"Adversity can either galvanise a team or it can destroy a team": Jeremy Snape on the psychology of bubble life

SAM MORSHEAD: There are few better placed to comment on the bubble's psychological juggling act than Jeremy Snape, a former England international, who went on to coach around the world, before establishing himself as a prominent sports psychologist


Jofra Archer summed up the sentiments of the cricket community perfectly.

“You’re counting down the days until you’re free,” he said of bubble life in the IPL: a bland, beige, characterless two months of Dubai sterility, faux glamour and piped crowd noise.

Archer’s comments echoed the thoughts of many focal figures within the game.

Both his Test captain Joe Root and one-day skipper Eoin Morgan have each insisted the format is not sustainable, and likely to negatively impact the mental health of the players in the months to come. West Indies captain Jason Holder described it as “untenable”.

Until the coronavirus crisis abates, or at least eases, though, there is no other option for cricket administrators in their desperate efforts to claw back as much broadcast rights revenue as possible.

And so to England’s international winter: a monotonous, behind-closed-doors plod around an increasingly shut-off world. How the players and support staff react to this environment will be critical - both in terms of results on the pitch and mental health off it.

There are few better placed to comment on this psychological juggling act than Jeremy Snape, the former England limited-overs international, who went on to coach around the world and then established himself as one of the most prominent sports psychologists in the UK.

The key for England’s players this winter, he believes, is achieving balance in both their personal and professional lives during a period of isolation, boredom and upheaval.

“Elite sportspeople have got that ability to compartmentalise their lives, and it’s a little like leading two lives - one of the athlete that’s training and competing, and the other one that’s a dad or family man, friend or son; this second identity,” he said.

“The challenge for them is that normally there’d be quite a healthy rhythm between those two identities, but because they are away for six weeks or more at a time that means you are almost isolated from that second identity.

“You have to try to create as many opportunities to normalise it as possible: the bedtime story or the evening meal or going for a dogwalk with your partner. It might be you have to be quite creative with these things, and ensure you stay connected emotionally, even if you cannot be connected physically.”


Jofra Archer was named as the IPL's MVP, but he has spoken openly about the struggles of bubble life

A trawl of the players’ Instagram accounts over the past week might not indicate isolation and loneliness - England are staying in luxury at The Vineyard in Cape Town’s suburbs, what with its spa, indoor and outdoor pools, sweeping lawns and carefully manicured landscape gardens - but mental health remains a key focus for the team’s support staff.

That is hardly a surprise; many of the group have just spent two months in a Dubai bubble at the IPL, several will go through a similar experience when they leave South Africa for Australia and the Big Bash at the end of this tour.

Then comes Sri Lanka in January, and a mammoth series of red and white-ball fixtures against India before the IPL comes back around.

In pre-Covid times, this would have been as exciting a winter as there could be on the international cricket calendar. In 2020, as we all know, pleasures have become chores.

Subsequently, with little to do other than gymwork, swimming and spotting the giant mountain tortoise which roams the hotel grounds, there may be the temptation for players to focus even more on their own games.

As Jos Buttler, England’s vice-captain on this tour, said in a recent interview, “cricket can be hard to escape” in bubble life.

Snape advises heavily against that, urging the touring group not to jump down a rabbit hole of information, analysis and self-criticism.

“The danger is becoming overly intense,” he says. “The elite sporting environment is drowning in data, swimming in theories, and you have to be careful that - because you are so ambitious and hungry to be the best you can be - you don’t spend every waking hour analysing the opposition, deconstructing your backlift, and looking at algorithms about how a pitch has played over the last five years.

“What generally happens with a busy and dynamic sports tour is periods of intense action, and periods of downtime and physical recovery, but they’ll also have a number of public functions. These can be a bit of a chore, if you have to go to a minister’s house or an embassy barbecue, but they actually create a shared experience.

“They give you fresh scenery, you meet different people, you eat different food and it is stimulating from its novelty.

“If the players don’t have those informal social interactions, where they are taken out of the bubble to meet people, the experience is going to be quite insular. You’re surrounded by the same people all the time.”


Jeremy Snape (left) has worked as a coach in the IPL with Rajasthan Royals

There are many more people on the touring rosters than normal this winter - The Vineyard’s website claims the hotel has been block-booked by “more than 100 VIPs” for the duration of England’s tour - which should inject some variety, and there is little by way of faction within the group.

