The pressure placed upon young athletes to perform has reached dizzying heights, and some future stars are struggling to cope. Sam Alexander reports.
When Mickey Edwards felt a slight twinge in his back, he had no idea of the sacrifice, pain and heartache he would endure.
Towering at six feet and six inches (1.98 metres), the then 19-year-old fast bowler had the cricketing world at his feet. He had just secured a rookie contract with Cricket New South Wales (CNSW) as well as an Academy spot with Big Bash League franchise the Sydney Sixers. But in one foul swoop, his future and potential success came crashing down.
Mickey Edwards was diagnosed with stress fractures and, while at first he was confident, he would be back in a matter of months, heartbreak struck again.
After months of rehabilitation, excitement and hype at his impending return, he stepped into the nets to finally do what he does best: send down fiery thunderbolts. But in a flash he was back to square one; his stress fractures had recurred, and all the hours of rehabilitation were undone, shattering Edwards, his friends, family, his local Manly club, and supporters.
And if the pain of a return to rehabilitation wasn’t enough, the Deacon University student says that watching competitors get an opportunity while he sat on the sidelines only added to the pressure to make a comeback, as well as a burning wish to perform.
“I think coming back from injury now, I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself,” he says.
“Just because I’ve had a long time out of the game and they’ve (CNSW) put faith in me, I feel I’ve got to perform and take some wickets and hopefully prove that I am as good as everyone thinks.
“The year off made me realise how much I love cricket. Watching the guys play on Saturday motivated me to continue with my rehabilitation.”
AUDIO: Five Day Turnarounds – the physical and mental pressures placed upon young NRL players.
Mickey’s rehabilitation has involved training with CNSW five days a week, participating in net sessions, yoga, Pilates and strength and conditioning training. But the injury has meant that he has given up much of his social life as well as his favourite past time: grabbing a surfboard and hitting the beach.
“Even though it is tough sometimes when the alarm goes off at 5.30am, I think I am living the dream; it has given me an insight into what it takes to become a professional cricketer,” he says.
“As to the possibility of more stress fractures in my back, I don’t think about it. I am confident my bowling action is good and I am really looking forward to a big season with Manly and hopefully NSW.”
He points to Manly head coach and, ironically, rival Sydney Thunder assistant coach Shawn ‘Winga’ Bradstreet as the grounding influence in his return to the cricket wicket.
“Winga has been great. Back in the day when he was playing for NSW, he had a few back dramas himself,’’ he says.
“I remember the season before we won the grand final with Manly we had a chat and I told him I wanted to give cricket a fair crack and not have any regrets.
“These days I call him a couple of times a week just to talk about my action and what I can do to make sure I am in a good headspace physically and mentally.”
Shawn Bradstreet, a foreboding ex-NSW captain known for his strong, stern demeanour as a player and a coach, believes mental strength plays an important part in overcoming pressure and ultimately succeeding as a professional sportsperson. These are some qualities he says he has tried to implement in his coaching, especially with Mickey Edwards.
“I could tell straight away that Mickey was going to be putting himself under a fair bit of pressure. He had just gotten into the State squad and the Sixers squad and all of a sudden he was injured,” he says.
“I could see Mickey was showing signs of wanting to progress his rehab quicker than he should, always second guessing if it was going to work for him or not.
“I tried to play a grounding mentor role, telling him to relax. I knew he was keen to get back and I could see that he was anxious, but he really needed to find a balance and realise there wasn’t a lot he could do about his stressies. However, he could control his emotions and how he dealt with all his injuries.
“It’s easy to go off the rails when you’re not playing cricket for a while so I’m trying to be there for him.”
Sports rehabilitation expert, Simon Couch, says that the pressure to return after injury is prevalent both at top-tier and junior cricket, and is something that has ruined many potential careers.
“I’ve treated fast-bowlers that were right in there and injuries kept bringing them down at critical moments of their career. You don’t get too many opportunities, eventually it becomes all too much, they get overlooked and someone leapfrogs them,” he says.
“As a child you start getting a few injuries and the coaching staff tend to quickly look past you. They see those little recurrent injuries as a weakness and something that’s going to be very challenging. Then they move onto the next kid.
“It’s a shame because there’s not a lot of care for the athlete.”
Over decades of playing and in more recent years coaching, Shawn Bradstreet has seen this pressure to perform strike down even the best of players, especially when injury is involved.
“I’ve seen some young guys have an injury and then feel mentally that they can never get back to where they were,” he says.
“If you have a look at the history of cricket, most players, in particular bowlers, have serious injuries at different stages and I’ve seen plenty of guys fall by the wayside.
“It’s pretty easy to lose your focus when you are injured and can’t play. You can lose your passion and your drive. But if you want to make it as a professional sportsman, you need to stay focused at all times, and have a driving ambition to make it.”
Bradstreet has a message for those struggling to deal with the pressure of taking the next step in their professional career. “Why are you playing cricket? It’s because you love it. Most good sportsmen that make it aren’t originally in it for the money; they’re in it because they love the game.”
Edwards profile – http://www.cricket.com.au/players/mickey-edwards/H8S0r8Fc2kmdd8LM_AfKYQ
Australian sports injury hospitalisations (academic paper with statistics of injury and participation in Australian sport) – http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129549097
Shawn Bradstreet profile (including history of stress-fractures)
Shawn Bradstreet named Sydney Thunder Academy Coach – http://www.sydneythunder.com.au/video/shawn-bradstreet-appointed-academy-coach/2015-09-03
Shawn Bradstreet lands Pakistan coaching job – http://manlycricket.com/media-page/news-items/latest-news-articles/999-bradstreet-lands-pakistan-super-league-coaching-gig-with-lahore-qalandars