Paddy Upton and the wealth of mental health knowledge

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“Every single athlete is a human being and they do have negative thoughts, fears, insecurities, vulnerabilities, including the best athletes in the world,” Paddy Upton told Cricket.com exclusively back in 2020throwing light on mental strength, which he calls a myth.

Over the last two years, the importance of mental health has become paramount. Several players have come out, issuing scathing remarks on the rigorous schedule of international cricket while the others have taken time off from the game itself. If anything, COVID-19 has elevated and opened the eyes of several professionals on the mental aspect of the game.

Upton is perhaps the biggest name in the sporting industry, who has seen the taxing schedule of the cricketers, having worked with the Indian team closely during their 2011 ODI World Cup winning era. Not only did Upton understand it first-hand but also perhaps threw light on mental health first in Indian cricket.

Earlier in the day, Upton joined the Indian dressing room as the mental health conditioning coach, to work alongside skipper Rohit Sharma and head coach, Rahul Dravid. Why? Since his stint in 2011, the Indian cricketers have been subject to paramount criticism, both on and off the field. To add to that, the last two years, cricketers have been subject to playing in bio-secure environments, failing to grasp the energy from the crowd.

“Probably the single biggest and most prevalent trigger at the moment is social media and particularly stories about things going wrong and things that might go wrong in the future,” Upton opened up on the challenges faced by athletes post COVID-19.

Upton in the same conversation also threw light on how the players are caught in the trappings of depression, not being able to understand what is blocking them from performing at their best.

“It is very difficult to make someone open up. At the moment, the young athletes, they are relying on the immediate support base. Friends, family, maybe teammates, maybe a coach. Especially now, it is very important that we are aware that other people will be going through a difficult time and to look out for our friends,” he added.

“Not everyone has access to a sports psychologist, a mental conditioning coach. That’s not a big problem, because we all have access to people who can help us and it is just about us recognizing that I am struggling and I am needing some help. And it is then about having the courage to reach out to someone and say that I am struggling with something. There is nothing wrong with struggling.”

The growing insecurity

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It is a pertinent point that Upton raised, especially considering how several cricketers in the last two years have opened up on battling the demon while thanking their immediate family members and friends for sticking through the thick and thin. Another aspect of mental health that Upton identifies as affecting a player’s performance is insecurity.

“There isn’t a single international athlete that I’ve ever worked with who is fully secure, got no doubts, no insecurities, no vulnerabilities and no fears. They are just very good at hiding it. And it’s normal. And we need to more and more be able to speak about them. And hats off to some of the athletes and the cricketers who in recent times have openly spoken about it.” Upton shed light on insecurity for the players.

In the present age, physical fatigue is not just the only indicator for a player taking time off from the game. Ben Stokes in the recent past, took a break from the sport for mental health. Upton stated that mental fatigue is much more difficult to manage than physical one because of its intangible nature.

“We can measure it quite easily when the body is starting to get tired and show signs of fatigue. We don’t yet understand how to measure mental fatigue on athletes. But what we do know is it is cumulative, and more consistent pressure athletes put on themselves more it drains them and it gets them into a stage of mental fatigue.

“We can’t measure it and we don’t see it. That’s why it’s more difficult to manage than physical fatigue.”

The first meet with Rahul Dravid

Dravid isn’t a new face to Upton. In fact, Dravid is one of the oldest faces that the South African saw during his time in the sport. Narrating the story of the current Indian head coach, Upton recollected how the new face of Indian cricket then had plenty of questions regarding managing his body back in the 90s.

“I was a fitness trainer with the South African cricket team from 1996 and Rahul Dravid had just made the international cricket team around the mid-1990s. And then they first toured South Africa. Rahul phoned me in my hotel room and said I would very much like to buy you a cup of coffee, please, in the hotel and I’ve got a few questions for you.”

“And we met in the hotel room and that was the first time I’d met a young Rahul Dravid and he had so many really good questions about getting fit, managing his body, taking himself to a new level of professionalism,” he stated .

26 years later, perhaps it was that one phone call from Dravid that brought Upton back into the Indian dressing room, at a time when cricketers could benefit from his knowledge and experience in leaps and bounds.

(Find the full transcript of the interview here)

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