Trott’s burnout: A reminder of sportsmen’s sacrifice
- Antoinette Muller
- 21 Apr 2014 (South Africa)
Jonathan Trott has suffered a relapse of the illness that ruled him out of the Ashes last year. It could very well be the end of his career as a professional cricketer. The most important thing to take from it all is a reminder of all the sacrifices made by professional sportsmen and all the pressures they face. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Jonathan Trott has suffered a relapse of the stress-related illness which forced him home from the Ashes last year. That means that his cricketing future is once again on hold.
Trott might yet make a comeback, but that seems unlikely. Not only is the cricketing environment holding a negative association for him, the trial by public and media has been unforgiving. There has been, in particular, a lack of comprehension for the difference between burnout, stress and other mental disorders.
Burnout is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it is recognised by the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. When it comes to any sort of illness that is low on tangible signs - stitches, a cast, a sling, crutches - there is still a massive misconception around severity and classification.
For some, “stress-related disorder” has been synonymous with “depression”, but in fact this is not the case. Although stress and burnout often have depression running concurrently, clinical depression is a different thing. Trott himself made it clear that he was not depressed.
In an interview with SkySports, he described his feeling upon returning to England as being awkward and being concerned about being spotted in public.
“You never know what people might think; they might think, ‘There goes that nutcase.’ I’m not crazy, I was just burnt out,” said Trott.
His word-choices weren’t the wisest or the most sensitive, considering the stigma surrounding mental disorders. However, in context of the interview, they came across as exasperation and perhaps spoke of Trott’s own misunderstanding of what exactly is wrong with him. The interview led to former England international Michael Vaughan penning a column claiming he felt “conned”.
“I feel a little bit conned; we were told Jonathan Trott’s problems in Australia were a stress-related illness he had suffered for years,” wrote the former England captain in the Daily Telegraph. “We were allowed to believe he was struggling with a serious mental health issue and treated him with sensitivity and sympathy. He was obviously not in a great place but he was struggling for cricketing reasons and not mental, and there is a massive difference.”
Vaughan couldn’t be more wrong about burnout and stress not being mental. It might not be classed as a mental disorder, but burnout is a serious mental affliction and can lead to being declared medically unfit for work. There has been a sharp rise in cases of being over-burned by stress in recent years, too. In survey done for the period from June 2011 to May 2012, data showed that 6,366 people were admitted to hospital in England for stress, an increase of 6.8 percent on the 12 months preceding that.
Burnout due to stress is not simply a case of being tired and worn down. The cynicism, feelings of depression, and lethargy of burnout can cause physical symptoms and leads to severe anxiety and, if not treated, can result in serious mental health problems.
Trott admitted that he suffered from headaches lasting three or four days during the early stages. In the latter stage, he’d lost his appetite and his sleep was struggling to sleep properly.
He exhibited all the classic signs of being burnt out. It was during the Old Trafford Test in 2013 where he first noticed that there was something wrong and he wasn’t feeling right, but he pushed on. The first two phases of burnout involves the compulsion to prove oneself and working harder in an attempt to do so. Trott, when asked whether he wanted to play in the one-day series against Australia following the Ashes in England, immediately said yes. He could have had time to rest, but instead he elected to play on because he “felt that [he] didn’t deserve a rest because [he] didn’t perform well enough in the Ashes”.
Trott said that he felt the harder he worked, the less things were going his way. He continuously placed unrealistic pressures on himself, including expecting to score a hundred in every innings. Such expectation and subsequent failure is not good for anyone’s mental health and will lead to a break down.
The phases of burnout continued and he had become withdrawn from his teammates. He would sit away from his teammates at the breakfast table with his cap over his head because he didn’t know how he would feel going to a cricket ground. He further described tour as being a “lonely” place and feeling “hopeless” as a senior player.
His feelings of hopelessness soon extended to feeling the world was against him. On a golf trip with Johnny Bairstow, Trott had asked for the six iron. Bairstow, mistakenly, handed him the nine. While it was simply a mistake, Trott described feeling as if though “absolutely nothing was going his way” and instead of seeing the funny side of it, he felt frustrated and bogged down.
It wasn’t until day three during the Ashes Test at Brisbane that Trott finally cracked.
“I said to the doc I just need somebody to listen to me. No sport or success is worth that. I needed to get myself out of there,” Trott said.
The team doctor advised that, if he were a normal GP, he would sign him off from work for three weeks. However, an Ashes tour isn’t like a normal job and Trott, along with the rest of the management, took the decision that he would leave.
That was that: Trott got on a plane and slept for eight hours as he took off – something he had never done before. Landing back at home offered him the rare opportunity to be with his family for four months, something which he had the luxury to do much during his England career, because schedules are becoming increasingly unforgiving on sportsmen. The personal sacrifice involved in being an elite sportsman is often forgotten. The mental toll touring takes cannot be discounted.
“You can’t have a balance between normal life and play cricket. The four months is the longest time I’ve had with my family,” said Trott.
Touring away from home takes its toll, but so does playing a series in your own country. Cricketers hardly ever get time to experience the “ordinary” approach to family life that many take for granted. Having that stability is crucial in being well-balanced and it’s something that is often forgotten.
Cricket is a testing sport and no format more so than Test cricket. The idle time that comes with the format will chew up and spit out anybody pre-disposed to any sort of anxieties. Rain breaks, waiting to bat, days off and time away from home can be parasitic on the mind. To suggest that the pressures that come with being an international sportsman do not affect their mental well-being is a grave mistake.
Some handle the pressures better than others. Others simply hide it better. Some dismiss it as simply being a little bit out of form. What the Trott situation should have reminded everyone is that professional sport is brutal. It is easy to scrutinise, analyse and, in some cases, abuse. But the pressures of being an elite athlete will often claim victims. It does not make those athletes weak or soft, it simply makes them human.
Stress and burnout might not be diagnosed as a mental disorder, but it is an illness and all that’s left to do is wish Trott gets well soon and take a step back to appreciate all the sacrifices made by sport’s greatest entertainers. DM
Photo: England player Jonathan Trott fielding a ball on day 3 of the first Ashes Test between Australia and England at the Gabba in Brisbane, Australia. EPA/DAVE HUNT