Today Ben Stokes, the talismanic England One-Day International World Cup winner and current Test captain, plays his last match for England in ODIs. Why at the age of 31 is he making this decision? His workload.
"As hard as a decision as this was to come to, it's not as hard dealing with the fact I can't give my team-mates 100% of myself in this format any more. The England shirt deserves nothing less from anyone who wears it.”
Stokes went further in his statement:
"Three formats are just unsustainable for me now. I feel that my body is letting me down because of the schedule and what is expected of us."
This comes ten years on from Kevin Pieterson saying the same thing - in international cricket this is not something new. In other sports, however, it is beginning to become more commonplace.
For all the moral and ethical questions around the new LIV golf tour, the majority of players moving over are citing, alongside the financial incentives, a better work-life balance.
Spanish superstar Sergio Garcia said on his decision to move to the new tour,
"I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old so it’s nice to watch them grow as much as possible. I’ve been doing this for 24 years, so traveling a lot."
In football, to counter fixture congestion following the pandemic, leagues temporarily allowed teams to make five substitutions, up from the usual three. This change has now become enmeshed in law as football’s governing bodies seemingly recognise the major issue of player welfare. This has been proven in the statistics which has seen a dramatic increase in muscular injuries in the last few seasons as games played has increased.
Sport at the elite level is an entertainment business and the main performers are the athletes and players. Governing bodies thus are under pressure to load up their schedules with matches and tournaments, with financial necessities following Covid also driving some of this increase in elite sport. In athletics this has led to three major championships all taking place this summer and this is something the athletes have to deal with as they think about priorities and their schedules.
England fast bowler, and good friend of Ben Stokes, Mark Wood, said this morning on 5 Live on Stokes’ retirement:
“It will be as much physical fatigue as much as mental fatigue.”
Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams works in the Premier League. He’s recognising an increase in mental health concerns amongst players as they think about burnout.
“If you’ve got players now who look at the fixture list, see a congestion of games and also know they’re going to have no respite in the summer, you can start to perceive that situation as, ‘I’m going to have no time to rest and I’m not sure I can cope with that’.”
Stokes has the ability with his status in the game to take a break. Many others will not feel they are able to speak up. In a high-performance environment players and athletes may keep quiet rather than admit they are struggling – concerned they may be seen as weak or that they may lose their place on the team.
The fact this is being spoken about openly is a good thing. There has been more conversation around mental health and wellbeing in the last few years than before. Several sports have increased their support and speaking about workload and burnout is seen in a better light than it was before.
We believe we have been made in the image of God, in his likeness and our God is one who rested. In creation this is seen in how God rested on the seventh day and then instituted this as a pattern for his people. Then in Jesus’ life on earth we regularly see him take time out from his busy ministry to rest and pray.
For our world, and thus our sport, to flourish, we need to take seriously the Biblical pattern of regular rest, whether we follow Jesus or not. We see ourselves fall short of that pattern of healthy rest when we don’t rest physically, we are unable to take breaks mentally and we don’t have the place to rest emotionally.
Beyond the healthy pattern outlined in the Bible for all people, in Matthew 11, Jesus says he has come to give us a greater rest:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
For those struggling with burnout, struggling to manage the relentless nature of elite sport, the invitation is there from Jesus to come to him and find rest.
Rest from the relentless need to prove yourself.
Rest from the inside and outside pressures of elite sport.
Rest from a fear of the future.
The sabbath pattern of weekly coming together as God’s people is a key part of that wherever that is possible. But like other workplaces, the world of sport needs to reckon seriously with the issue of burnout.
Governing bodies have a responsibility to look after their athletes and consider the physical and mental pressure they are under. And they need to do this because this is how we have been made to live – with a life which involves regular and meaningful rest. Without serious conversations in this space we will continue to see top players retiring early from their sports.
Jonny is the Resources and Communications Team Leader at Christians in Sport. He plays cricket at Cumnor Cricket Club and is one of the leaders of Town Church Bicester.
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