cricket has a tradition of ‘sledging’, in which the bowling team goads the batsmen to try to intimidate them or provoke them into making a mistake. Mostly this is within the rules of the game, but an Australian player was recently fined for using threatening language.
One study
This statistic comes from a famous book about cricket and suicide by a writer called David Frith. Some have questioned his methodology, but most psychologists agree that mental health problems are particularly common among cricketers.