Behind the helmets, bats and pads, there’s a person: Sophie Devine

Sophie Devine © Getty Images

On the eve of the second T20I against Australia in March 2020, New Zealand skipper Sophie Devine withdrew from the match due to fatigue. Further, ahead of the ODI series, the allrounder announced that she would extend that break indefinitely. 

As the New Zealand squad regrouped for their first winter training at Lincoln University in Canterbury on Monday (June 7), Devine, and Suzie Bates, who was out of action due to her shoulder injury during the Women’s Big Bash League, joined the team for practice. Addressing the media after the training session, Devine opened up about the mental fatigue she went through and the significance of prioritising mental health. 

“I think, looking back now, it has probably been bubbling away for a little while,” the New Zealand skipper said of the mental exhaustion she was feeling at the time. “For me, I think it was just about I knew I couldn’t do the job. It’s the same thing as if I broke my leg or pulled my hamstring. I can’t complete the job to 100 per cent, and I need to take a serious look at [whether I am] worthy of being in the team. At that stage, I couldn’t live up to my role or what I expected of myself. It came to a point where a decision was made.”

She felt that for her to step away at that point was the right thing to do, adding, “it was a very hard decision. I got fantastic support not only from New Zealand Cricket but also from the Cricketers Association as well”.

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At the time, the allrounder was going through a rough patch in international cricket, despite being in blistering form during the WBBL, Super Smash and the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield. Her last seven international scores read 16, 6, 15, 2, 8, 0 and 17. And if that poor run of form was not enough, Devine had been within several bio-bubbles for significant periods of time – beginning in Australia in September 2020.

Admitting that the pandemic had made it “an unusual year” for everyone the 31-year-old said what she experienced was not just bubble fatigue, but a cumulative effect of various factors. 

While staying in bio-bubbles might have added to her fatigue, Devine said that she went into her own bubble to recover. She said that she had to get back to what made her feel good as a person. She switched herself off from everyone and everything.

“I pretty much hid in my own little bubble for probably two months and really spent that time going back to simple things. Spending time away from cricket, first and foremost, and spending it with loved ones, which was really important.”

When asked whether the exposure that women’s cricket has started to get in recent years has put extra pressure on the athletes, Devine said, “it is hard to say.” 

“I think we know that we are professional athletes, and we are going to get a high level of scrutiny. I don’t want to shy away from it. It’s what you expect as a professional athlete. I guess the really important thing for me to remember is that we are human first and athlete second. We know that we are going to be scrutinised by the public, media and everything. We are not shying away from them. Just remember that behind the helmets, bats, and the pad, there is a person under it too.”

She continued that everyone’s journey is different, adding, “What I experienced might be completely different to others. But I think it is so good to see they feel comfortable speaking in their spaces. We need to create a space for everyone to talk about mental health and having the comfort to be able to do it.”

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It is not easy to forget the fiasco that occurred a few days ago when Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the ongoing French Open tournament after the organisers threatened to fine her for not attending press conferences. Earlier, Osaka had released a statement saying that she would not participate in post-match press conferences citing mental health reasons. 

Devine said that the struggle is a very individual thing and that she cannot comment on Osaka’s experience. However, she was pleased to see the four-time Grand Slam winner speak about her struggles and experiences in the public space and the solidarity she has been getting from fellow tennis stars and fans. 

At the same time, the New Zealand skipper did not fail to express her disappointment with the comments Osaka received from a few media persons and fans on social media. “Some of the comments that have come have been disgusting. It is unbelievable that people think it is okay. It is never okay, doesn’t matter who that is.”

Devine’s teammate, Bates, who is also making a comeback to the squad, said that she and the team are proud of Devine for opening up about her struggles. “The way she spoke about how she is feeling, she has had a great break. It’s so good to see her back with a smile on her face,” she said while addressing the media.

“It is not only confidence to speak up but the platform to speak. I think that’s what has changed. There is a platform for people to be honest and open about it in women’s sport. And that is exciting for me. Whether it is good or bad, we can get our stuff out there and hopefully help players in the future to deal with the issues that are still around the game.”

Head coach Bob Carter, too, was excited about having Devine back among the group. “She is hitting plenty of balls. She is having a bit of a bowl. It is the same Sophie, so it is great.”

He said that the exposure they have got from the media has made them more aware of the issues related to mental health. “We have to strengthen a few things in regards to mental-skills training as well as well-being. That is our ultimate aim, to make sure that the girls are safe.” 

“They do open up about it. Sometimes we have to make sure that there is a culture where they could choose whom to speak. We have to be ready to put that in place. We have to be more aware is the real takeaway from all this.”

One of the biggest takeaways from the media interaction was the confirmation from Carter that Devine will continue as the skipper. “She was the chosen captain at the time, and she still is. The things we have to work through is how did it all go, and how she feels about coming back now into the group. We will deal with that,” he said.

With the New Zealand team touring England in September, Devine is hopeful that she might not have to take another break due to mental fatigue. Even if she has to, the 31-year-old is sure that she will be in a better position to handle it.

“Hopefully, it does not happen again. But it might, and hopefully, I am in a better position to deal with that if those sort of things does come up,” Devine concluded.