The global sporting events have come to a grinding halt because of the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdowns and social distancing have forced the athletes mostly to indoor activities. Their lack of training not only affects them physically, but it also affects their mental health.
The author of the book ‘The Barefoot Coach’ and one of the most renowned mental and conditioning coaches to professional athletes, Paddy Upton, recently sat down for an interview with cricket.com.
Upton has served as the Mental Conditioning and Strategic Leadership Coach of the Indian National cricket team when India won the World Cup in 2011. Upton has also been the head coach of many T20 franchises. He spoke on a variety of topics in a freewheeling chat.
Here are the excerpts:
According to a survey conducted by FIFPRO (International Federation of Professional Footballers), there is a sharp rise in players reporting depression symptoms. What's the magnitude of mental health issues in sports, especially in cricket and how the lockdown has worsened it?
So, the mental health issue in sports, the surface is fairly new and there has not been a lot of work done around these things and they come from two places...one from obviously the professional stress, anxiety, pressure that happens in the performance environment that can lead to some mental health issues. And on the other side, it is also personal stuff like off-field things, relationship problems, bereavements, loneliness, missing home. What we see now with lockdown is that all the mental problems associated with stress, pressure via anxiety from the performance have been taken away.
Those have been replaced with other anxieties and fears like financial fears, career concerns, when will we get back? But probably there is now a lot more pressure on the players personally and we are seeing a lot of different people having quite different challenges, quite different experiences to what they have ever had. So, we definitely need to have much better ways of managing players and helping them get through the mental and emotional turmoil that the lockdown would have brought and will still continue to bring for some time.
What are some of the most daunting challenges for cricket players now?
There are various challenges. There are some players who are really thriving with not having the pressure and anxiety of performance and travelling, and they are really enjoying it. Other players, some of the common examples are where an athlete lives by themselves so they don't have the support in isolation, it is a lot more difficult for those players. Secondly, we are seeing some players who are with their families but there are family difficulties, maybe relationship problems that they been able to avoid by playing cricket or playing sport, training, being on the road...now that they are at home, those problems that are like dirt being swept under the carpet and that carpet is now being pulled back and the dirt is being exposed. So some people are finding that they are really struggling with their relationships and being stuck at home in broken or dysfunctional relationships.
Particularly from team sports, the majority of the team athletes are extroverts...extroverts need people, they need to be engaging with people to feel comfortable. Extroverts will be struggling a lot more than introverts during this lockdown period and also a category of people that will be struggling a lot more are the pessimists, people who tend to see the things that are going wrong or might go wrong, they will really be struggling at the moment. We have already started to hear a lot of the psychologists talking about the real threat of suicide and we have already started to see the spike around the world. And that is people getting stuck in the negativity of the situation and not seeing the big picture.
Are there any early signs of anxiety or depression? How does a player or people around the player identify it?
If someone is self-aware, they will very quickly realise that I have got low energy, I am struggling to sleep or I am sleeping too much, I have lost my enthusiasm, I am full of negative thoughts, I don't want to eat or I am eating junk so there are so many signs and it is actually so obvious when we are feeling the negativity and the negative thoughts. The reality is that unfortunately there are a lot of people who are not really used to checking in and they don't have great levels of self-awareness. They might be caught in the trappings of depression and are not able to step outside of their selves, look back and realize that my whole energy, my enthusiasm, my motivation is all depressed, it's low and I am on a downward spiral. And those are the bigger concerns, the people who get caught in it and don't even know about it.
Are there any triggers that can accelerate the process of mental illness, which a player must be aware of?
Probably the single biggest and most prevalent trigger at the moment is social media and particularly stories about things going wrong and things that might go wrong in the future. Videos about conspiracy theories, anything that points to the problems that we are having now or are going to have in the future. If you spend enough time on consuming negativity, you will end up being caught in the trap and if you don't come out of it and stop doing that fairly soon, it will lead to depression.
Let’s talk about the fear of uncertainty and how to deal with it? How does a player motivate himself when he can’t practice his skill nor knows the immediate goal ahead?
What's important is that they establish new routines because most often athletes are in a system where there is a lot of routines. When do I go to sleep? What time do I wake up? What are the things that I do when I wake up? And they need to plan over the course of the day what are the things that they need to do so that by the end of the day I have accomplished all the boxes that I want to tick which provide some sense of accomplishment. Because again athletes, particularly in team sports, are used to having somebody else schedule all their day and their activities. Now athletes need to be making sure that they have decent routines and those routines need to be good sleep, good eating, and good exercise.
