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18 Sep 2023

Nick Compton’s Journey: Cricket, Creativity, and Mental Health

Meet Nick Compton, ex-England cricket player and a multifaceted individual with a captivating life journey. Born and raised between South Africa and England, his upbringing was steeped in nature, sports, and a famous sporting heritage thanks to his legendary grandfather, Denis Compton. As a young and ambitious athlete, Nick pursued cricket as his vehicle to success. However, beneath his confident exterior, he grappled with anxiety and mental health challenges from an early age. Nick’s life has been a tapestry of sports, art, and introspection, leading him to explore photography and publish an autobiography called “Legacy.” In this Spotlight interview for SANE, Nick candidly shares his experiences, offering insights into the complexities of mental health in high-achieving individuals and his ongoing journey towards self-discovery and helping others.

Photo: Philip Brown 

For those who might not be familiar, could you give us an introduction to who is Nick Compton? 

Nick: Well, I suppose I could start by saying that I grew up in South Africa to parents who were both very journalistic by profession. My dad was a wildlife TV presenter, working in nature conservation. I was open very early to being in nature and to what South Africa has to offer in terms of wildlife. We are truly fortunate to have grown up in South Africa.  

I grew up in Durban, which is on the coast, so I had a very sporty background. There wasn’t any spare second I wasn’t playing sports, whether it would be rugby, cricket, tennis, hockey, athletics. I was very sport-focused and incredibly lucky to grow up in that sort of environment. Good weather, sports-mad country. That was my upbringing.  

And on the backdrop of that, I had a very famous heritage. My grandfather, Denis Compton, played cricket for England, football for England, and football for Arsenal. He was a legend, a sort of “David Beckham” of his era if you want to look at it that way because he was one of the first sportsmen to be on billboards and have sponsorships back then. 

But aside from that, I was a young sportsman and, as I said, in a sport-driven country like South Africa. Watching sport all the time and wanting to play sports in my own right. I wanted to be a famous athlete one day and cricket became that vehicle since it was probably the sport I was the best at.  

I met Grandad a few times when I went over to England and my eyes were opened as I started to become more aware of his achievements—walking around Lord’s Cricket Ground where there is a stand named after him, same as my surname. That is when the dreams started to feel closer and closer.  

So, I would describe myself as a young guy who was very ambitious, with a huge dream, and a goal to do something special. 

Because of my background, I had the opportunity to go to a renowned school and play for Middlesex. It was then that I quickly felt the pressure ramping up because you want to succeed, and you want to do well. The path was clear: You play for the county, then you play for England and then you want to be successful. And I was not going to stop at any cost. 

Following that, when did you first understand that you were dealing with mental health? 

Nick: I think I realised I had some issues at a very young age. For me, it was perhaps anxiety at first. I had problems as a young kid, which were very clear and evident when it came to separation. Separating from family, going to boarding schools, going away to friends’ places for the weekend, etc. It all manifested in different forms but through real, paralysing anxiety. Sometimes crippling anxiety where I just couldn’t move, and I would often be curled up in the corner of a bedroom.  

Mental health can come in different forms and you can build up over time. From my own research and understanding, there is not just one type of ‘mental health’ and that is important to know.  

I remember getting ready to go to boarding school at the age of 12 and the fear that was running through my body. During that period, the anxiety was so intense that I had to delay a year of school to stay home because I just couldn’t do it. 

Looking back, those were some of the worst times of my life when my whole body would just shut down and go into fight or flight mode. If you think about it logically, it doesn’t always make sense. Going to school or going to a friend’s house was not necessarily a strong reason for this kind of anxiety. But I never really got down to the bottom of it.  

When did you reach for help? 

Nick: I got sent to psychiatrists, psychologists, and to a sort of a psychiatric ward when I was 12, 13 years old because I left boarding school and was going through a real panicked state.  

I think that was the first realisation that I had of this gripping anxiety, which I don’t think was ever dealt with properly because before long, you just go back home and then the pain goes away. 

But then equally it caused a lot of damage because I left a really good school and a place that was good for me and that was very tough to endure.

