All in the mind: Mackin seeks a second chance
Axed by Western Australia, fast bowler Simon Mackin reflects on how he overcame the yips, his new passion outside of cricket and why he wants to restart his career in Victoria
Simon Mackin is sitting in his car outside the changerooms at the WACA Ground, motionless in the front seat, terrified to step outside.
It's the morning of his first game of cricket in seven months, and the unease that had slowly been building over the past few days had suddenly surged through him as he drove through the gates.
He grabs his phone to distract himself, scrolling mindlessly through social media until he comes across a preview of the match that's due to start in a matter of hours. It snaps him back to reality, the anxiety returns, and his stomach drops again.
He knows he can't stay in the safety of his car forever. After five minutes of delaying, he takes a deep breath, opens the door and prepares to face his demons.
He walks to the middle of the ground, where he's greeted by his coach and former captain, Adam Voges, who asks if he's ready for his comeback game.
It's a question Mackin feels can have only one correct answer, so he looks his coach straight in the eye, and he lies.
Yep, let's do it. I'm ready.
"It's just a prime example of actually just putting your hand up and saying, 'No, I'm not ready to go yet'," Mackin, now 27, says almost two years later.
"It becomes an innate behaviour. Someone comes up to you and you're having a really tough time and they'll say, 'How you going, mate?'. Inside, you just want to let everything out and get everything off your chest, but you just go, 'Yeah, not bad, how are you?'.
"I was really good at that. That's probably one of my greatest strengths, being able to put on a pretty brave face.
"And that was probably my undoing in the end."
February 2018. Mackin stands in the middle of the pitch as the ball races away towards the boundary at fine leg. He doesn't even watch it reach its destination, instead turning and looking towards his teammates on the off side, almost pleading for answers.
He grimaces, wipes his brow with the back of his right hand and begins the slow walk back to his bowling mark with his head down, his shoulders slumped, and his mind racing.
He has no idea what's happening to him
Just two weeks earlier, he'd taken 6-43 in a match-winning performance against NSW, securing his 50th wicket from his past 11 first-class games. The previous summer, he'd taken a five-wicket haul in four consecutive innings, a feat bettered only twice in the Sheffield Shield's 127-year history.
More than two metres tall, he'd been spoken about in Western Australia as the next Jo Angel, and his relentless line and length had earned him comparisons to Glenn McGrath and Curtly Ambrose.
But partway through the opening day of Western Australia's match against Victoria at the WACA Ground, it all started to go wrong.
His run-up felt unbalanced, his wrist would weaken at the point of release, and his thoughts started to scramble.
Some of his deliveries barely touched the cut surface on their way past the perplexed Victorian batsmen, with WA wicketkeeper Josh Inglis forced to launch himself in front of the slips or way down the leg side just to collect the ball.
The rhythm that had come so easily to Mackin over the previous two seasons, which had allowed him to unfurl his imposing frame and bowl with such pinpoint accuracy, had suddenly abandoned him.
"I still struggle to explain what happened," he says. "It was a case of almost embarrassment … I couldn't believe what was happening.
"At that stage of my career, I was in a real rhythm with cricket. It was almost a case of rocking up and you know what you're going to provide. It's either going to be a case of getting wickets, or at worst you'll still bowl well, have a reasonable day and do a job for the team. And I had that innate self-belief that I'd built up over the years.
"And then I just lost my radar."
Having conceded 18 wides in Victoria's first innings, things came to a head early on the third morning; bowling to nightwatchman Peter Siddle, Mackin started with another wide and bowled two more – including one that ended up at the fine-leg boundary – before the over was out.
His captain Ashton Turner, Mackin's close friend who was in just his second game as WA skipper, had no choice. With the match on the line, he simply couldn't let his mate bowl again.
"It's probably the loneliest place I've ever been," Mackin recalls.
"I was standing down at fine leg – I'll never forget it – and I was almost in the mindset of, 'this would be so much easier if I just tore a hammy and I could go and sit in the changerooms, have a kip and forget about everything'.
"I don't know what the worst dropped catch possible is, but it feels like that times a thousand. It's so embarrassing and you feel like you've let your teammates down.
"And the hardest part about it was there was no explanation. I couldn't explain why it was going on, therefore it was this constant circle in my head of embarrassment, pretty big bouts of anxiety, and other emotions that I'd never felt before.
"It was a horrendous feeling. It's something I've definitely come to terms with now years on, and I've certainly accepted it for what it is and found a way to move on. But it's an incredibly lonely place."
The remaining few weeks of the season were the hardest of Mackin's career. With their pace stocks hit hard by injury, WA had little choice but to persevere with him in their side, despite his confidence being at an all-time low. He played on, a shadow of his former self, as he attempted desperately to get to the bottom of what had gone so wrong.
He spoke to multiple bowling coaches, met with sports psychologists, and analysed footage of his bowling action over and over again.
