When “toxic masculinity” is just not cricket

David Burt has endeavoured to create meaningful cultural change in sporting clubs. Photo Ryan Malcolm.
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Cricket clubs are shedding their tough exterior and opening up about mental health. Ryan Malcolm reports.
David Burt has endeavoured to create meaningful cultural change in sporting clubs. Photo Ryan Malcolm.

Cricket clubs have long been a staple in Victorian communities, a hub of activity that is welcoming to players, fans and onlookers alike, culminating in competition on a sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon. A cricket club is a haven, invariably an escape from the pressures that life throws at thousands of men throughout the state.

Unfortunately, underlying cultural issues within most cricket clubs centred around binge drinking and “toxic masculinity” have led to an emotionally-detached environment where mental illness has often gone undiscussed.

These sporting clubs are the heartbeat of the community, according to David Burt, who has prioritised education on mental illness prevention within sporting clubs through his role as CEO of Sport and Life Training (SALT), in an attempt to create positive cultural change.

Founded in the middle of 2015, SALT has gone from strength-to-strength, presenting to over 1500 organisations, from football clubs to gymnastics teams, about the importance of being open with those that are an extension of your family for large portions of the year.

“We always talk about how sport’s not about sport it’s about the people and relationships, we come together with a common enjoyment,” says Mr Burt.

“Every single club we’ve been into and we’ve dug just beyond the surface, players will always tell us that they come back because of the people.”

A recent study by Beyond Blue showed that one in every seven Australian men will experience depression, anxiety, or both in any given year, an alarming statistic that has gradually risen over recent years.

By placing a focus on “preventative work, rather than restorative”, and targeting organisations rife with young people, SALT aims to create positive change in an environment where men “were three times more connected than at school or work, because they really wanted to be there”.

“Before us it was typically an ex-AFL player telling some stories, there was almost an undertone that they need to do this to tick a box.”

“A lot of the boys have their identity tied up with sport, rather than who they are as people,” says Mr Burt.

“You can get to the top of the ladder and then realise it’s up against the wrong wall and you didn’t actually develop some of the things you really needed to.”

Tony Glynn’s six years of experience as Cricket Victoria’s resident psychologist has meant he’s witnessed the culture change at the elite level.

“(Cricket culture) has changed a lot in the last five years, and I think that’s a lot to do with a number of high-profile athletes coming out and saying that they have mental health-related concerns,” says Mr Glynn.

“Athletes have really led the way in normalising that (mental illness) is a part of life.”

The bravery of these athletes as role models, combined with their alignment with organisations such as Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute has been integral to the gradual culture shift within sporting clubs, according to Mr Glynn.

“People will start to listen, I’ve already seen it in the 18, 19, 20-year-olds coming through (Cricket Victoria) that really have a good appreciation for that side of things.”

This cultural change is also occurring in Victorian high schools, who have become increasingly “proactive in providing support”, according to Steve Pinner.

“I look back to when I started my teaching career back in 2006, the kids that were in touch with the welfare officer then were at-risk and into some serious stuff,” says Steve.

“Now for a kid to walk out of class and go and see the counsellor is just nothing, there might be seven or eight kids in the class that are going to see the counsellor about something.”

While still working as a casual relief teacher, Steve has committed the majority of his time to his website, Man:Restarted, which is designed to “help guys between the ages of 35 and 55 that might be going through the motions and struggling a little bit but they’re not in need of really drastic interventional help”.  

This year he also became Banyule Cricket Club’s Player Welfare Officer, acting as counsel for a club that had experienced a mental health-related tragedy three years earlier, as part of a focused initiative to prevent mental illness festering amongst its players.

“The amount of people that approached me quietly and wanted to talk was the most important thing. Probably seven or eight people approached me over the 6-month period and some of them I’m still talking with now and checking in with during the off-season.”

“Obviously having me there and knowing that was my role helped a lot of people out.”

If you or someone you know is currently struggling with a mental illness, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or seek help online at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/get-immediate-support