What happens when your greatest dream becomes your greatest fear?

Work-related stress caused workers in Great Britain to lose 10.4 million working days in 2011/12 based on the UK Health and Safety Executive Labour Force Survey data. Furthermore, The total number of cases of stress in 2011/12 was 428 000 (40%) out of a total of 1 073 000 for all work-related illnesses.

In working with elite athletes and senior executives in business I am seeing a huge rise in the level of work-related stress. We are all witnessing the stress and tension in the build up to Wednesday night’s second Adelaide Test Match (4th Dec.). The fun and love for the game seems to have evaporated. Cook, the England captain suggested, “It’s pretty much a war out there”. Gone are the beers the teams used to share after a days play, back in the day. Instead, this has been replaced with daily commentary from players and coaches alike about what’s in store – with both sides announcing the continuation of ‘sledging’ – a war of words!

From my experience of playing professional cricket, sledging is professional sport’s stress reaction that occurs when you feel out of control in the pursuit of winning. It is an attempt to get an edge, by using words to distract or ‘mentally disintegrate’ your opponent. However, what it shows beneath the surface is a lower regard for oneself.

Whilst it has occurred across every generation there is something more vicious about it this time round. The context is vital for understanding what is happening. Australia have lost the last three Test Series and the fact that the current Series is back to back (Australia having lost 3-0 away in England this summer!) means the need to win a home series is at an all time high. Consequently, the level of stress, tension and strain is there for all to see.

We have heard the stump mic pick up what Aussie captain Michael Clarke said, “get ready for a ****ing broken arm”. We have also heard David Warner’s scandalous post match personal attack about Trott having ‘scared eyes’; being ‘poor’ and ‘weak’ before his “stress related illness” was revealed (Thankfully he has now put the record straight and apologised). Even the Aussie coach has insisted on continuing the on-field war of words but has pledged his side will not use Trott’s “stress related illness” as ammunition against England. This followed his pre-tour attack on Stuart Broad. Here he called the England bowler a “blatant cheat” and urged home supporters to “send him home crying”.

So, what do Team England need to understand in preparation for the start of Wednesday nights Test Match?

1. That “sledging” doesn’t come from a healthy place. It is an indication of high levels of stress and tension. It shows players or a team need to win-at-all-costs! We shouldn’t be drawn into this battle. Instead, we should expect and accept it from the context that the Aussie’s are so desperate to win and that this is their attempt to do anything to get an edge.

2. That the old school “shape up or ship out” needs to change. To ignore or avoid how this barrage of abuse is impacting is an error. No one is impenetrable, so to internalise abuse is wrong and harmful and leads to stress. Therefore, it is not a sign of weakness to show our emotions and feelings. We need to develop a culture of openness so that individuals can talk freely about how their stress in manifesting in the workplace. Important questions can be asked about what emotions are being evoked, that erode self-esteem and confidence. This may appear to be taking a softer approach in dealing with how something makes you feel, but in my experience this is a more effective way of dealing with individual and group problems. Unraveling feelings and emotions within the workplace, maximises performance.

3. That “win-at-all-costs” should be replaced with “purpose-at-all-costs”. Perhaps our history of losing the first Test Match of an Away Series has a purpose, as we seem to do it regularly enough. Perhaps it gives us a deeper ‘reason’, a ‘purpose’ to switch on our talent and skills for the rest of the entire Series. I would encourage the team to have a deeper discussion about purpose and emphasise what legacy they want to leave when this tour finishes.

I know my three sons will have their eyes firmly fixed on witnessing some great cricket so they too can dream of playing in an Ashes Series without this level of fear.

Come on England!

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