I got put on antidepressants at a very young age, probably far too young, instread of dealing with these problems properly.

So, for me, that was probably the first time I realised I had these so-called “problems”.  

But then equally, a week later, I was on the field winning all the athletic competitions and people would see a confident, young, talented athlete who could speak and express himself well enough. The fact that I’ve also got this other personality that is ambitious, and goal-orientated and wants to go places in his life. That has been the real dichotomy for me.  

Being ambitious, wanting to play in international sports, and getting a scholarship to go overseas was part of my “emotional make-up” that made me push the bar to the end of the spectrum and that is why I found it so hard and so difficult to manage throughout.  

I think part of what made it hard and confusing is that I have quite a creative mind, and I find it hard to compartmentalise. I found it difficult to simplify things and focus on only one thing.  

I think playing cricket often quiets the mind because it requires such intense focus. And that’s when I was good. 

Speaking of being creative, how do you feel photography and art have played a role in your mental health? 

Nick: I think it’s an outlet in terms of my passions, which are very art-driven. My mum is an artist. Her sisters are all artists. Art was my favourite subject at school and probably if I hadn’t gone and played elite sports I would have gone to art school. Painting has always made me happy. I get lost in that immersive process.  

Photography has also given me an extension of that. A chance to document my travels and get really creative with people or wildlife. It gives me a sense of real freedom.  

There’s also an ambition to get that photo and to make it happen. I like the feeling of trying to capture that one shot and that one moment. It takes all my worries away. 

When I’m behind the camera I’m immersed in the wild or a landscape or somewhere where all the thoughts go out of your head and it’s just you and your vision. It’s a moment where the mind quiets and you get a sense of clarity. I’m just enthralled by what is in front of me.

Photo: Nick Compton 

Photo: Nick Compton 

Photo: Nick Compton 

Your portrait photography is quite evocative. What’s the process behind and how do you connect with your subjects? 

Nick: I think my dad was the one who taught me very early on to try and make people feel as comfortable as they can in front of the camera. He was always trying to teach me how to relax, how to get others to relax, and how to feel calm and natural. I think that’s where good portraiture comes from. Being able to take photos and capture the moment or the emotion is where the talent and where the skill lies.  

Being behind the camera is nice because there are no rules. I can photograph whatever I want, wherever I want, however I want.

That’s what I love about photography. It’s an escapism. It’s a creative outlet that has no boundaries.

I think it’s the lack of conformity that makes me feel alive. I think modern-day life and even sports, in many ways, are governed by politics and hierarchy surrounded by people who might not necessarily have the highest regard for you. But no one can tell me how to take a photo or where to take it. It’s my eye, my instincts, and my creative nature. It’s all about having a good go. 

And I think life is very much about that, “having a go”. You might get it wrong occasionally, but if you don’t go for it, you will never get it right. I’d rather take 1000 shots and miss 999 but get that great one.  

Photo: Nick Compton 

Photo: Nick Compton 

You recently released your first book “Legacy”.  An autobiography that explores your sporting ancestry, the price that comes with greatness in any field, and the pressures of being a key member of an England team alongside such greats as Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen and Ben Stokes.  

Is there something new that you discovered about yourself while writing this book?  

Nick: I’ve spent a lot of time being quite introspective and my character is quite open and honest. Plus, I’ve worked with psychologists before, so I think a lot of the conversations that I had come out in the book are something that I’ve done and thought about before. But it did make me realise things like the need to try and be kinder to myself because I’ve gone through a lot. 

Trying to understand the magnitude of what it is I was trying to achieve and try and be more grateful and appreciative of what I actually have achieved. I think those are probably the main lessons that I’ve got from doing the book and it’s not been easy to do because I set myself high standards. There’s a lot of things that I thought I should have achieved by now, but over time, I’m trying to be more grateful for what I have achieved rather than what I didn’t. 

Legacy – My Autobiography by Nick Compton 

Do you feel it has helped to share your experiences, and what have you learnt from doing that? 

