Phillip Hughes death: world of cricket comes to terms with tragic loss

The Australian cricket team is mourning the death of Phillip Hughes. EPA

The cricket world has been rocked by the tragic death of 25-year-old Phillip Hughes who lost his life two days after being struck on the back of the head by a cricket ball during a match in Sydney.

In a heart-warming tribute, several Australian cricketers gathered at the Sydney Cricket ground where the incident took place following the news of this death. This act not only showed respect for Hughes, but it also showed great solidarity amongst the cricketers. Such solidarity will be important as Hughes’ teammates and the wider cricketing community come to terms with his death.

Sean Abbott, a friend of Hughes, who bowled the ball that ultimately caused Hughes’ death will particularly need the support of his fellow cricketers. Abbott did nothing wrong – he bowled a perfectly legal ball, but he will still probably experience feelings that could affect his future in the game. Thankfully, the cricketing world has shown united support for Abbott. For example, former Australian captain Mark Taylor stated: “I hope Sean Abbott can forgive himself because the cricket community doesn’t blame him at all” – a sentiment that is shared throughout the world of cricket.

Grieving for teammates

The death of a teammate can be deeply difficult for sports people to deal with. Teammates share a great bond. They spend a lot of time together, have shared goals and aspirations, share challenging times, and often develop strong friendships. The loss of a teammate, particularly in such tragic circumstances, will be hard for Hughes’ fellow cricketers to come to terms with.

Previous research by Keith Henschen and John Heil that examined the impact of the death of a teammate on sports performers found that players experienced feelings of shock and disbelief in the immediate aftermath following a teammate’s death, and experienced continued deep negative emotions such as depression as time progressed. Due to the close bond between teammates the death of a teammate can be more akin to that of a family member than to that of a colleague.

The emotions experienced by the sports people in this research link to grief response models which suggest that people progress through a series of stages as part of the grief process. In Kubler-Ross’ well-known grief model from 1969. These stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Obviously grief is not a simple process and there are individual differences in the way that people experience grief, but this offers a framework of typical responses. To help people cope with the grief of losing a friend or teammate and progress through these stages it is important that they receive support, and it is pleasing to hear that Abbott is receiving that from a counsellor.

Risk of more injuries

Hughes’ death will have an impact not only on his teammates, but on the cricket world as a whole. An incident like this makes players realise that they are not invincible and can cause a reality check that can lead to more cautious play. For example, bowlers the world over might think about the potential consequences of their ball before bowling as a direct consequence of this incident and be in fear of causing harm to another player.

Batters too may be more fearful of getting hurt. Fear of injury and death are not conducive to good performance and in fact caution can actually cause more injury. In Henschen and Heil’s study, an interesting finding was that injury rates were higher in the two weeks following a teammate’s death than at any other point during the season.

Sport psychologists and other professionals are crucial at this time to help players cope not only with the grief of losing a member of their fold, but also with the impact this can have on their play and performance. The loss of such a young and talented player is truly tragic and will have an impact on cricketers everywhere. Let’s hope that the legacy of camaraderie and team spirit he left behind him will help his fellow players deal with the loss.