ACNC Registered Charity

Insight: Mental Health in Professional Sport

As I write this I am stuck in traffic on the way to Sydney Airport before flying to Melbourne to play a big game during the festive period.
Late last year Terry from Mr. Perfect reached out and asked me to be an Ambassador for their cause. It is a huge honour to be part of this movement for men that allows them to seek non-clinical support should they be suffering from mental illness or they have been affected by a friend or family member’s illness or they just want to understand mental health more.
Recently I noticed ex-team mates and other professional footballers writing blogs about mental health so it inspired me to try my own. Be kind as I have not written anything close to this since I left school!
I always remember a wise professional telling me that being a footballer was just like being on a roller coaster. This simple comment stuck with me since that day.
Your football life is constantly going up and down, sometimes reaching such low depths one week before rising to great heights, both emotionally and physically.
Having played more than 18 years and over 500+ professional games, not to mention the 100’s of trials and friendlies, the outcome for me was always the same. Despite being no points at stake or stadiums full of fans in the “friendlies”, I hated losing.
But quickly I realised it is how we react to these situations and learn from them that makes us better players. It gives us the experience and ability to deal with them in future and find the right balance.
I truly believe being a professional athlete and sustaining a career needs both physical and mental training and finding that “perfect” balance. More often than not those that cannot find the balance are the ones that slip away and stay professional for a short period.
These athletes are often the most talented but mentally they cannot cope with the demands and pressure heaped onto them weekly and arguably daily in the current game.
Confidence and belief are two mental assets that many players struggle to maintain. Those that can find these strengths and retain them are the first on the manager’s team sheet as they can rely on them in any situation.
On the flip side those with the world on their shoulders can spiral quickly and suffer depression, that of course often goes undiagnosed in football.
Personally I experience this regularly, I feel sorry for myself and believe I have let people down, despite the reality of my performance. But thankfully I am good at telling myself I am human, and these short periods of darkness end. The next game comes up so quickly that I know I have to mentally prepare from scratch all over again and dig deep for that confidence and belief. One special player will never make a team, but if you look hard enough beyond the most entertaining players you will find the heroes that go unnoticed.
This serves as a clear metaphor for everyday life and the people that make real change in the world are barely recognised. And that is absolutely fine with them as their focus is doing the right thing and a job well done.
For all the special players that “make it”, the disappointment and failures dwarf these in the cut-throat business of football.
I believe the game has lost so many good players for one key reason. No matter the incredible sums of money in football, there are minuscule support organisations for young players that are from a variety of challenging backgrounds.
Where are the “Life Coaches” or “Mental Health Coaches” or organisations that support these youngsters? Of course a player may be stigmatised as “weak”, admittedly by some other players and coaches. I hold my hands up and say I likely would have thought the same, such was the old school mentality.
The same player that is struggling, with the right help could become a huge asset for your team. The dilemma for clubs being that success is the result of your last game and with limited time coaches have to make rash decisions in search of the winning formula.
My own background is working-class, both parents worked long days just to get by day to day and to give my brother and I a safe, loving environment. I grew up in Leeds in the UK, which compared to some cities is a good place to live, but like all cities had notorious areas known for crime and hardship.
Walking to school was an experience. Every day I watched pupils smoking and sniffing glue and many times turning up in stolen cars and parking them nearby. Other pupils thought this was cool.
I spent most break times and after school playing street football into the dark under street-lights with the bigger kids or on a field near our house. Regularly a group of kids approached us and tried to jump on our bikes and grab our belongings.
We peddled off like Lance Armstrong, avoiding a beating that was the usual result for some friends. It may have not been an idyllic upbringing but it helped me become mentally strong and fight hard for my achievements.
Without generalising too much, the kids from comfortable backgrounds did not always have that fire in their belly. Perhaps an offical study would show this, but for example, a nation like Brazil has spawned countless superstars that began life kicking a ball of rags around their slums and favelas or on the beach.
Our generation knew no different from playing football on the streets and staying out all day until dark, with no instant communication available for parents to reach us. Thinking out loud perhaps “Street Soccer” initiatives in a safe environment are a good way to teach our youngsters the game and maybe it will increase resilience, physically and mentally.
Another former coach told me, “Listen son, if you want it hard enough you will get it, just don't ever give up". Obstacles came in the way of glandular fever, meningitis, broken bones and dislocations, but those words drove me on.