Elite players have a better support system, with access to a home gym, nutritionists and some even have private mental coaches? What about the young players, staying away from family, without any access to training in this situation? What advice you have for them?
Not having access to good facilities is no excuse whatsoever for anybody. A lot of top athletes that have already arrived there or have been very successful in the past came from a background where they did not have a lot of facilities. But what they did, they had a mind and energy to drive them to what they want to do and find the things they need to do. You don't need a gym to be able to exercise. You need to be eating and drinking fairly healthily, you need to be getting good sleep and then again anyone who has access to the internet, there is an opportunity to educate yourself, to learn more and to expand at least your understanding of yourself, and whatever else interests you.
But what is important is you must be moving forward and learning and growing more than all your competitors out there in whatever sport you play, in whatever profession you are in. There is always place at the top of the pile of success for people who do put in the smartest work, the most work and manage themselves the best. And that would be my advice that with whatever is available, you give yourself the best possible chance of succeeding in whatever area you want to succeed.
You have worked with many young players around the world, how difficult it is to make them open up and talk about their mental health?
It is very difficult to make someone open up. At the moment, the young athletes, they are relying on the immediate support base. Friends, family, maybe teammates, maybe a coach. Especially now, it is very important that we are aware that other people will be going through a difficult time and to look out for our friends. Not everyone has access to a sports psychologist, a mental conditioning coach. That's not a big problem, because we all have access to people who can help us and it is just about us recognizing that I am struggling and I am needing some help. And it is then about having the courage to reach out to someone and say that I am struggling with something. There is nothing wrong with struggling.
Do you think the governing bodies should have an institutionalised support system like we have for corruption to report?
That is a very good question. I do think we all just need to have more of an awareness. To be able to put all the responsibility at the door of the governing bodies, I am not sure that is fair. It needs to be the responsibility of the coaches. Are coaches doing enough, are we educating coaches well enough at how to recognize this and what to do? Can we bring more education processes into players just to raise the awareness to the fact that this does happen, it is not a problem, and it doesn't have to be hidden? It is the entire system and we need to bring a little more accountability into the system as a whole.
It will also destigmatize mental health issues.
It's really unfortunate that there is the stigma because there is genuinely nothing wrong with it. It's normal for people to go through mental and emotional difficulties. But somewhere along the line, we have managed and particularly in sports to label that as bad or weak. There isn't a single international athlete that I've ever worked with who is fully secure, got no doubts, no insecurities, no vulnerabilities and no fears. They are just very good at hiding it. And it's normal. And we need to more and more be able to speak about them. And hats off to some of the athletes and the cricketers who in recent times have openly spoken about it.
I wanted to bring that aspect too. Players like Virat Kohli who put so much energy into the game to be the best in the world. How much mental toll it takes on players like him? Michael Jordan spoke a lot about this topic in the recently released series The Last Dance.
It's different for everybody. For a lot of the athletes putting in the effort in the physical work actually helps keep them mentally healthy and keep them mentally fresh. But it is possible once you start getting to overtraining and you break the body down or you get into too much competitive competition, it starts draining us mentally. We can measure it quite easily when the body is starting to get tired and show signs of fatigue. We don't yet understand how to measure mental fatigue on athletes. But what we do know is it is cumulative, and more consistent pressure athletes put on themselves more it drains them and it gets them into a stage of mental fatigue. We can't measure it and we don't see it. That's why it’s more difficult to manage than physical fatigue.
You worked closely with MS Dhoni during the 2011 World Cup. Can you tell us what goes inside his head? For an outsider, he looks unaffected by any situation.
I can't tell you what happens in MS Dhoni’s head because only MS Dhoni knows what happens inside his head. But what we can see is he's able to maintain real calmness under high-pressure situations. And one of the things he shared with us before is that he realises in those high-pressure moments, the pressure is also on the bowler and on the opposition. And when they're feeling more pressure, he senses that moment. He puts the pressure back on them. They start making mistakes and he dominates. He has a very clear mental strategy about transferring the pressure back onto the opposition and getting himself into a position of mental superiority. And he does that beautifully.
Dhoni has a calm and composed disposition on the field whereas Virat Kohli is more expressive. How do the two contrasting styles affect his team-mates? What’s your personal favourite style of captaincy?
