Tennis

Guest Blog Entry: “The stress professional sportspeople are under should not be taken lightly, and Jonathan Trott should be applauded for his bravery and openness.”

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Written by Josh Keeling

I’d never exhibited so much mental focus and control in my life. The date was September 20th 2013. The venue was Sutton Lawn, Nottinghamshire, UK. The activity? Sport. Tennis. Just an amateur tennis match between myself and a friend. Yet, having never won a set before, despite well over fifty matches over the course of two summers, I went into a state of mental focus I’ve never achieved before. My friend will tell you, I tend to talk during our matches. A lot. Yet on that day, having lost the first set 6-1, I decided enough was enough. It was time to shut up. Time to focus. Time to take one point at a time. Having done so, I was able to get to- and lose- a second set tiebreak before winning the third set 6-3.

This all came back to me when I was considering the recent case of Jonathan Trott and his withdrawal from the England squad for the Ashes tour of Australia. It took a huge amount of mental toughness for me to isolate myself from any dissenting voices or fears in the midst of a simple tennis match with a friend, to ignore the implications of a misplaced shot and move on. I have honestly never been so mentally focused on an amateur tennis encounter before. It was a real mental effort to ignore a bad shot, a lost point, to forget about the potential implications for the match, to clear my mind and just focus on the next swing of my racket in isolation from everything else. It was only after, when I relaxed mentally, that I realised just how focused I’d been.

So, I thought, it is impossible to imagine just how much mental strain a professional sportsperson must be under. It must be at least a hundred times worse. I was playing merely for the personal satisfaction of winning a set for the first time. These men and women are staking their livelihoods, their careers, their reputations, huge sums of money and the dreams of millions every time they step onto the field of play, or into a swimming pool, or onto a running track, or onto the curved banks of a velodrome.

To take the example of Jonathan Trott once again, the mental pressures of stepping out at the crease for hours at a time, watched by millions of people both in the stadium and at home, your every move having an influence on the ultimate destination of the biggest prizes in sport, must place an incredible strain on the human mind. People sit at home, watching Trott and his counterparts lose their wickets in supposedly ridiculous ways, and they scream ‘What a stupid shot! What was he thinking?!’.

The fact of the matter is, these decisions are taken in a split second under the most intolerable pressure. They don’t get hundreds of replays and hours of analysis. They get a split second. That’s it. A split second to make or destroy the dreams of millions. Could you handle that pressure?

I found it tough to maintain such a high degree of intense focus- a level of focus I don’t normally attain- playing sport in the most relaxed environment possible. Imagine the huge strain these professionals are under, in the toughest conditions possible. Imagine having your every move ripped to shreds. Forget the silly argument that because they are paid well, they should just ‘put up with it’. They are merely people like you and I, vulnerable to the same insecurities, the same worries and stresses and strains. Think about that when you watch professional sport and then think about perhaps showing a level of consideration for the people in front of you.

Stress-related illnesses in sport should not be taken lightly, and it takes much more bravery to openly admit that you need a break than it does to sit in the stands with some warped sense of entitlement, issuing a stream of vitriol and abuse. They are people, not immune to insecurities, and it’s important to remember that next time you take your seat in the stands. Show some respect, and maybe sportspeople will open up and connect with their fans more. It works both ways. For now, Jonathan Trott should be applauded for his bravery, and let us hope that more sportspeople are not suffering in the same way.

For more of Josh’s work, check out his blog at http://justfroingitoutthere.wordpress.com.