Perhaps we do not pass enough wisdom and encouragement to the young generation of players currently. Are we too selfish generally and concerned about ourselves rather than mentoring those that need it? This may account for why some incredibly talented youngsters give up when they are not in the starting eleven and just do not realise the opportunity they have in front of them.
Every time I was left out of the team I was upset and angry. But it fuelled my determination to get back into the team.
So what do you go through mentally when you have overcome these obstacles and establish a career? Routine becomes your gospel. Schedule, schedule, schedule. Specific times for everything, travelling to training, clothing, eating, meetings, physio treatment. From the time you wake to the time you get home.
Then when you are home all you consider is what you are eating, how it will affect your training performance the next day and should you be walking around consuming energy?
At 35 years old nothing has changed. I am the same being as I was at 17. One slight mess-up or shift in routine and anxiety creeps in. Luckily my wife and my parents anchor me. They understand me better than me.
My wife guides me out of my “mini-depressions” and grounds me. She reminds me what is going on in reality and it just a game. This can be challenging as to me it is all I know. It is the game that has been my life every day for 19 years since I dreamed of becoming a professional footballer.
Not all partners can cope with the demands and challenges of this life. I have seen many have to part ways with footballers. And if they have survived the career, once they retire their depression at being “finished” can cause their relationships to deteriorate. Instantly the routine stops and they are no longer the “footballer”. They are lost and have no idea what is next.
I believe this is the single biggest trigger for depression in football and the wider world of professional sport. You only have to read the stories that are surfacing now more than ever to see and understand that it is a colossal problem that can no longer be ignored and made light of.
It has been misdiagnosed for fear of embarrassment in the public eye. I have seen this devastation in former teammates but there is hope. It is great to see the PFA (Professional Footballers Association) in England and here in Australia offering help and support in private for players. This will surely save lives in future.
On top of these pressures we have the impact of the “dreaded social media”. We cannot live without it. Generally I have not used social media extensively except for Instagram. Over the last couple of years it has been great to share photos, memories and some insight into my life that I tend to keep mostly to myself.
The challenge for social media is “cyber bullying” and abuse. I try so hard not to look at comments from the public about my teammates or I. I also try (in vain most of the time) to encourage the young lads not to read it. But it is virtually impossible as they are tagged by people they have never met that sit behind the screen bullying people.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion but the effect mentally on players is massive and I have been witness to it. One of my ex-team mates, Curtis Woodhouse, once took matters into his own hands. I joined Sheffield united at 16 years old and at 18 Curtis broke into the first team and was an inspiration for me.
Not only did he come from a poor background but he did not care for money or fame and got himself in trouble for this many times! After moving to Birmingham City for over £1 million (which now would be £10 million) he decided he no longer wanted to be a footballer. He always had a dream of being a boxer.
Everyone thought he was crazy and he give up a great wage and was ridiculed by everyone. Not only did he prove them all wrong and win a British title he won the respect of the sporting world and of those that laughed at him. Now that is mental strength!
At the same time he was getting smashed online by a certain “keyboard warrior” that was saying nasty things about his dad who had passed away. After another follower of Curtis had seen this horrible abuse he sent a private message to Curtis to let him know who this person was and where he lived.
Curtis then drove to his house and replied to him saying, "I'm outside your house". Suffice to say the culprit was shocked, apologised and hopefully never attempted the same tactics again.
Being in the public eye is part and parcel of being “famous” and a sportsman so it comes hand in hand but compared to 20 years ago there are so many more avenues for this form of bullying. Again I advise any young players (and people in general) in the public eye to try and avoid these things or be prepared not to take it personally. Far easier said than done.
This small insight into my life and career hopefully shows partly why I became an Ambassador for Mr. Perfect. I believe I have a year or two left in me at least but when the curtain finally closes I will give back just as much as I have earned from the game and help those that struggle.
I am currently doing my coaching badges and no doubt if I became involved at football at that level my experiences will help me make sure players do not feel embarrassed to reach out for help when anxiety or self-doubt creeps in, before it becomes devastating. The work Mr. Perfect is doing on a wider scale will only be a positive for these skills.
Along with Terry from Mr. Perfect we are planning some events soon to keep pushing the movement forward and helping every man that needs it. I know I could have used their support when my twin girls were born premature, an event that made football irrelevant for the very first time.
Ultimately the outsider perspective of male athletes is a life of perfection. But I speak honestly and openly when I say we are all human. No matter who you are please reach out when needed. There are some excellent clinical and non-clinical support services (such as Mr. Perfect) out there where you will never be judged.

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