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Football: A Mind Game?


Mental health affects us all.  How we think and feel about our lives and ourselves impacts our behaviour and influences how we cope in tough times.  There are many stigmas attached to mental health problems, which leaves some people uncomfortable and confused about their feelings and reluctant to talk about them, but it is healthy to openly say how you’re feeling in the right environment and to a trustworthy source.  But it’s not easy if the support isn’t there.

There have been a number of high profile footballers and sportsmen coming forward with their own experiences of depression and a variety of mental health disorders recently, but is the support there for them when they do?  An apparent lack of trained coaches in the mental health field in football may well stop those effected from coming forward. Organisations like the FA and Sporting Chance are trying their best to encourage a range of activities that will involve and support players and supporters with mental health issues, but should more be done and can we, as fans, play a part in that process?

Watching and supporting football provides an opportunity for connection and belonging in an age where technology means there is less direct physical interaction.  Supporting a football club, watching a live game or gathering to watch a match on television are all ways of participating in group activities with people who share the same values and interests. This provides a sense of belonging, identification and inclusion within a larger group.  It creates a tangible social identity. Identification with the players as people and the club also promote a sense of belonging. Watching football can even have an impact on testosterone levels – studies have found that fans experience the same hormonal surges and physiological ebbs and flows during a game as they might if they were actually on the field.

If you like sport, and particularly football, more often than not you will know who the players are and who their respective clubs are.  But we don’t have a clue about their private lives, unless they are front page news or a shop floor rumour, and we certainly don’t know what their mental state of mind is, yet we continue to judge them through materialist form – on how big their pay packet is, the cars they drive, and the club they play for.

Stan Collymore and Gary Speed are two examples of the stigma of mental health in football.  The tragic suicide of Speed shocked a nation, but why were we so shocked?  Because he appeared to have everything – a glittering career, a loving family and plenty of material wealth? People who are perceived to have everything surely couldn’t feel so hopeless that they contemplate taking their own lives, could they?  But depression doesn’t work like that.  It is an illness – as real and potentially life threatening as any physical illness, such as cancer or pneumonia – and can affect any one of us, regardless of what we deem as ‘reasons to be happy’.

Mr Collymore’s battle with depression and initial inability to understand his own mental health pushed him to the brink of suicide.  Struggling to cope, his standards as a talented footballer dropped, therefore questions about him were raised.

So how do the big organisations support these sportsmen – the F.A, the P.F.A, Addiction clinics? How do we stop young players in today’s game becoming gripped by the money, the cars, the fame and how do we help them cope with the pressure from fans to perform without fault every single time they appear on the pitch?

It is a sad fact that so many who fall from the footballing ladder find themselves lost and lacking support from their own clubs and the supporters. Former QPR defender and

Clarke Carlisle

Clarke Carlisle

current chairman of the PFA, Clarke Carlisle, produced the brilliant documentary ‘Football’s Suicide Secret’ for BBC 3 earlier this year about exactly this issue.  The problem with hot-housing youth players, only to toss them out into the ‘real world’ when they don’t make the cut, with no qualifications and no hope of a career in the sport that has consumed their entire lives up to that point. Many don’t have a ‘plan b’. He also talks about the extraordinary highs and lows of being a pro footballer – one minute being the darling of the terraces, but the next being abused and derided by the very fans who only the week before were chanting your name in fits of joy.  Add to this the fact that, as in many sports, your career is more often than not, over by the time you’re thirty (unless you’re Giggs, of course), it’s not all fast cars and pop star wives in the world of the beautiful game.

In the pub, on the shop floor, oh how we supporters laugh and jeer when a player shows any sign of weakness, signs of being a fallible human being. Yes, I’m angry when the players from my team don’t come off that pitch with bulging veins and gasping for oxygen through their efforts on the pitch, but I would never go so far as to taunt him from the sidelines about his value as a person, and am shocked by the often racist, prejudicial or just plain offensive chants that are all too common in football grounds across the country.   It is something that the authorities in the game are trying to stamp out, but it will be hard until us fans are prepared to tell that hurtful, insensitive thug in the seat next to us to keep his mouth shut.

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