Soccer, or football as it is known outside the US, 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 soccer as a treatment is thought to enhance socialization, concentration, and confidence. Doctors emphasize why soccer can be so helpful to mental health: “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, while recreational soccer can help regular folks heal, many professional soccer players experience quite extensive mental health struggles. So what factors contribute to these players’ emotional state, despite the healing value of the sport itself?
40% of elite soccer players experience anxiety or depression
Even before Ted Lasso, it was clear that mental health and soccer shared a connection.
After Wales Manager Gary Speed took his life back 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 in the general population.
Why do the players experience such disproportionate rates of mental health struggle?
It seems there is a correlation between injuries, surgeries, and players’ mental wellbeing. For instance, players who have suffered three or more severe injuries are two to four times more likely to report mental illness than their peers. This isn’t surprising, given the correlation between traumatic brain injury, concussion, and mental health.
Entering professional life at a young age
Another potential reason for players’ emotional challenges, is that they enter their professional careers at a young age, before developing key emotional skills.
With most players being chosen at the young ages of sixteen or seventeen, former Lys striker Thorstein Andersen Aase emphasizes a false assumption made by coaches: “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.”
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 players seeking support
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, fearing judgement: “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. Well-said.
Work to be done for players’ health
Steven Caulker, having struggled with gambling and alcohol issues, explains how soccer (“football” across the pond) can exacerbate mental health rather than making it better: “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…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 has opined: “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 final 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.”