Soccer: Mental Wellness Is The Goal

Soccer, or football as it is known in most other countries, is one of the most popular sports in the world. Italian doctors even use the sport as a treatment for illnesses like schizophrenia and depression. Using it as a treatment should enhance socialization, concentration, and confidence as described by: “It is really the social inclusion.  The problem is that mental illness is almost always treated first by exclusion. A group sport like soccer helps to facilitate the inclusion of each member.” However, many professional soccer players deal with a quite different journey.

40% of Elite Soccer Players Experience Anxiety or Depression

After Wales Manager Gary Speed took his life in 2011, FIFPro, soccer’s world players’ union, created a survey that found that “38 percent of the 607 current players studied had exhibited signs of anxiety and/or depression, alongside 35 percent of 219 former players.” This trend shows that at least 4 in 10 of the nation’s elite soccer players have had anxiety or depression at some point, which is much more widespread than that of the general population. There is an even stronger correlation between players suffering from injuries and surgeries and their mental wellbeing, with players who have suffered three or more severe injuries being two to four times more likely to report mental illness.

With most players being chosen at the young ages of sixteen or seventeen, former Lys striker Thorstein Andersen Aase said, “If you are selected for your technical and tactical talents, then you automatically have the mental talents, too, and that’s not necessarily true.” Aase walked away from soccer after having dealt with extreme anxiety around his performances and having lost his passion for the professional sport: “It was a time where the faults in my motivation progressed into symptoms that could represent depression and angst, but as soon as I stopped playing they were

Intense Pressure As a Soccer Professional

Steven Caulker, who played on the England national team as a centre back, explained that, “Football was my escape as a kid but that changed when I was chucked into the first team as a teenager and suddenly football came with pressure.” Former player and current Wales national team manager Ryan Giggs has similarly discussed how he no longer enjoyed the games he played in because the expectation to win came with too much anxiety. Many players have discussed how the pressure is so intense that they can only focus on the moments where they messed up instead of the ones they shined, like retired Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher saying, “Even now, in retirement, people talk to me about Istanbul, Champions League adventures and the great days in Cardiff, but I can’t clear my head of the bad moments.”

Soccer stars are under intense spotlights at very young ages. The pressure on them can seem overwhelming, and this can lead to a heightened risk for mental illness. However, “soccer club seeks the strongest and most capable players, and by admitting to mental health problems you might appear to be the opposite.”

Accrington Stanley striker Billy Kee was one of the first professional athletes in the soccer world to open up about his anxiety, describing it as “the rat in my head that won’t stop.” Having dealt with suicidal thoughts, he was nervous to tell his manager or his team, saying that “why would someone who’s got the best job in the world go and kill themselves.” When finally admitting his struggles, his team and his manager John Coleman shocked the world by allowing him to take nearly a month off, giving him the time he needed to figure out how to, in his words, take the rat and “just leave it in the cupboard and not get that box out.”

Although Billy Kee found his peers and managers to be supportive, a follow up study to the FIFPro survey in October 2016 found that 84 percent stated that there had not been enough support for such problems during their time as players,” When Burnley winger Aaron Lennon took time off to receive treatment for a stress-related illness, former Premier League defender and former manager for the Professional Footballers’ Association Clark Carlisle said that, “When I first heard the news about Aaron, there was a feeling of sadness because I don’t want anyone to experience what I’ve been through. But it was also a feeling of relief.” Clark then went on to describe how he and his peers are no more immune to mental illness than they are to the flu or diarrhea.

How To Be Proactive About Player Mental Health

Steven Caulker, having struggled with gambling and alcohol issues, echoed these sentiments: “People say I’ve done all this because I’ve had too much money thrown at me but I know teenagers without a penny who have the same addictive traits as me.” He then went on to say: “Football does not deal well with mental illness. Maybe it’s changing but the support mechanisms are so often not there.”

In describing what has to be changed in the football community, Clarke Carlisle explained, “What we need to stop doing is sensationalizing the journey. There’s a general belief that you’re either well or suicidal. There is a huge spectrum in between and the more that we can get people to talk about their experiences, the more we can help to recover just by a chat and a hug.” Steven Caulker gave this advice to his former teammates: “I would urge lads to speak to the PFA, to speak to their manager, and not be scared about being dropped if they are feeling like I did.”

The soccer world is listening, and times are changing. The Professional Footballers’ Association saw more patients by May of 2017 than they had in all of 2016. The head of the representative organization for Norway’s players, Joachin Waltin reiterates the belief of many in saying  that “we could help turn many of them around if we could talk to them about it, and they could get help at an early stage.”

To contact the author, email Anisha Makhija at [email protected]