By Jay Williams
Sport is a unique medium. Consciously and subconsciously; as a player and as a spectator: sport can have such an unexpectedly profound impact on your life and emotional wellbeing.
It is important to set the whole scene from the outset here. I consider myself very lucky that I have never personally suffered with my mental health.
On reflection, I think I owe a lot of this to sport and its ability to release your mind and body from other aspects of life. This is not something I take for granted; sport has undoubtedly played a central role in shaping who I am today.
My journey into cricket started at the age of 10. Up until that point, I’d loved playing in the garden but this was a new venture. Thankfully, I remember feeling excited – rather than anxious – to have the opportunity to make a number of new friends. I joined Wanstead Cricket Club and instantly felt at home. This is where I met Freddie, Vent’s Founder. Those Friday night training sessions and early Sunday morning matches formed the backdrop for some lifelong friendships.
Cricket is one of several sports to leave its lasting mark on me. I believe sport has taught me many life lessons, including how to maintain a positive outlook on life.
Now, as captain of Wanstead’s second XI, I aim to outwardly project my values onto those around me.
Many captains fall into the fallacy of believing in the ‘winning at all costs’ mentality. While competitiveness is important, sometimes you do have to calculate and try to mitigate the ‘costs’ in recreational cricket, especially when they impact on an individual’s mental health.
Not only does sport teach life lessons, it also gives you an escape from other aspects of your personal life.
Exam periods are very stressful and it is completely understandable that cricket teams are depleted at this time due to students cramming in some last-minute GCSE and A-Level revision but I couldn’t think of anything worse.
There is no way I could focus on algebra on a Saturday afternoon knowing that my team-mates were out on the pitch.
I appreciate that this approach does not work for everyone. However, I think many people mistakenly believe that extra-curricular activity will negatively impact a child’s academic performance.
On the contrary, I would argue the opposite. Instead of trying to digest schoolwork, your brain is engaged in an altogether different challenge on a sports field.
It is so important to maintain a work-life balance and that applies for both students and adults.
Having the balance of schoolwork, sport and socialising meant my stress levels remained low throughout my academic life. I still live by this mantra today in my working life; social interaction and sport (playing and watching) provides an equilibrium so work does not overwhelm me at any point.
This is just one example of the positive impact that cricket has had – and continues to have – on my mental wellbeing.
Wanstead CC has provided the perfect home for me to enjoy my cricket. The tight-knit welcoming community and the family feel is everything that social sport stands for.
I have been at the club for 15 years now and recently made the transition into captaincy.
I have skippered school teams, Wanstead youth teams and the Wanstead adult indoor team but captaining an adult outdoor team is an entirely different responsibility. The challenges are relentless, both on and off the field, making it time-consuming and, at times, exhausting.
My previous captaincy experience thankfully meant I avoided any impostor syndrome. However, this does not exempt subconscious doubts from creeping into my mind from time to time. I am captaining players who are many years my senior; players who are much better than I am; players who have captained me in the past.
How will they react if I drop them down the batting order or give them less overs than they would like? How will they react if I give them instructions? What if my own form dips and I’m trying to justify my place in the team? These are just some of the machinations that run through my mind on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.
However, I mentioned before, fortunately I don’t spend too much time focusing on negative thoughts.
The captaincy role requires authority and decisiveness, combined with a willingness to take counsel from others.
Over the years, I would like to think I have earned the respect of my team-mates and they will trust that any difficult decisions I make are carefully thought through and in the best interests of the club.
There is also a moral responsibility that accompanies the captaincy role. There will be some captains who disagree with me but the most valuable leadership quality to have in amateur sport is inclusivity. This must be promoted and prioritised. Unfortunately, I have played under many captains who did not understand this.
Everyone in club cricket knows and has experienced the ‘TFC’ (Thanks for Coming): the equivalent of being an unused substitute in football or rugby. In cricket, you get a TFC if you go through a whole match without getting to bowl or bat. You give up an entire day to field. You feel redundant, nugatory, unwanted, rejected and empty. You are merely a passenger for the day.
I have not had a TFC since I was a colt player but I know exactly how this feels – especially when you are so young. You start the day enthusiastically and you finish the game deflated. The impact on the morale of the player, especially if they are a youth player, is a vitally important consideration when making captaincy decisions.
When you undervalue your players, you face numerous potential implications, such as deterring youngsters from continuing with the sport and affecting their confidence in their own ability.
This is not to say that you should pander to each individual’s needs: the game is multi-faceted and the nuances stretch beyond people-pleasing. Captains have to make lots of difficult decisions and gamble in order to win games. In the moment, it is easy to forget about one individual when calculating your next move in a game of infinite possibilities.
However, it is worth taking a step back and remembering the situation: we are all amateurs who have paid a match fee to walk out onto the pitch. We play because we love playing cricket.
Balancing competitiveness and inclusivity is a difficult skill to master. It is not always possible and it is not every captain’s preferred style – some believe in winning at all costs. However, I would argue that these ‘costs’ cannot include devaluing your peers; not at amateur level, at least.
This brings me back to the underlying message behind this article: social sport exists to enhance the social life of those who play it.
I started playing cricket because I love the sport. 15 years on, I am still here because I enjoy the camaraderie of a day on the cricket field, followed by some hard-earned drinks in the bar to dissect the highs and lows of our game.
We have a saying at Wanstead which perfectly sums up this mindset: Win or lose, we’re on the booze; If we draw, we drink some more.
Jay Williams is Second IX Captain at Wanstead Cricket Club and a Communications Professional.