Jonathan Trott: Fear and loathing and the paralysis of pressure

England batsman Trott on anxiety in cricket
England batsman Trott on anxiety in cricket

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Story highlights

  • Top level athletes under more pressure to perform than ever
  • Olympic champions Victoria Pendleton & Kelly Holmes have spoken of their struggles
  • Ex-England cricketer Jonathan Trott used to dread having to put his team's colors on

(CNN)Fame, adulation, wealth and a globetrotting lifestyle. Life as an elite sportsman or woman can look as glamorous as it gets.

But what if the pressure that comes with it brings you to the point where even putting your team's colors on paralyzes you with fear?
    "I'd never really struggled away from the game, whenever I was out of my cricket whites," former England cricketer Jonathan Trott told CNN.
    "It was more a trigger of getting into my tracksuit or getting on the bus to go to the ground that it became difficult.
    "Going down to breakfast in my tracksuit was really tough and I sat away from the side a few times because I didn't want to let on that I was really struggling."

    Pressure politics

    Trott was buried deep in a hole of anxiety that was born from the pressure he put on himself to perform every time he went out to bat, laid bare in his new autobiography, Unguarded.
    The fact he was one of England's most consistent players, in good form, and had been a mainstay of the unit that had propelled themselves to number one in the world mattered little.
    He was enveloped by a condition that rendered the job he'd coveted since the age of three such a traumatic prospect he briefly considered driving his car into the River Thames to get out of playing.
    "Obviously they aren't real thoughts or something that you're actually going to do," he explained. "But you get to a stage sometimes with cricket because it is a relentless game.
    "You could be playing for five days, constantly living the match, the ebbs and flows. It's quite interesting the ideas you come up with to try and get out of a few hours' cricket."
    Trott wasn't the first England cricketer to struggle with the emotional demands of playing at the top level.
    Marcus Trescothick, a cult hero in the England team that regained the Ashes from Australia in 2005, suffered similar anxiety on a tour of India in 2006 and came home.
    Life as an athlete can be full of highs and lows, with immense pressure to perform every single time
    "I didn't have a clue what was going on, except there was something drastically wrong. I thought I was going to die," he told the Independent newspaper in 2008, six months after the thought of going on a pre-season tour of Dubai with his county saw him sobbing in the corner of an airport store.
    And Andrew Flintoff, one of England's most treasured players of recent times, has also spoken about how his battle with depression led to excessive drinking.
    Now, as president of the Professional Cricketers' Association, Flintoff helps to educate players in the domestic game about mental health and the demands of a grueling schedule which sees players traveling away from home for large parts of the season.

    Highs and lows

    England's cricketers are currently in Bangladesh, a tour that began at the end of September and moves swiftly onto India, ending on February 1, albeit with a short break over Christmas.
    It isn't just cricket -- any sport at the top level can offer huge highs, devastating lows, a punishing itinerary and constant changes in emotion.
    Throw in a social media explosion that has permeated a never-ending dissection of performances and a spike in criticism, and it's no wonder some sportsmen and women struggle to cope.
    Double Olympic champions Victoria Pendleton and Kelly Homes have detailed their battles with anxiety and depression, as has former Formula One world champion Damon Hill.
    Amit Khatwala, author of The Athletic Brain, says athletes are under unprecedented levels of pressure these days.
    "We all have off days, but sportspeople are expected to perform at their absolute best every time they step out onto the field or court," he told CNN.
    "Add in the fact that they're being watched by millions of hopeful fans, the financial incentives that come with winning, and the intense scrutiny on their private lives away from the action and it's a cauldron of pressure -- a perfect storm."

    Performing but struggling

    Trott's anxiety manifested itself at a time when he was at the top of his game.
    After scoring a hundred on his debut to help England win the most famous series in cricket -- the Ashes -- against Australia in 2009, he then scored 445 runs in the next installment as England triumphed Down Under for the first time in 24 years.
    He had been a key part in England's ascent to number one in the Test rankings but by the time England sat on the verge of a third straight Ashes success in August 2013 he sat paralyzed by dread in his car.
    The spark had been an agonizing defeat to India in the final of the 50-over Champions Trophy tournament a few months earlier, when England failed to chase down a modest target in a rain-affected match.
    "We should have won and I got out when I shouldn't have done," he explained. "I was very disappointed -- we were so very close.
    "Two days later we had preparations for the upcoming Ashes five Test series. I didn't really have time to move on, process or park it and get ready. I think I carried that over.
    "Having had a bit of success against Australia, everyone was telling me my (average score was 90) and I should do really well. I set my standards so, so high and we all know when you put a lot of pressure on yourself and things don't go your way, the pressure can build and it can have a bit of a snowball effect."
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    By the time he walked out to bat during the first match in Australia in November of the same year, he had tears in his eyes.
    "I hadn't been feeling well for a few weeks," he explained. "We'd been in Australia for about month and had three days off and it was getting pretty tough.
    "I speak to Alastair Cook (England's captain) now and he said he didn't know what to say to me, he could see I was upset. And that was without facing a ball. It was more the act of going out to bat. The idea and perception I had of cricket had changed in those few months."
    Trott returned home and after initially being diagnosed with burn out and attempting a return, realized the problem ran much deeper. After seeing Dr Steve Peters, a sports psychologist, Trott was diagnosed with situational-based anxiety.
    "It is an unbalanced view of cricket and the perspective had swapped from being a team-orientated guy to a black and white stats (guy)," he added. "It was all about results, success and failure. That pressure had changed the mindset."

    Grueling schedule

    With some tours to foreign shores lasting four months, coupled with a busy domestic schedule, players can often spend 300 days away from home a year.
    And when England play Australia, the constant baiting of the opposition from fans can be coupled with a hostile environment out in the middle when it is your turn to bat.
    As Trott details in his book, during the first match in Brisbane, Australia's players -- known for their tendency to verbally intimidate opposing players -- "circled like hyenas round a dying zebra."
    As with many male team sports, there is an expectation that everyone is tough, can handle themselves and is impervious to criticism or antagonism.
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    "Trott said he felt there was an expectation to be tough -- that you're not supposed to have any cracks in your armor, and that he felt quite alone and that he didn't have anyone to talk to about it," Khatwala adds.
    "There's this idea called the 'washing machine' effect, which is where negative thoughts kind of bounce around your head and you don't have an outlet for them.
    "And obviously in cricket you're away from your family and friends, your support network, for long periods."
    Trott had actually enjoyed the jet-setting lifestyle that comes with being an international cricketer, but has had teammates who found it hard going.
    "For me, I love to travel -- one of my favorite things playing for England is that you go to see all these places -- but for some guys that can be daunting, not being at home and having comforts around you," he said.
    "It can be lonely, especially if the side is not doing well. Being away and not doing well at your job for three months constantly is soul searching at times."
    After 18 months out, Trott returned to the game and worked his way back into the England side in April 2015, an achievement he rates as one of his greatest.
    But at the end of the three-match series against the West Indies he announced his international retirement saying he knew he time was up.
    He continues to play for his county, Warwickshire, and well, leading them to a domestic trophy with a fine innings under pressure in a recent final. He will be back for them next year.
    "There have been times when it has been tough going but mostly, I've enjoyed it ever since I was three and fell in love with the game," he said. "It has always been the center of my life."