Earlier today I was contacted by the local press and subsequently gave a radio interview concerning England cricketer Jonathan Trott, and his decision to leave the Ashes tour due to a stress-related illness. The questions came thick and fast; was it the right decision? What kinds of treatment might be useful? How do you help athletes deal with stress? I was at pains to point out (but it often gets cut in editing) that stress-related illness can be debilitating and is very different from what most people experience as ‘stress.’ The problem is that because most of us experience ‘stress’ in our everyday lives (usually mild), and mostly deal with it effectively, it is all too easy to consider a stress-related illness as a sign of weakness. Worse still, the remedy for some less than sympathetic onlookers are clear: toughen-up and get on with it! After all, how hard is playing cricket for a living compared to managing a company, editing a newspaper, or working in A and E? That really does miss the point.
One of the problems is that sports people are supposed to be healthy given the extreme physical demands of elite competition and the hours of physical training. But a better way to think about it is that mental illness is extremely prevalent within modern society; in fact, 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem over the next 12 months. As such it should be no surprise that sports people suffer in similar numbers to the general population. Unfortunately when athletes are presented as ‘superhuman’ and ‘warriors’ the stereotypes stick and anything less will just not do. The problem with a term like mental toughness is that it can have masculine or macho connotations (such as no pain, no gain). So the tough response should theoretically be to go through the pain, deal with the problem head-on, and come back fighting. So catching a flight home after a seeming poor run of form does not sit well with some people who might see this as mental weakness not mental toughness. That’s not how I see it.
If Jonathan Trott were on crutches we would all be aware that he was in no fit condition to carry on with the tour. When it’s a psychological condition, it’s not that obvious but it is just as debilitating. When David Warner talked about seeing ‘fear’ in the eyes of Jonathan Trott, what he was probably seeing was someone who was ill. But it throws up an interesting question of what is a ‘tough response’ to adversity? No cricketer on the England or Australian team would leave an Ashes series unless there was something seriously wrong. I don’t know anyone (apart from David Warner) who would describe Jonathan Trott as mentally weak. Look at his career and the times when he had the grit and determination to hold an innings together. He is not the most gifted player; he does not have all the shots like Bell or Clarke, but he has demonstrated tenacity and perseverance many times in the past. Over the last 6 months his form has dipped and questions were starting to be asked. It now seems he has been struggling with this illness for quite some time and managing it, but everyone has their tipping point. So to me, he has shown the toughness in managing his condition. He had the self-awareness to realise that he wasn’t well enough to continue. That struggling on would do him and the Team no good at all. I don’t see his decision to leave the tour as mental weakness – making the decision to go public and seek help is about as tough as it gets when you are an elite athlete in the media spotlight.