My favourite style of captaincy is number one, someone who has a collaborative style, and number two, a very supportive style. Dhoni doesn't put that additional pressure on players by having gesticulations and being emotional on the field. But he does give very subtle words of encouragement or a little tap on the shoulder. Virat Kohli, when he's very expressive and it's in a supportive way, it probably has more of an impact than Dhoni's more calm way. But on the other side of that same coin, when Kohli has a very outward expression of disappointment, it will have a fairly significant negative impact on the player. So in both Kohli and Dhoni’s style, as with other captains too, there are positives that work for the players and things that don't work for the players. Really good leaders make sure they do stuff that works the majority of the time for the players. And when they know these things that don't work for people and cut that out of their game, I'm very much in favour of that.
You once said that mental strength is a myth. It is like Superman. We all know about him but he does not actually exist. Can you elaborate on that keeping the game of cricket in the context?
Mental toughness assumes that the athletes are confident, they never have any negative thoughts, they don't have fear, and they don't feel the pressure. That is the common definition of mental toughness as people who don't have those things. But the reality is unless you're an out and out psychopath which there are very few, every single athlete's a human being and does have negative thoughts, fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities, including the best athletes in the world. So those things are very normal, but we label them as mentally weak, mentally fragile. Because of that label, athletes try and hide those things from themselves and from other people.
You find athletes, examples would be, Mike Hussey, Eoin Morgan, Rahul Dravid. They acknowledged that they had struggles but they still were able to go off into the field of play and still perform despite those so-called mental vulnerabilities. I would rather use a term like mentally real, mentally authentic, which means I have positive and I have negative, I have confidence and I have doubts. And it doesn't matter. Those things just exist in my head, but I don't let them influence the way I play.
I am not going to use the word mental strength or toughness here. But, who is the most resilient, focused and balanced emotional control cricketer you have come across?
It's the players who perform the most consistently under the highest pressure. We know those players and each one of them does it very differently. They don't allow the doubts, fears, pressure to get in the way of their performance. Dhoni is one of them, Virat Kohli is one of them. In Test cricket Laxman (VVS Laxman) was one of them. He went out to bat in Test cricket in the fourth innings and did incredible work. Gautam Gambhir, he might have had doubts about himself but he has delivered under the highest pressure moments. They don't buy into the superficial thinking that goes on in their mind. They stay focused on the task at hand. It's not the absence of pressure, fear, doubts and vulnerabilities, it's the ability to just stay focused and execute your skill despite those thoughts coming up from time to time.
Can you give an example from your career when a player helped you learn something new about the mental aspect of life in general?
That has happened so many times. It's not so much about the mental side of things, but I do recall there are two players that really stand out for me. Rahul Dravid and Kane Williamson. I was a fitness trainer with the South African cricket team from 1996 and Rahul Dravid had just made the international cricket team around the mid-1990s. And then they first toured South Africa. Rahul phoned me in my hotel room and said I would very much like to buy you a cup of coffee, please, in the hotel and I've got a few questions for you. And we met in the hotel room and that was the first time I'd met a young Rahul Dravid and he had so many really good questions about getting fit, managing his body, taking himself to a new level of professionalism.
Some years later, when I was with the Indian team, Kane Williamson came on his first tour and I watched him talking to Dravid. I watched him talking to Laxman and Tendulkar after a Test match. That evening, he phoned me in my room and said, ‘can I have a cup of coffee with you tomorrow?’ And like what Dravid did, Williamson came to me with some really good questions about how he can take his game forward. And what I really learned from those two is if you want to learn and fast track your learning, seek somebody out who knows stuff and may have the courage to approach them and ask them some really good questions. And what you do there is you will accelerate your learning. It was no surprise to me when I saw how quickly Rahul adjusted his game at international level and how someone like Kane Williamson, who's not the most flamboyant batsman nor was Dravid the most flamboyant batsman, but the two people who are incredibly professional and incredibly consistent because they leave no stone unturned in furthering their learning about themselves and their game.
Tell us about the current state of South African cricket? What do you think Quinton de Kock can bring to the table that is different from Faf du Plessis?
Faf du Plessis obviously has got a lot of experience and is very strong in building strong cultures, which is something that I also very much believe in. It will be interesting to see how Quinton decides to take the team forward because he's quite a different personality to what Faf is. Quinton is clearly is an incredible performer. I think he's got talents that is right to the top drawer. I mean, he's bordering on genius as a batsman and it would be very interesting to see how he transfers that into his leadership because he's a quiet-natured individual. And South Africa's obviously building, they've got a fairly new coaching staff and now they have got a new captain so definitely they're in a rebuilding phase. It's just a case of how well they put all the pieces, the skill, and how well they actually help the players manage themselves to come out of this lockdown period to be able to hit the ground running on the international stage.