"I was bowling really well at the time and it was just one of those things that popped out of the blue," he says. "My coaches didn't know what to do, I didn't know what to do, no-one knew what to do.
"I probably spoke to too many people. I was so keen to find an answer, so I was asking everyone. And when you ask everyone, you get a thousand different ideas.
"Essentially there was nothing wrong with my action. Watching the footage with my bowling coach at the time, we both agreed that everything looked pretty good. I was just losing it with my wrist.
"But from there it became such a mental thing: It's happened before, could it happen again? So the self-doubt creeps in.
"On reflection, you wish you could just accept those things really quickly and move on to the next. I probably didn't accept it quickly enough and as a result, I didn't get back to bowling at my peak."
To this day, Mackin can't explain what happened to him that afternoon, and why. The concept of the 'yips' in sport has confounded psychologists and crippled athletes for decades, with deeper analysis often only serving to further paralyse its victims.
"Whatever leads to that is almost irrelevant," Mackin says. "Once it becomes the mental game, it becomes a thousand times more challenging. If it's something physical, you can manage it and get through it. Once it's above the shoulders, that's a whole different ball game."
The end of that 2017-18 season brought a wave of relief, an escape from a horror few weeks, and the promise of a fresh start the following summer.
The painful post-mortem continued through the winter, but his outward sense of bravado – his greatest strength – was enough to mask his inner demons.
Having trained strongly in the pre-season, he essentially bluffed his way into being selected for the opening game of the next Shield summer. Which just happened to be against Victoria at the WACA Ground, where it had all gone wrong before.
That was why he was sitting in his car that morning, frozen to the spot, unable to move, petrified of what was going to happen when he opened that car door.
"It was almost PTSD," he says. "I had all these demons coming back into my head. It just hit me, and I'd never experienced anything like it before.
"It probably wasn't a panic attack – it wasn't to that level – but it was an overwhelming anxiety that 'I've been here before' and everything was just coming back to me.
"I didn't have the capability to take a breath, accept things and have the ability to get back out there and believe in myself.
"It's a horrendous place to be … and I just couldn't handle it."
Having assured Voges and his teammates he was ready to play, Mackin's demons were there for all to see as he leaked runs at more than six an over, his already shattered confidence taking another very public beating.
He was dropped from the senior side for the next game, failed to make much of an impact in second XI cricket, and started to lose his way. He partied too hard, drank too much, and trained too little.
"I handled it really, really poorly and it's something I've got to own and something I've got to live with," he says.
"(It) was a really hard pill to swallow, purely because you've had so much success at the level and you know you can do it, you're just not able to.
"I couldn't find the answers and it became a sense of frustration. I probably didn't handle it the best from an off-field perspective. I started losing motivation, I started doing things off field that weren't helping me. I just stopped trying to become the best player I could and stopped trying to develop.
"But that's the great thing about hindsight; I can look back and say, 'You didn't handle that the best, you didn't fight through it, you didn't work your way to get out of it, you probably took the easy option on occasions'.
"Now the challenge for me is to not take that easy option anymore and push myself to get back to where I want to get to.
"At the end of the day, shit happens, that's how the cards have fallen and now it's about rebuilding and accepting that for what it was."
Each day, Mackin leaves his new home in Melbourne's inner suburbs, a scarf wrapped around his face, a bag of cricket balls in his hand.
He makes the short journey to the public nets at the nearby Albert Park, where he spends an hour working on his craft as scores of dog walkers and joggers sail past.
This is how a fast bowler trains in Melbourne in 2020; while professional sporting organisations like Victoria's men's and women's cricket teams have an exemption to train during the city's Stage 4 lockdown, Mackin is technically not a professional athlete, at least not right now.
Restricted to one hour of outdoor exercise each day, he spends it here; bowling in an empty net at a block of wood that he's propped up at stump height, aiming at a splash of graffiti on the back wall, just outside where the top of off stump would be.
"It's quite a humbling experience," he says. "You go from training in state-of-the-art facilities for nine or 10 years and now I'm running in down at the park and I've got to stop every third ball to let a dog walk past or something like that.
"But I'm actually really enjoying it. I'm really motived at the moment.
"The great thing about not being on contract is as a player, you're now accountable for everything going forward. It's up to me as to what I do with my cricketing career now.
"You don't have the resources to make you a better player, so it basically comes down to how much you want it and how much you want to get back in the system."
It's a measure of how strongly Mackin desires a second chance at professional cricket that throughout a Melbourne winter like no other, he's never once considered moving home to the relative freedom of Western Australia.
He could be back on his family's sheep and wheat farm two hours outside of Perth, surrounded by loved ones, where it's legal to stray more than five kilometres from his house and for more than an hour at a time.
But he's so determined to make this work that he's chosen life in lockdown, despite not holding a contract to play for his adopted state this season, and no promise that he'll get one.
