In a remarkable move, Cricket Australia (CA) is all set to become the first cricket body in the world to address the concerns of its players seriously with regard to mental health issues. A few days back, CA put out an advertisement for the post of a 'Mental Health and Wellbeing Lead (MHWL)’.
MHWL will report to the board's head of sports science and medicine Alex Kountouris. In India, where talking about ‘mental health’ issues is still widely considered taboo, can BCCI even think of following up on the move by its Australian counterpart?
“Forget the highly ambitious MHWL like CA, the least BCCI can do is to have regular psychologists with the national team, A team and Under-19 team,” says the former India spinner Maninder Singh to cricket.com.
The 55 year old Maninder certainly knows a thing or two about having a support structure for the mental well-being of young players who are vulnerable during their formative years. In the past, Singh has spoken with rare candour on this subject. He admitted to never approaching for help. He was scared that if he went to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, people and media would have made a huge issue. That was a big mistake and restricted him to just 35 Tests and 59 ODIs for India. “I think more than a MHWL, what our teams need is a psychologist so that you don’t reach that stage (where you have to seek help for mental issues). Nip it in the bud. Maybe, later on, BCCI can think of doing what CA is trying to do,” elaborates Singh.
Unsurprisingly, the former left-arm spinner’s arguments find resonance in the medical community as well. “When a youngster comes to the Indian team, it’s like clearing UPSC examination or an IIT or Medical entrance tests. The similar sense of achievement brings the pressure of expectations to deliver from the selectors, family and friends. Sociological perspective of stress and medical perspective of stress is different,” says clinical psychiatrist Dr. Amulya Bharat who is based in Delhi. Most of us perhaps are aware that all stress is not bad and we have seen how sportsmen cope with this in most intense battles under extreme pressure.
“I would definitely insist for the need of psychologist to each state team and even from the junior levels in districts. You may call it (psychologist or Mental Health Wellbeing expert) whatever, or can give any designation but the point is they are going to help the players in handling stress and distractions. It’s like you call me Director of cricket or head coach or consultant, I will be helping players only in their skill set,” says Chandrakant Pandit, a former India wicketkeeper and one of the most accomplished coaches in domestic cricket.
Mental health is a sensitive subject in the cricket fraternity. Accomplished players like Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Harmanpreet Singh have recently spoken on this subject, when Australia cricketer Glenn Maxwell’s came out with his struggles. A top BCCI official on the condition of anonymity made a compelling observation. “Five years down the line, maybe we require this. This generation hasn’t had any such issues because our back-up system is strong like having a robust support group off the field in terms of family, relatives and close friends unlike Australia or western countries where you are largely on your own from the moment you are an adult,” says the official.
“Our society is also changing rapidly and with the advent of social media, many young players who could be fragile may require such support base in future,” confesses the BCCI official.
Pandit who is now with the Madhya Pradesh Ranji team argues that even though there is a need to address this aspect in domestic cricket, we shouldn’t blindly follow the Australian model. “We should know what our requirement is. Australian players don’t come from villages or slum areas like many of our talents come from,” says the 58-year-old Pandit. He cites the stories of the Munaf Patels and Umesh Yadavs who have emerged from villages and it has now become a common trend. And, those players who come from underprivileged backgrounds will be more efficient if a psychologist is there from the beginning to help them in dealing with many issues which an affluent player or a big city player may not have to. Experts also suggest that some players like MS Dhoni are naturally good in handling failure and success with equanimity.
Highly successful players like Virat Kohli get frustrated when he fails and is highly energetic when he is successful. “What BCCI can do is a have a pool of regular psychologists who are attached with its different teams. Like Defense services board can have a psychometric assessment test which can be done by a psychiatrist,” suggests Dr. Bharat who has worked in AIIMS in the past and has been practicing for over two decades and some of his clients are high-profile athletes. The psychometric test will help in knowing the mental-health status of players and their capacity to cope with stress from the early years. Early diagnosis and early treatment is a universal concept in medical science regardless of the disease.
“There is still stigma attached with stress and may cause number of psychological problems like bi-polar or schizophrenia etc which is beyond a clinical psychologist. So early detection will always help in saving the talent where the board and selectors have invested a lot over the years. Regular psychologist interactions and with the psychiatrist is also very much required as per need basis,” argues Dr. Bharat. Perhaps, that is what CA is trying to do when it intends to hire a Mental Health Wellbeing Lead.
In the past, BCCI have hired the likes of Sandy Gordon (2003 World Cup) and Mike Horn (2011 World Cup) for motivational purposes to cope with stress in high-profile tournaments. Former India coach Gary Kirsten had brought Paddy Upton as the mental conditioning coach and fitness trainer among his support staff. Doubtless, the time has come for the BCCI to think about employing psychologists or mental health experts as full-time staff across different age groups.