But as they hop between Cape Town, Galle, the UAE and Australia over the coming weeks, Snape says these cricketers must learn to take collective responsibility for each other’s wellbeing.

While accepting the disparate realities of the two situations, he compares life in the touring bubble of 2020 to the loyalists who surrounded Nelson Mandela in prison on Robben Island in the 27 years to 1990.

“In one of my podcast episodes I interviewed two of the guys who were in prison with Nelson Mandela. There were eight of them in the ANC that had to stick together to protect Mandela. A few of them didn’t need to go to prison but they went with him for 27 years to make sure he was safe,” Snape said.

“Whenever it was somebody’s wedding anniversary or their birthday, the whole team celebrated with them. One of them was responsible for Christmas cards or Christmas trees. You can imagine that this group of prisoners, in the most extreme situation on Robben Island, had given themselves roles and taken it on themselves as a team to be galvanised by their shared purpose.

“For this group, it’s to represent England and to try to compete on the international stage. For the individuals it’s a chance to say: ‘It’s Joe Root’s son’s birthday today so we’re going to have a cake and celebrate with Joe.’

“Adversity is an amazing opportunity that can either galvanise a team or it can destroy a team.

“Where the strongest teams emerge is where they have built a social and emotional connection that is deeper than just their roles and responsibilities in the batting order. What you have here is a shared experience of real adversity, of the players all being away from their loved ones. They can use that to help them make themselves proud and stay focused while they’re in the bubble, and to celebrate each individual’s life back at home as a team.

“That way they can break the monotony of it being just another day. It’s not just another day.”

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Seven of England’s first-choice 50-over side have children under the age of two; the youngest, Chris Woakes’ daughter Evie, is less than two months old.

In an ordinary year, families would certainly have made the trip to South Africa - a popular touring location for partners and their kids, just as it is for fans.

On this occasion, though, no families have been allowed into the camp with the team - an understandably cautious ruling given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; South Africa recorded 2,514 new cases on Thursday and has seen just over 20,000 lives lost to the disease over the past eight months.

Snape knows the pain of separation well, both from his time on England tours and stints coaching Rajasthan Royals in the IPL.

Somehow, he says, players need to find a semblance of normality to get themselves through.

“Celebrate together, eat together, when your partner is changing the nappies you’re on FaceTime on the counter beside them.

“Being part of the story is important. When children are young so many things happen so quickly, and as a player who is a parent you might feel you are missing out when you are dislocated from home.

“Players have got to understand whether staying close is making them feel better or worse. Some players will want to spend as much time with their partner as they can, others might find a quick call each day is a better way of doing it.

“I came home from one IPL for two days in the middle of it, and it was actually worse than staying out there for the full eight weeks because it caused so much disruption for everyone.

“The kids would say: ‘Daddy’s back’, and I’d have the chance to have a few conversations with my wife, and then we’d realise it was time to go again. It’s harder.

“You think you’re doing the right thing by popping home but the families get into a rhythm as well and you have to respect that. It’s a difficult balance.”


Jason Holder described bubble life as "untenable"

The heightened chance of a vaccine in 2021 has emboldened sports schedulers around the world, and on Thursday the ECB announced their intention to host a full, to-capacity summer of cricket across England and Wales.

In the interim, however, Snape has called on administrators to keep competitions as short as possible to limit the potential impact of bubbles on players. A six-match tour of South Africa might ordinarily be expected to be completed in two weeks, not the best part of a month. It is a luxury long weekend, however, in comparison to the Big Bash: that bloated, 61-game season may begin to feel like a prison sentence for players who stick it out for the duration.

“To get to this point in their career these guys have to have been incredibly focused and determined. There is a strange balance with elite sportsmen and women that they have to be quite selfish or self-focused in getting to the top of their careers,” Snape said.

“All of these players will have the ability to zone in and shut out distractions. The challenge is that in traditional times that would have been for much shorter periods of time, and now the intensity of these lockdowns means that is extended.

“It makes sense for the different executives to make tournaments shorter, and make sure there are good periods to have a blow out, get back to your family and normalise life a little bit.

“It’s unrealistic to think somebody can stay away from home for all but 50 nights of a year in that intensity.

“When you’re isolated from your family that’s 10 times worse.”

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