‘I couldn’t handle being the best because the only way was down’
Author: Annesha Ghosh
Source: The Cricket Monthly (http://www.thecricketmonthly.com/story/1194801/-i-couldn-t-handle-being-the-best-because-the-only-way-was-down)
Even as men’s cricket has made significant strides over the years especially in terms of players’ fitness reflecting in the general athleticism on the field or the power hitting, the gap between men’s and women’s cricket has remarkably narrowed in recent years. Adam Gilchrist’s quote in this article that Sarah Taylor was the best wicket keeper around, male or female, is testimony to this. But this article isn’t so much about women’s cricket. Annesha Ghosh of ESPNcricinfo brings out a rather worrying aspect of high-performing professionals – rising incidents of mental ailments. English cricket has had high profile cases in Marcus Trescothik, Monty Panesar and more recently Jonathan Trott. Annesha takes us through the English women’s team wicket keeper, Sarah Taylor’s experience to show: a) how immensely driven athletes (in this case, but could be in any profession) succumb under their own need to achieve perfection; b) how lack of awareness of mental ailments prevents near and dear ones to recognise and lend a helping hand. It ends on a promising note about how Sarah dealt with it and how she intends to help others. But it does raise the alarm bells for all of us to keep a lookout for those around us who might be in need of help as Taylor puts it: “The awareness around mental well-being isn’t for people that are suffering but actually for people that aren’t. If they don’t understand, they would never really be able to help, even if they may like to help.”
“Taylor traces the roots of her ailment to her growing-up years and her desire for perfection. “If I look back, I have always tried to be the best at everything, and I was always the best at everything,” she says. “I was always that girl that played football with the boys because I was good enough. I was always picked first in anything that had to do with sport. And then, all of a sudden, dealing with the fact you weren’t [following the 2016 World T20].
“All the girls here [in the England team] know that I like to be a perfectionist at everything I do. Ultimately, that’s probably the downfall. I know, rationally, that I cannot be perfect at everything. But at the time, and in that moment, my brain is going haywire because I’m not perfect or because I know being perfect is not possible. “When I look back, I can probably remember that if I wanted to be perfect at something, instead of trying it out and failing and learning, I would avoid it completely.”
Recognising and accepting one’s frailties is never easy. For Taylor, it took till she was at the top of her game to realise that something was wrong. “Just before I took the indefinite break [in 2016], I learnt I couldn’t deal with not being the best. It was in that [World T20] tournament that I was ranked No. 1 in the world in T20Is. I got to [being] the best and I couldn’t handle it because the only way was down, and I didn’t know how to process that.
“And then the expectations grew from others and myself and I didn’t know how to handle them, so it went all… (mimics a plane going down, blowing a raspberry). It all just hit me at once and that’s why the break happened.”
….Often the signs of someone’s torment are all but invisible to those around them. “That’s the hard bit and that’s why things have gone on for long periods of time,” says Brunt. “If they choose not to speak about it, it would be very hard to be able to know that anything is wrong.”
Perceptions regarding mental health are one thing; dealing with issues is another. Taylor has been playing a part in getting the conversation going in her immediate circle and beyond.
“The awareness around mental well-being,” she says, “isn’t for people that are suffering but actually for people that aren’t. If they don’t understand, they would never really be able to help, even if they may like to help.”
Eighteen months after Taylor opened up about her struggles, her England team-mate Kate Cross spoke publicly about dealing with anxiety. Taylor’s advocacy – through her social-media posts, in-depth interviews and charity – has left a mark elsewhere too.
“I think Sarah Taylor’s speaking up has started a discussion around it as far as female cricketers are concerned,” says India batsman Smriti Mandhana, who is a fan of Taylor and who, as a teen, once remonstrated with her father for not grooming her into a wicketkeeper.
“In our dressing room, too, girls may be facing similar issues. But does everyone know what a mental illness is? I think 50-70% of our team has read or watched her interviews, so there is some knowledge now.”
Taylor says she has not exactly considered the possibility of being a role model in the mental-health discourse as far as women’s cricket goes, but she is determined to push for help for and support fellow sufferers and survivors.
“If someone’s not getting the right treatment or is treated poorly, or is not handled properly, I get a little bit affected by it; it hurts,” says Taylor. “If I can say or do anything that can help people understand, then I’d love to do it.”
To that end, she has found a potential avenue she can go down after she is done with active cricket: she completed a diploma in life coaching in November last year. A few months ago, she announced she was co-founding a mental-health charity, Awesome Minds. If the opportunity to be a life coach in a professional sports team set-up comes by, Taylor says she would be open to exploring it. “I would love to help as many people as I can.”
As for the immediate future, she has her sights set on playing the World T20 in Australia in February-March next year. “Obviously you want to be successful in your field ultimately,” she says. Her pursuit of perfection continues, but it is no longer bereft of moderation or perspective.
“I have learnt to accept who I am. It’s not a bad thing. If that makes me do a running session, makes me have a hit [at the nets] for another hour, it’s okay. That’s still me trying to be the best me that I possibly can be, to give myself the best opportunities to score runs, and Robbo too is big on that – the importance of best-preparedness.”
She acknowledges the role of hindsight in her increased self-awareness. The past year alone, she says, has brought forth self-knowledge that she struggled to find in the past. Some of the things she learnt about herself “weren’t that great,” she adds with a smile, but it has been “a nice change” overall.
“It’s [learning from what went wrong] not something I would have previously wanted to do. I would bury it; hide it. ‘Nothing’s wrong; everything is fine.’ Now, I know. ‘This isn’t working. What can I do to improve?’ That’s been the biggest journey for me – to learn that it’s okay to fail and you have to fail. You’re never going to get better otherwise.”