'I was lucky to have the right people in place at the right time'
Sarah Taylor © Women's CricZone/ Jordan Mansfield
World Cup winner Sarah Taylor knows how vital it is to share how we’re feeling when it comes to looking after our mental wellbeing. So, the England wicket-keeping legend, who retired from international cricket in 2019 due to her ongoing battle with anxiety, had no hesitation in lending her voice to a pioneering new initiative from her old county club.
Sussex Cricket were spurred to identify ways to help their local community after data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics showed that almost one in five adults were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the pandemic. That’s nearly double the pre-COVID level. Sussex have now become the first professional sports club in the world to launch their own, bespoke online mental health and wellbeing platform.
Taylor is extremely candid as she tells her story on the new platform’s ‘Champions Cinema’. It’s a growing collection of thousands of videos where people from the Sussex Cricket community and beyond share their experiences on topics that impact, or can help with mental health and wellbeing.
Other contributors include Sussex Cricket players and staff, club cricketers, health workers and individuals from a whole host of backgrounds and life experiences. The hub also features a library of links to trusted local resources.
Speaking to Women’s CricZone, Taylor said she was extremely proud of her former county which now oversees all cricket within its boundaries and is home to the largest league structure in the world. It means the club is in a strong position to make a positive difference.
“It seems absolutely right that instead of it just being mental wellbeing for Sussex players, they've actually looked outwards and said, right okay, we've got this reach here. We've got our family around us, let's help,” said Taylor. “They've done an absolutely phenomenal job.”
On the hub, she talks about first experiencing anxiety as a teenager. By her mid-twenties, social anxiety had started to spill over into her cricket. In her worst moments, she would shut herself away, unable to catch her breath.
The first time she experienced those feelings on a cricket pitch was during the national anthem ahead of a game in India. Standing in extreme heat – which she now recognises as a trigger – she was unable to catch her breath and thought she was going to pass out. It was a scary moment.
Opening up to a teammate on that tour of India was the first time she admitted she had a problem. From then on it was easier to speak about.
“I will always be grateful for her asking me
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Taylor now hopes that sharing these experiences on the new platform will help give people support and hope.
“You only know you want help when you realise that there's something wrong. So, as soon as I opened up and spoke about my experiences, it was amazing how quickly people go, ‘I've been through that or I understand that, I totally understand, I completely empathise’.”
“It’s a time, you feel so alone, you don't think it's possible that other people understand what you're going through. Or you feel completely, kind of, secluded and away from everyone and different.”
“The one thing I love about this platform is that so many people from all walks of life are just looking to help people by sharing what they're doing. So, I truly believe that by all the shared videos and experiences that everyone's gone through, that actually it will only ever be beneficial. And people will learn a lot about potentially what they're going through – and any help that people suggest that they can pick up and take on board.”
To her surprise, one of the people who understood what Taylor was going through most was her close friend and former England teammate Kate Cross who has also spoken about her own struggles with mental health. Neither realised the other felt the same way.
“I think we ended up shouting at each other for a little bit because it's something that you feel so alone and you just feel different. You just feel out of it, you just feel you're not part of anything, you just feel so down.”
“And yeah, we got annoyed at each other,” she laughs. “You just can't believe that one of my best mates, that they were going through exactly the same thing. And neither of us decided to tell each other.”
“I didn't understand that it was something wrong. I just thought that was who I was and that was really normal and everyone must go through it.”
“If I could go back, I wish I could have said something. She'll always make you laugh that girl. So, she could have turned any terrible situation into something quite funny. So, I do wish at the time that I'd had her there as a rock at the start and you never know, it could have been different.”
Taylor talks about the support she got from the England team and management including coach Mark Robinson, who all wanted to see her get better. It created an open environment where players could talk and were allowed to be vulnerable.
“It was tough for all of us because I'd obviously grown up in an environment where I was quite a bubbly character. I still get it now sometimes, people just don't understand how it can happen to you. And some of the girls said that, because no one sees what goes on behind closed doors do they?”