"I've been really headstrong that I want to make this move work and I'm really clear about that," he says.
"And I've made that really clear to Victoria as well, that I really want to contribute to them and be a big part of their team in the upcoming season.
"I think I've got the capability to be a really strong Sheffield Shield performer. I know at my best what I'm capable of doing so that still gives me that innate desire and self-belief to get back to that stage.
"I've touched base with Cricket Victoria and essentially there's no guarantees and no promises. But if I'm performing well in club cricket, then I'll be given every opportunity."
Having played just three Shield games in the past two seasons, it came as no surprise when Mackin was let go by Western Australia in April. He concedes the sting of rejection, as expected as it was, left him pondering if life as a professional cricketer was worth it. But at the age of 27 and with more than 100 first-class wickets to his name, he firmly believes he has more to give.
Seeking a fresh start, he decided on Melbourne because of their strong club competition and the chance to move out of his comfort zone and meet new people away from cricket.
While the pandemic's second wave in his new home city has largely put paid to the second part of that plan, he's signed on with Premier Cricket side Melbourne University, which he hopes will act as a springboard back into the state system.
But more than the wickets Mackin has taken in the good times, it's the lessons he's learned in the bad that give him the belief he can be a force once again.
His soul-searching over the past two years has opened him up to the world of mindfulness and the concept that good mental health is just as important – perhaps even more so – than physical well-being.
It's become his new passion; he meditates three times a day and practices yoga, while he's also completing a university degree he hopes will eventually lead to a career in player welfare.
"I'd never really given the mental side of the game too much thought," he says. "Which in hindsight, they say prevention is better than a cure so if I'd had that (in WA), maybe I would have handled things better.
"But once I did get that insight, it opened my mind up to a whole different world and the mental side of the game.
"Now it's something that's huge in my life. I practice mindfulness daily; I do so many things in regards to practising gratitude and resilience … things that I essentially wouldn't have done if things hadn't gone the way they have. I've found it so helpful not only in cricket, but in everything. Your mind is clearer, you feel fresher, you feel healthier."
It's a lesson he wants others to learn from, too. In the past few months, he's teamed up with his former WA teammates Ashton Turner and Cameron Bancroft to launch Gritfull, a mindfulness program aimed at teaching young people the benefits of strong mental health, and how to achieve it.
They launched their first wellness program earlier this month at Willeton Cricket Club, where Mackin used to play, and have already lined up another 15 sessions at junior clubs across Perth.
“Through the inspiration of stories and the power of lived experience, we challenge ourselves to have a positive impact on the wellbeing of others.” - Gritfull Cameron Bancroft, Ashton Turner and Simon Mackin have been cricket teammates for over 10 years. They share a bond, that special bond that playing sport with friends creates. They share more than this however, they share a passion for mental heath and wellbeing and this has led to the conception of Gritfull. Gritfull consists of programs designed solely by Cameron, Ashton and Simon with the aim of boosting self awareness, managing stress and anxiety and ultimately performing at your peak. Built on scientifically based evidence, Gritfull’s Wellbeing Program’s use positive psychology, self determination and solution focused coaching techniques that not only allow you to grow but inevitably flourish! Gratitude, Resilience, Integrity and Togetherness. These are the GRIT values. The foundation of Gritfull. Become a part of the Gritfull family today! To find out more get in touch via Instagram, Facebook or e-mail: email@example.com 💜💜💜💜 A post shared by GRITFULL (@gritfull) on
Mackin concedes the trio are not experts and have no idea where the program will take them. But given they've collectively been through an attack of the yips (Mackin), four shoulder reconstructions (Turner) and the shame of a ball-tampering scandal (Bancroft), they have real-life experience to draw from.
"We want to give back to junior sport … and continue to spread the message," he says.
"We really want these kids to connect to the program and open their eyes up to a few things outside of just hitting a thousand balls and bowling yourself into the ground.
"I just know that being open about how to manage your stress and anxiety as a young person – or an older person, for that matter – has so much benefit. There are answers, there are ways to help and there are ways to feel better if you are feeling stressed or anxious."
While losing his contract has seen him start to ponder life after cricket, Mackin's main focus remains getting back to the top of the Sheffield Shield. He feels rejuvenated, both in body and mind, and firmly believes his darkest days are behind them.
And if he finds himself in that position again, where his coach asks him if he's ready to go and he's not, would he be honest enough to put up his hand and tell the truth?
"I think I've put myself into a position where it's not a matter of yes or no anymore," he says.
"I've accepted things and I've put things in place where, ideally, I won't be in that position again and I won't feel like that again. It's (about having) confidence in your ability to perform at the elite level from a physical, mental and emotional perspective.
"I don't look back on (the past two years) fondly, but I learnt about myself and the management of those sort of things in that period. And I know now if I was in that situation again, I could handle it a thousand times better.
"I probably needed to go through that and have those real low points in order to get back to where I want to get to."