The wide world of sport has more than its fair share of euphemisms and coded language, many of the phrases and words have become so widely used and familiar they are now accepted terms in everyday conversation.
People involved in sport also have a way of talking around a particularly prickly subject in such a way that they almost tie themselves up in knots, leaving the listener so confused that the original issue or subject quickly gets forgotten.
But the on-going tip-toeing around England cricketer Marcus Trescothick has taken this trait to a new level. It also accurately reflects a wider problem in a society that still balks at tackling one of the few taboos we appear to have left these days.
A talented, determined professional cricketer, Trescothick has become recognised as one of the most accomplished opening batsmen in the world game. A fierce competitor, he also possesses the type of qualities that led the English selectors to pick him as captain on a number of occasions.
But if there is any doubt about the extent of the personal sacrifices that professional sports people endure to reach the top of their chosen field then Trescothick’s on-going battle with a “stress-related illness” is the perfect illustration of the difficulties many encounter along the way.
The rather ham-fisted way in which the English cricketing authorities have dealt with one of their star players and his problems also says a lot about our collective attitude to such problems.
The continued use of the phrase “stress-related illness” alone is enough evidence that we simply do not want to deal with such an issue.
Marcus Trescothick is suffering from a mental illness.
There it is, in black and white. So why have the cricketing authorities and the media been so shy about stating what has become a glaringly obvious fact?
The player himself has been admirably honest and frank about the problems he has encountered and continued to deal with while trying to prepare for the forthcoming Ashes series in Australia. He has now taken the decision to leave the tour, return home and continue his recovery. It is to be hoped that he is allowed to do so away from the media spotlight.
Although there appears to have been a tendency to try and shield Trescothick from the media, understandable in many respects given the hype surrounding the tour, when he has been interviewed the player has been very open.
“Dealing with all the pressures of the illness and trying to compete at a high level of sport is not easy to do,” he said on the BBC’s website prior to the decision to return home. “I knew something was wrong.
“To admit it to yourself is very tough but then having to tell other people about it you feel like you’re weak, that people are going to perceive you in a certain manner.
“But it was the best thing for me, to get it out in the open, to tell people what was going on just so people would understand and give me the opportunity to get myself well…”
He has spoken in similar terms in other interviews in the build up to the tour of Australia and yet invariably the journalist writing the article has chosen the phrase “stress-related illness” as a way of describing the mental health problem Trescothick is dealing with, or uses even more vague terms. For all Trescothick’s hope that his illness was now “out in the open” and that people would understand, generally speaking are we any wiser about exactly what is wrong with him?
Perhaps it is a condition of the interview, imposed by those looking after the player, that they use such guarded terms. Such an approach is commonplace in the media these days where subjects are either completely off-limits or dealt with in a very roundabout manner.
But the language the player himself uses is a lot more straight to the point. Reading his quotes within the various interviews you are left in little doubt about the extent of the mental health problems he has experienced.
And yet within the interviews themselves and in most of the coverage of the tour, phrases like “clean bill of health” and “back in tip top form” take precedence over a basic understanding and willingness to accept the illness Trescothick is seeking help with.
Of course, such an illness is a intensely private issue and there is a strong argument to say that we should mind our own business and leave the player to receive the treatment he requires. However, the player is in the public eye and questions were bound to be asked when such a valuable playing asset was left of the squad that recently spent three weeks in India.
The English selectors did themselves, but more importantly Trescothick, little or no favour by stating at first that the player was unavailable. On being quizzed they referred to an injury. When pressed further on the extent of the injury, which had plainly not manifested itself in any physical way prior to the squad selection announcement, the phrase “stress-related illness” was finally uttered. There had been a few rumours flying around about the player’s “attitude problems” for some time, his absence merely added substance to them.
But he does not have an attitude problem. He does not have a stress-related illness.
The reluctance to speak the name of an illness no-one is really comfortable with is understandable. It is a personal battle for the player himself. But, equally, the British media in general does not have a good track record in dealing with such issues in a responsible way.
There are, no doubt, concerns that Trescothick could become victim of a tabloid newspaper and trash TV feeding frenzy. After all, look at what happened to the nation’s favourite ex-boxer Frank Bruno when he went a bit “loony”, to paraphrase The Sun.
There was a backlash to the way that story was handled and The Sun offered a suitably snivelling apology to Frank Bruno himself and the nation in general.
But does anyone honestly believe it was a watershed moment and that attitudes to mental health changed overnight?
They didn’t, the painfully shambolic way in which Marcus Trescothick’s mental illness is still being handled by everyone but the player himself and those treating him is proof that nothing much has changed. Of course, Trescothick is not the first high-profile sporting star to suffer this way and he won’t be the last. Whether we get to know the true extent of the mental health problems endured by such professional athletes is, however, very much in doubt.
The typical list of injuries faced by a professional sports star these days includes broken bones, muscle strains and any number of viruses. Also on the list and possibly quite near the top is “mental health problems”, although the chances of getting anything like a tacit acknowledgement that it is there is highly unlikely.
The evidence is there. Touch-line bust-ups between normally “affable” and “genial” football managers, for example, point to the enormous amount of stress that some go through day in and day out.
It is traditional for such incidents to be laughed away though and the fact that other managers have sought to make jokes of the recent altercation between two Premiership managers – a managerial fight club was one tongue-in-cheek suggestion – shows the way in which such issues are usually dealt with.
Humour can be a huge weapon in the fight against such problems, of course, and former Scottish goalkeeper Andy Goram has spoken of the positive impact some of the fans’ rather darkly-tinged terrace chanting had on him after typically sensationalised publicity surrounding his diagnosis with a mental illness. The chant from his own Rangers supporters that: “There’s only two Andy Gorams” brought a smile to the player’s face and, who knows, may even have hinted at a level of understanding about the problems he was facing.
But there is a much darker side to the issue. Former French rugby captain Marc Cecillon has been sentenced to 20 years in jail for shooting his wife dead in a drunken, jealous rage. He admitted the offence and a large part of his defence was the deep psychology problems he has suffered since retiring from a sport that was his life for almost 20 years. Or, as his own layer put it, being put high on a pedestal for so many years and then falling a long way down after he finished playing with no-one around to break his fall.
Cecillon’s crime is an extreme example. But the “hero to zero” experience is one many struggle with and when it manifests itself the response is not always very understanding. Generally speaking, if we are not pointing the finger in a sneering and ignorant way, then we are looking to gloss over the issue of mental health and pretend it is something else entirely.
On a sporting level, Marcus Trescothick’s absence from the Ashes series will be a huge blow to England. On a personal level, it is undoubtedly the best possible decision.
It is irrelevant what form his mental illness is taking and it would be wrong to speculate.
But it would be a refreshing change to acknowledge it more openly.
(Please note, I originally wrote this article on the continued failure to acknowledge the extent of Marcus Trescothick’s mental illness on November 10, 2006 and updated on November 14 after his decision to leave the Ashes tour. After a good season with his county, he was originally picked in England’s preliminary squad for the Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa but has now withdrawn from all overseas tours. The exact nature of his “stress related” problems remains the most important feature of the story as far as many are concerned, rather than what help he is receiving and requires. The player has now announced his retirement from international cricket).