Winter Well: Sport and Mental Health

I spent three months of one winter never seeing daylight: getting up at 7am to go to work, spending the day in a windowless room the returning home around 6pm. It was a profoundly unpleasant existence and I spent those walks to the train station thinking about Summer.

In the grips of icy, black winter one thing I noticed was that I literally couldn’t imagine what Summer was like: the idea of walking around in a t-shirt and shorts seemed utterly impossible. In much the same way the thought of a better day can seem similarly remote in the blackest mood.

It’s not news that longer nights and lack of daylight can affect emotions or even mental health. But it’s just one facet of the things that disappear in life with warmer weather and lighter evenings. Socialising is harder, there are fewer holidays and events. And there’s no cricket.

Much like the shortening days, cricket in itself might not be any great loss. But the end of the season also means a jarring break from friends and teammates. Often I view the end of the season as a release from aching joints and Saturdays that are not my own. But I know there are some who view it with dread. A support network suddenly vanished, regular contact with friends ended and the structure cricket can bring to long weeks collapsed.

I’ve often mused on this oddity. I spend six months playing cricket, drinking and carousing with my teammates. I share some of the most intense, joyful and depressing moments of the year with them. We go out to bars together, long days chewing the fat on the field or in the pavilion. It’s occurred to me that there’s probably good mileage filming the conversations that go on in a pavilion, on a balcony or in a changing room.

Last year I spend a good deal of time listening on in what might be called ‘locker-room talk’. But I also discussed politics, race, economics, science, literature. I found out about the ten – or 21 – other people I happened to be sharing my day with and was enriched by the experience. And then, in September, it all stopped. I’ve barely seen any of them since.

There are plenty of reasons why cricket can be a positive force in the lives of those who play. Socialisation, fitness, positivity, endurance, collaboration… But there’s something that is often overlooked. Cricket’s ability to give a coherence to people’s lives: to force them out once, twice or three times a week to share company and endeavour.

Think about how hard it can be to arrange for a group of friends to be in the same place at the same time. In an age of social media and the perception (often illusory) that we don’t have time to fulfil our comradely obligations, playing a team sport forces people together.

I suspect we all recognise the value of this, whether we admit to it or not. And I also suspect that we all miss it when it’s gone. Shorn of the social pressure to turn up every Saturday if your name is on the teamsheet, it’s too easy to let friendships and solidarity slide twixt September and April. Many a teammate has spoken about not knowing what do with themselves on the first Saturday without a fixture. They might miss the cricket, but they’re missing their friends too. And looking apprehensively to a long winter.

“Winter well”. It’s no coincidence that this is how cricketers say goodbye to one another. They know better than anyone what an isolating place the longer, darker days can be and they’re looking forward to the sunny days ahead: of leather, beer and collective spirit.

Originally written for Opening Up Cricket