The mental health of athletes continues to be ignored, relative to physical health. The advent of new departments with a focus on mental healthcare and rehabilitation in sport science is the need of the hour, to not only improve performances but to save careers as well.
In 2019, mental health has become a key subject of media and mainstream attention. From school-going children to the employment sector, men and women of all ages have received recognition for mental healthcare.
However, the mental health of athletes continues to be ignored, relative to physical health. Although the Australian cricket team possesses a team psychologist, cricketer, Glen Maxwell, took a break from cricket indefinitely, due to his mental health. This reaffirms that the advent of new departments like mental health and rehabilitation in sport science is the need of the hour, to not only improve performances but to save careers as well.
In this article, I look at a few examples to provide a small but critical snapshot of what a lack of mental healthcare can do to a professional player in sport. Brazilian footballer, Adriano, was a nightmare for Serie A defenders, using his brute strength and deft finishing to score countless goals. The former Internazionale striker had the Italian league in the palm of his hand in the mid-2000s before tragedy struck his life. Due to the death of his father, Adriano spiralled into a deep depression, resulting in him turning to alcohol and eventually, drugs. Once dubbed ‘the next Ronaldo,’ he never truly lived up to fulfilling his potential.
In the world of cricket, star English batsman, Jonathon Trott, called quits on his test career just one test into the 2013 Ashes series. Plagued with anxiety and the fear of failure, Trott’s mental health was deteriorating in the preceding months despite having an excellent average of 86.42 against Australia up until that point.
His captain, Alastair Cook recalls in his book, the tears Trott had in his eyes when walking out to the middle in Brisbane during the first test match and how Trott would set the bowling machine in the nets to the maximum speed, getting hit with many blows to the body. Cook failing to do anything, labels this as his ‘lasting regret,’ showing how the players around you can also fall victim to one’s mental health issues. This raises the question that could the careers of Adriano and Jonathon Trott have been different had they received mental rehabilitation in time?
Well, one sportsman who did receive proper mental healthcare was the Pakistani fast bowler, Mohammad Amir. A fast bowling prodigy, Icarus flew too close to the sun when he fell from grace after the infamous spot-fixing scandal in 2010. Amir returned to cricket in 2016 and will forever be remembered for one of the best bowling displays of all time with his opening spell in the Champions Trophy final 2017 against arch-rivals India.
Amir dismantled the strong Indian top order, including Indian stalwart Virat Kohli to ensure Pakistan victory in the final. The key to such a turn around was the psychological help Amir received during his 5-year ban by both PCB and UK-based psychologists. Amir especially attributes his return to international cricket to the positive mindset he had during his time off, as stated in his interview with ESPNCricinfo in 2015.
The mindset of an athlete can go a long way in their performance. Novak Djokovic, who was on the fringes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for most of his early career, used mental training to become the best player in the world. As revealed in his book ‘Serve to Win,’ Djokovic used mindfulness-based training to overcome negative emotions such as fear, anger, worry, and self-doubt and to focus specifically on the present moment. In more recent years, Djokovic has added other mental training techniques such as visualization to his arsenal.
Looking like a shell of his former self in 2017, Djokovic returned in 2018 to win 3 grand slams. Djokovic defeated Federer in a fifth set tiebreak of the final, en route to his Wimbledon victory in 2019 as well, saving 2 match points along the way. Revealing to Baseline, Djokovic stated self-belief and visualizing himself as a winner helped him turn his form around and win the most mentally demanding match of his career. Using mental training, Djokovic has gone from a shadow in tennis, to becoming one of the most mentally strongest athletes of any sport in the world.
All these stories are just a few examples that emphasize the power of mental healthcare and its connection to success in sport. This is why more investment and research is needed in this sector, in order to improve performances and save careers. Players need to receive as much rehabilitation for mental health issues as they do for physical injuries. A physical injury would prompt immediate care and attention, so why not the same for the injuries of the mind?
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