'Inside Edge' first appeared in Mental Health Today in February 2011. To subscribe to the magazine click here.


How playing sports like cricket can improve service users' mental health. Crispin Andrews reports.

Mark Fletcher wasn't a bad plumber, but he just couldn't keep it together long enough to hold down a job. Coaching cricket, he's found, is a different matter.

In 2001, the then 25-year-old was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Withdrawing from society, he put on weight and started smoking too much. Some days Fletcher found it difficult to get out of bed, let alone the house. If he hadn't discovered cricket, he might still be living the same insular life, rather than working for Slough NHS Trust as a cricket, football and tennis coach.

Fletcher was already playing a bit of football with other mental health service users when Slough NHS Trust set up a cricket group. He decided to give it a go and soon discovered that there's more to the game than cucumber sandwiches and a very hard ball coming very fast at your head. "It's really quite a social game that gives you something to talk about," he says. "You're out there mixing with people who have similar issues, and there's plenty of time when you're not actively involved to get to know new people."

Relaxed fun   

Famous cricketers like Marcus Trescothick and Australia's Shaun Tait have publicly struggled with mental health issues in recent years. More recently, England's Michael Yardy returned home early from the World Cup suffering from depression. But that's the highly-pressurised world of international cricket, where touring schedules mean a player is away from home and family for months at a time.

As a recreational game, played for fun, cricket is different. Annie Ellison, the physical wellbeing officer who organised the Slough cricket course, explains how cricket can have a relaxed, family feel to it. "Almost anyone can get involved, as a player, scorer, umpire or just a spectator. You get a lovely chilled atmosphere in peaceful surroundings."

Service users get a mixture of matches and net practice at Slough Cricket Club. "For people who don't usually venture outside their own neighbourhood the cricket club's like a green oasis," Ellison says.

Fletcher too, thrived in his new surroundings. He showed natural leadership qualities and could play a bit, so Ellison encouraged him to take his coaching award and now employs him as a coach to deliver cricket, tennis and football to other mental health service users. It's the first long-term job he's had in 10 years.

"He's self-employed, is out of debt, found himself a girlfriend, given up smoking and lost four stone." Ellison says. "He's so much happier and more confident."

Slower pace   

Football, rugby, netball - any invasion game where teams attack and defend goals or targets - demands non-stop action from participants. Cricket is different. It can be played at a slower pace by people who aren't fit enough to keep going for long periods.

"There are lots of ways to get your body moving, swinging the bat, running between wickets, and bowling," says coach Ricky Lashley, who runs the Slough programme. "But there's plenty of time to rest too. If you want, cricket can be quite a sedate game."

But there was nothing sedate about the tournament that Fletcher and his new friends went to last year, though. It was at Lord's, the home of cricket, and for the Slough cricketers and teams of service users from Birmingham, Barnsley, Maidenhead and Aylesbury, it was sheer excitement.

Ellison secured funding from Time to Change, the UK-wide campaign to change attitudes towards mental health, for it. The Lord's indoor cricket centre even relaxed their all-white rules as the teams played eight-a-side eight-over games batting in pairs, using Kwik cricket rules - a small-sided version of the game using an incrediball, a soft rubber ball with a seam.

"Playing at Lord's is the ultimate for any cricketer," Ellison says. "A real special experience, gave the participants something to look forward to."

Steve Bell, an occupational therapist with Buckinghamshire Early Intervention Service, saw his team of Aylesbury youngsters get into a sport they hadn't played since school. "It was great for their confidence when they realised they were still good at it," he said.

The game of cricket, as well as its environment, is therapeutic for people with mental health issues. "There's so much for people to think about. They haven't got time to focus on their problems," Bell added.

Life lessons through cricket   

Although part of a team, players have to rely on themselves in one-on-one contests between bat and ball, blot out external distractions and concentrate on what they want to achieve. Players learn to work towards short-term individual targets: hit the ball away from fielders, stop the ball, bowl the batsman out. With team mates, they also work towards longer-term targets - win the game, stop the opposition batters scoring.

Richard Doughty, a former county cricketer turned mentor, who like Trescothick and Yardy suffered from mental health issues during his playing career, uses cricket's example to teach at-risk young people about time-keeping, co-operation, preparation and presentation.

"Cricket shows people how to build for their futures, how to work hard now to achieve later," he says. "A cricketer scores a hundred gradually - with lots of little successes contributing to their overall success; so too does a player work hard over a number of years to reach the top and stay there. With so much instantly to hand, concepts like these can be difficult to understand and apply."

Mark Fletcher has found cricket to be the sort of sport where success and improvement is easy to quantify and acknowledge. "Playing your first cover drive or getting the ball to swing when you're bowling is such a confidence booster, it brings a big smile to people's faces," he says.

Post uploaded October 2011. By Crispin Andrews