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Tackling Football’s Mental Health Issues

Mon 10th Oct 2016 | Football Club Management

In support of World Mental Health Day, we take a look back at Crispin Andrews’ feature on Mental Health in Football from October 2015 and Issue 88 of fcbusiness.

Kenny Sansom’s sad story was all over the news a few months ago. He was photographed drunk, lying on a patch of grass, homeless, jobless and according to the former Arsenal and England full back, himself, suicidal.

Sansom isn’t the only former, or current, footballer, to suffer from addictions and the mental health issues that underlie them.

Stan Collymore has gone public about his battle with depression, and former Burnley defender, Clark Carlisle, was so desperate he stepped out in front of a lorry on the A64 near York, last December. Last year, world players’ union, FIFPro, found that a quarter of the 180 active male professional footballers they surveyed showed signs of depression and anxiety. They found the percentage in former players to be even higher.

“One person in four will develop one or more mental or behavioural disorders during their lifetime,” says Professor. Dr. Astrid Junge, Head of Research at the FIFA - Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-MARC). "That’s anxiety, addiction, obsession, phobia, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, schizophrenia and eating disorders.

“About 450 million people, worldwide, suffer from mental disorders according to World Health Organization estimates,” Junge says.

Psychotherapist, James West, works with footballers battling addictions as Clinical Director of Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance clinic. He believes that addiction isn’t something that happens to footballers, but something that happens to people. “Anyone can have sports players is the environment and their job can exacerbate the addiction.”

Prof Dr. Junge adds that people who experience high levels of stress are at risk of developing mental health problems. She explains that footballers have to deal with the pressure of performing, winning, getting on with team mates, training, not to mention the expectation of fans, the media and their bosses.

“There’s also the risk of injury, and what to do, once your playing career is over,” says Alex Welsh, a Tottenham Hotspur Academy coach, who as Chief Executive of the London Playing Fields Foundation, runs a grassroots mental health project - Coping through Football. “If players suddenly lose the structure and the support of that familiar environment, lives can sometimes fall apart. Clubs should help players prepare for all of this.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. “Big men don’t talk about their feelings,” says James West. “You’d be laughed out of the dressing room. So people bury the feelings, and some turn to drink, drugs or gambling to change the way they feel.”

German women’s World Cup winner, Birgit Prinz, now a psychologist for TSG Hoffenheim and the lead researcher on FIFA’s Mental Health and Sport research project, believes that mental fitness is as important as physical fitness. “Specific training for mental fitness is rare, though, and players are often assumed to be mentally fit,” she says.

The FIFA project will start in Germany, with questionnaires sent to former Bundesliga players about the effect playing professional football had on their mental health. FIFA then plans to canvass elite players in other countries.

Prinz believes that it is important to openly demonstrate that it is normal for professional football players to experience mental stress. Also that mental health issues can be prevented, treated and cured. “We have to overcome the myth that professional football players are invulnerable,” she says.

Counselling is the most obvious way of dealing with a mental health issue or better still dealing with stress and pressure, before mental health issues arise. But there are other ways. Holistic therapies such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Reiki and meditation can help clear the subconscious of emotional and mental baggage. So too, apparently, can working with horses.

During Equine assisted psychotherapy sessions, people don’t ride the horse, they perform co-operative tasks, with it. Afterwards, they discuss the issues raised with their therapist. Sporting Chance use EAP with some of their clients. One of the horse handlers is former Eastenders and Bad Girls actress, Kika Mirylees.

“Footballers are taught to control their emotions so they can perform better,” she says. “But they’re human beings, too, some of them quite sensitive souls who don’t have an outlet for their feelings.” She adds that working with horses help people manage their emotions.

“Horses are sensitive animals, prey animals in the wild. If the horse picks up any fear, anxiety or aggression it won’t cooperate,” she says. “People learn that there are alternatives to getting angry and lashing out, when faced with a problem. That they don’t have to reach for a bottle or a fix when something goes wrong.”

It’s not all bad news, though. Some mental health experts, actually say that playing football can be good for people with mental health issues. But only if you minimise the stress. Or teach people how to deal with it.

Research done by mental health charity, Mind, found that physical activity evokes mood changing endorphins. With so much to focus on when training and playing a continuous sport like football, there’s little time to think about problems. Also, processes learnt during a playing career - target setting, focus, cooperation - can be applied to personal situations.

This summer, the UK government launched a programme, Get Set Go, which uses sport to help people with their mental health issues. Last year, Alex Welsh’s Coping Through Football Project won a UEFA grassroots Award.

Obviously, professional football is played at a different level of intensity to a kick about in the park. But there is something that professional clubs can learn from the approach taken by grassroots coaches. Mind spokesperson, Sam Challis, has it, when he suggests that coaches, managers and clubs need to have an understanding of why their players are there and what they need.

Challis is talking about the recreational game, but it applies to pros, too. Of course, professional footballers want to become the very best player they can, and to help their team win matches and trophies. They want to get picked for their countries and for people to talk about them in glowing terms.

But here’s the thing. Professional footballers also want to live happy, enjoyable, fulfilling and prosperous lives. During their career and after they’ve finished playing. That, after all, is why these people became professional footballers in the first place. Whether football helps, or hinders this, is down as much to the environment as it is, the individual. 

Read the full issue: http://bit.ly/FCBUSINESS88

Posted by: Aaron Gourley 

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