Nick: I think it was definitely a good process to go through because I genuinely feel that I can help others who are struggling and have their own difficulties. I feel that I’m able to speak to people in a way that normalises some of these feelings and some of these issues. 

Originally I thought, “Well, I don’t know who’s going to be interested in my book”, but hopefully for those people who do read it, it will make them realise that whatever issues they’ve got, it’s OK. 

Do you feel like cricket is particularly hard on someone dealing with mental health? Or is it maybe a sports-wide issue? 

Nick: I don’t think it’s the sport that one should blame. It’s about building resilience and developing yourself well enough so that you can manage what is in front of you. 

I think life in general is challenging. Whether it is top-level sport or top-level business, everyone has their challenges relative to what it is they want to do with their lives.  

I think there is a great distance to go in terms of how we can better manage people who do have mental health issues, and who are also high achievers. There is a high number of people who have unfortunately taken their own lives or have had a lot of mental health issues that have been very high achievers in this world.  

My message to everyone is that people who may seem difficult or complex or may be construed differently to the norm, or what we perceive as the norm, they are worth investing in and making the time and effort.

I think the struggle I had in professional sport was mainly because I felt quite misunderstood a lot of the time and that was very difficult to manage personally, particularly at a higher level. 

Photo: Philip Brown 

Just because I came across a certain way or may have been perceived a certain way it wasn’t necessarily the truth and also didn’t necessarily mean that I couldn’t produce the right outcomes or be advantageous to the team. 

Sport is a wonderful platform to showcase your talents and abilities. I have been incredibly lucky to have played a sport that has given me so much. I obviously hold some deep disappointments like, perhaps, not finishing my career or going the distance I would have liked to have gone. And I do think that my mental health did hold me back from greater heights. 

That was a tough pill to swallow because I knew what I was like at my best. And when you are not at your best, it’s not easy when you are a competitive guy. 

Photo: Nick Compton 

How do you manage your mental health today and do you have any tips for others? 

Nick: I think it’s an ongoing battle. Just because I have written a book does not mean I am the finished article and I don’t know if I ever will be.  

I focus very hard on my nutrition, keeping fit and healthy. I have been lucky to have some good people that I can talk to. Being busy and finding a purpose that I can stick to. It’s a work in progress. 

I was incredibly focused and driven when leaving the professional sporting world and I’ve battled to find that next focus and drive. 

Going from nought to 100 has been a challenge, so I am trying to just take smaller steps and try to simplify my life. I think simplicity is very important, but as a guy who has a lot of ambitions, that can also be very difficult. So, it’s important that I’m around good people and that I am keeping physically and mentally healthy. 

And as I said, the real world is a challenge and trying to find a new place in a different world is and will be a continual struggle. 

Photo: Shahrose Khan 

Finally, following that last question. What does the future hold for you? 

Nick: Well, I love to travel. I love coming back to South Africa where my family are. I’ll never want that to stop. Meeting new people, photographing new things, and allowing my creative juices to take me to new places. I think if I stopped that I would not be living my true life. 

I also want to take my photography to another level. I would like as many people as possible to enjoy my work and feel the emotion and passion that I have for the subjects, the places, and the people that I have managed to photograph. Trying to push that and help connect people in a charitable way.  

I have spent a lot of time going to countries where I can help people who are less fortunate and use the vehicle of sports, my understanding of mental health, and of course, photography to try and evoke some change, but also to create more awareness behind what a great platform photography and sport can be

Hopefully, I can continue to do that, as well as find a way to make a living that allows me to continue my passions.

To learn more about Nick Compton visit: 

Nick Compton Photography  

Legacy – My Autobiography by Nick Compton 

SANE Creative Awards Scheme

Our Creative Awards Scheme applications are open. Apply before the 31st of October 2023 

The SANE Creative Awards Scheme aims to improve the quality of life for people with mental health problems, their families, and carers, by helping them to fulfil their creative potential. Applications are judged on their artistic merit, clarity of aim and financial need. 

More information:  

  • Thank you for this wonderful article. I am impressed

    Petra Romano - 04 Nov 2023, 1:45pm

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