“So, I was extremely lucky to have the right people in place at the right time to realise that there was something wrong and to also know the path that needed to be taken for me to get better.”
“I appreciate their help was… you know, they wanted me to play cricket. I do appreciate that. But actually, at the forefront, Mark Robinson’s goal was to get me back to being happy, being me. And they put everything they could in place to let me do that. The cricket was actually completely secondary, which was lovely coming from people that were employing me to do my job.”
“So yeah, I completely lucked out with where I was at, who had employed me at the time. Yeah, very lucky. But this is why I'm hoping that when people don't have that access, that this platform from Sussex can do that.”
She says the global challenges of the last year mean there could be no better time for Sussex to launch an initiative like this.
“There's one in five adults experiencing some form depression currently due to the pandemic, which is quite an uncomfortable number for me, that’s quite relatively high. So, as soon as this platform was mentioned, it just seemed completely relevant right now to try and help.”
“There's so many topics and issues on the hub that you can look at, people from all walks of life. It's not just sports people or cricketers, it’s just everyone.”
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“It's so nice to see that the help is there, if needed, given the world's current situation that we're all in, either on furlough or home-schooling. Lockdown is obviously really tough, so I’m glad this is coming out now.”
Cricket has led the way in sport, supporting players’ mental health. Former England opener Marcus Trescothick did much to raise awareness and change perceptions when he told his story, while more recently another Sussex World Cup winner, Michael Yardy, has opened up about his struggles.
“I think every job in the world could probably get better at dealing with things, but cricket is leading this, I think,” says Taylor. “Sussex have obviously realised that, and there is a push to try and deal with the mental health side of things, not just in cricket but in the community surrounding us.”
“I am very proud of cricket. They were unbelievable with me. I couldn't thank them enough. I hope that any youngster out there who is playing cricket knows that within the cricket community, there is the help that's needed and
Cricket has been Taylor’s entire life. She debuted for England aged just 17, playing at the highest level for 13 years and winning a World Cup at Lord’s in 2017. Her silky keeping and prodigious talent with the bat earned her 219 international caps in all formats. Despite that success, she admits on the Sussex hub that retirement came as a relief. Not because of cricket itself, but because her anxiety had made the game unenjoyable.
She now understands her triggers better and has methods of coping which have made things easier. Life has also been less stressful since retirement.
“I have been better for it. I think,” she says. “I love my job now, I did love my job playing cricket, but it (retirement) was quite an easy decision really.”
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That current job is a brand new role at her old school, Bede’s in Eastbourne, where she works in the sports department as Sports Development and Life Skills Coach.
Taylor works across both the Senior and Prep Schools to increase participation and performance in sport across all year groups; to support with elite-level coaching across the core and competitive sports; and promote positive emotional and physical wellbeing in pupils at all athletic levels. It’s a job she is uniquely suited for, even if she is currently doing a lot of the role via Zoom.
I ask how she is coping with lockdown. As well as relaxing by completing jigsaws, she explains establishing a routine has been key. In addition to her day job, she is also looking at a sports psychology diploma to help her future development, as well as keeping active with regular walks. She is also in the planning stages for her mental health charity ‘Awesome Minds’.
She signs off her series of videos on the Sussex hub with one final message – keep talking and be more accepting.
“I wish I'd accepted it a lot earlier. I tried to fight it for a good few years, I think. But once I'd accepted that, you know, this is who I am and actually it can be a phase for some people or it can be managed, then I got better quite quickly.”
“Once you start fighting it, you then kind of regret it and then it's stuck, I reckon. So yeah, if I could give that piece of advice it would be to just accept it. But know that you can get through it.”
The Sussex Cricket Mental Health & Wellbeing Hub was developed by Sussex Cricket in partnership with Frog Systems and with the support of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. The hub is a free, online resource designed to help users find hope and support through the power of shared, lived experiences.