In Wayne Phillips’ time as a Test cricketer, a player with mental health problems would have been considered a “weak prick” – but after being diagnosed with depression, he’s determined to help other sportsmen suffering silently.
The night Australian cricketer David Hookes was killed, his mate Wayne ‘Flipper’ Phillips was standing next to him.
He heard the fatal punch to Hooke’s head, he heard his mate’s head hit the concrete. That’s when things began to unravel for this knockabout sportsman.
“We’d been having a couple of beers and I was standing next to David when it happened … I heard it, I heard his head hit the ground and that was the end of that,” Phillips says.
The former Australian batsman and wicket keeper describes his reaction to the ensuing chaos as capable and competent. Amid the devastation of watching his mate die, the business of cricket still had to be dealt with. Resilience kicked in.
“I was coach of the South Australian cricket team at the time so we’re going to meetings about rescheduling the game. It was still about two states playing a four day game of cricket and the schedule to keep,” says Phillips.
“I thought I handled myself through it all. I didn’t lose it. It was frustrating, challenging, confronting, bloody sad and very real but I handled it capably and showed resilience at the time.”
Phillips describes resilience as “the ability to deal with life’s challenges not in an abstract form but on a regular basis”.
“It’s about developing the skills to help you cope with the hard times,” he says. “Personally, I’ve been through quite a few challenging times where I’ve needed to be firm and strong and resilient and know of my capabilities to be able to deal with those.”
Just a few months before Hookes’s death, Phillips lost his father to leukemia and then, 18 months later, SACA sacked him as coach of the Redbacks.
The culmination of these events set the normally affable 56-year-old on a downward spiral.
There were days he didn’t want to get out of bed, he distanced himself from friends, withdrew from wife Janine and daughters Courtney, now 27, and Abbi, 29. While he never contemplated suicide, he says he understands how it’s an option for some.
Finally, after four months, the 27-Test veteran was diagnosed with depression. He says he was relieved he had something “normal” and treatable. But the tag “depression” played havoc with Phillips’ sense of self.
“My mental health challenges really knocked around my resilience,” he says. “That challenged me enormously because I didn’t know what the bloody hell was going on.
“You know, it was always ‘good old Flipper, he’s the good guy to go to. If there’s ever any issue go to Flipper and he’ll sort it out for you’.
“That was the real challenge for me. I almost had this trademark of being understanding and resilient and the go-to person, but I was being challenged by depression. That was very real and very confronting. I felt I was always exempt from any of that.”
Gradually, with treatment, Phillips learnt how to manage the black dog.
Today, he’s using that experience to help guide young cricketers through the pressures of life on and off the pitch.
As the state coordinator of the past Player Development Program with the Australian Cricketers’ Association, the man with the famous mullet is determined to shine a spotlight on the pitfalls of playing elite cricket.
“It’s not just about the skills of playing the game, there are these associated life skills that need to be considered and addressed,” he says.
“I was staggered looking at some recent reports dealing with the prevalence of some of the challenges in cricket. The incidence of mental health issues is crazy compared to a lot of other sports.
“When you compare it to run of the mill personnel, my understanding is that there is a much higher incidence for cricketers to suffer from mental health issues, alcoholism, divorce, these types of issues.
“Why is this the case? Is it because we’re on the world stage and then it stops? There’s always a beer so you can use alcohol as a bit of a mask for things. The rate of divorce in cricket is very high as well. Is it because we’re on the road the whole time?
“These issues need to be considered and there are reports coming that are telling us this kind of thing. We never talked about these issues when I was playing – it would have been like, ‘you weak prick’.
“I could certainly say that players could be better equipped and it’s that why we’re starting to do this research now. The numbers are telling us we could be doing things better at ensuring that the cricketer package is much better prepared.”
Phillips will be guest speaker at a high performance conference at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane in early July to discuss the issues he’s now so passionate about.
“I don’t know that they’ve ever been given the credence that is necessary,” he says.
“From a sporting point of view you have ridiculous variants in the need to be resilient, when you’re being successful as well as when you’re being challenged. You need to be resilient, or brave is even another word for it – bravado might be dressing it up a bit.”
For now, Phillips is concentrating on his next big challenge – becoming a grandfather for the first time. Daughter Abbi is due to give birth in a week.
“I’ll need all my resilience for that,” he smiles.
For further support and information about suicide prevention call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For help and advice about coping with depression, go to beyondblue.org.au
This is the second in an InDaily series on resilience. Our first article was about Nicole Cornes – read it here.
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