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While footballers discussing mental health is more common than it used to be, there is still a chronic lack of support and understanding within the sport. Given the progress made in other areas of the game, why does mental health care for players lag behind?
“There is a lot of desperation in football – that’s football in a nutshell,” says author and journalist Michael Calvin. “So much of it is wrapped up in the quiet despair of someone who fears they are never going to be quite good enough.”
In Calvin’s 2018 book, State of Play: Under the Skin of the Modern Game, there is a section dedicated to mental health. “Professional football breeds emotionally stunted people,” says Calvin. “Because men are taught to operate a certain way in that world that puts huge stresses on them and any perception of sensitivity is distorted as weakness.”
And yet a number of footballers are now speaking publicly about the mental health problems that they have suffered during their careers. Danny Rose, Aaron Lennon, Anthony Knockaert, Chris Kirkland and others have openly discussed subjects including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and addiction.
Most, if not all, professional clubs employ sports psychologists today, but that doesn’t deal with the crux of the issue – it’s more cure than prevention. Thankfully, when players are brave enough to talk they are generally applauded and supported for doing so, something that has not always been the case.
You only have to look at Paul Gascoigne, a generational talent and arguably England’s most gifted footballer ever, but someone who struggled with personal demons throughout his career and since. Despite the adoration he received from fans, his employers and those around him were either oblivious to – or, worse, in denial of – the fact that he required professional care.
In Gazza in Italy (2018), Daniel Storey writes: “His [Gascoigne’s] problems were confounded by football’s lack of a support network in the early 1990s. Depression is not a modern illness, but the recognition of it is restricted to the modern day. To reveal your mental illness in the testosterone-charged world of a Division One or Serie A dressing room would have been a concession of admission of weakness, not strength.”
For every Gazza, there is a multitude of jobbing professional footballers who will never reach the game’s upper echelons but nevertheless live by the same code. Drewe Broughton is a former footballer and almost the dictionary definition of a journeyman striker. A 17-year career in which he played for 22 different clubs also saw him go through depression and addiction throughout. Today, he is a motivational speaker and performance coach, giving one-on-one support to professional athletes who suffer from the same insecurities, illnesses or flaws that he faced.
“At 21 I was in Norwich’s first team and went to the Under-20 World Cup with Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen and Frank Lampard,” says Broughton. “I was contracted to adidas and scoring goals, but two years later I was on loan in the Conference. I was the classic case of 18-to-21 dropout. Not because I wasn’t good enough, but because I didn’t have the support that I needed.”
Key to Broughton’s work is a holistic approach that emphasises the importance of players trusting in their own abilities and convictions, as well as being emotionally aware enough to admit when something is wrong – something that football continues to struggle with.
Calvin highlights a “seemingly flashy, confident England U21 [Under-21] international who cries himself to sleep every night”. The player is at a Premier League club, but his manager simply asks him, “What have you got to worry about?” When Burton Albion striker Marvin Sordell spoke to The Guardian about depression earlier in 2018, he said: “I was thinking of going to the Priory, but the message was clear. ‘You can’t do that. You must focus on football.’ I don’t know how they knew.”
“Modern football is in a completely contradictory situation because on the one hand players are utterly exposed through celebrity status and social media,” Calvin explains. “On the other hand they are totally isolated and have built up walls around them through agents, PRs, sponsors, clubs etc. The real person is trying to get out and the football industry doesn’t allow that.”
It’s not even that football doesn’t offer players proper support, but that it perpetuates the issue. Broughton says: “A client of mine told me about a manager, who I’ve seen publicly discuss mental health, tear into a young player before a game, telling them their career would be over if he played badly. That’s emotional abuse.”
The truth is that there is a brutality within football and other sports that has been present throughout their existence. As the pressure on individuals has increased, the needed support remains practically non-existent.
“Anyone doing their coaching badges should have to do a year of therapy,” says Broughton. “Because today you still have coaches acting out their own pressures and fears.”
“The best managers are good at recognising the human condition – that’s more useful than 300 appearances for Bolton Wanderers,” says Calvin. “Management requires a sense of touch and understanding. The ‘it didn’t do me any harm’ attitude is so wrong. It did do you harm and you need to admit to it.”
The sad reality is that there is still such a long way to go. That said, both Calvin and Broughton believe the situation is better than it has ever been, and that the solution is a simple one.
“There’s still that missing bit,” says Broughton. “That bit is the ability for managers and coaches to offer emotional support and feelings. Tell players it’s OK. Don’t berate them for being them. You have to validate feelings. It’s beyond simple and yet very little is being done about it. I’m trying to help, but it took pain, bankruptcy, addiction and rehab for me to get to this point.”
Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. To highlight this, Culture Trip is looking at how different societies are shining a light on this important issue in innovative and alternative ways.
The content of this article is provided for general information only and is not an attempt to practise medicine or give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. The information contained in this article is for the sole purpose of being informative and is not to be considered complete, and does not cover all issues related to mental health. Moreover, this information should not replace consultation with your doctor or other qualified mental health providers and/or specialists. If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, please seek medical attention immediately.
If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Please note there are no affiliations of any kind between the aforementioned organisations and Culture Trip.