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Why football needs to embrace mental health discussions

BY Johnnie Lowery

18th Aug 2023 Sport

Why football needs to embrace mental health discussions

Football contains crucial lessons about better mental health awareness and care, says author Johnnie Lowery in his new book Match Fit

Match Fit shares the personal stories of a variety of figures in the game, from former England internationals to those who play on a Sunday morning. If the interviewees—involved in a sport that has traditionally lauded masculinity and the absence of so-called weakness—can open up about their mental health, then so can anyone.

In this extract, Lowery picks out some of the main talking points from his book.

Challenges of the limelight

In February 2012 the career of a footballer once the subject of a documentary entitled The Man Who Will Be Worth Billions was coming to an end. Rather than wrapping up with Champions Leagues and World Cups under his belt, though, Vincent Pericard played the last of his club football at Havant & Waterlooville in the Conference South.

Reflecting on what might have been, Pericard’s lightbulb moment came when he realised it was his mental health, rather than the injuries that had plagued him throughout his playing days, that had caused the greatest damage to his career.

"It’s very easy to feel isolated, because it’s you in the centre of it with your teammates with their own problems"

"It’s very easy to feel isolated, because it’s you in the centre of it with your teammates with their own problems, their own challenges," he says.

"You might have your family, but your family don’t really see behind-the-scenes. They see you as a star celebrity and that’s it. They see you as a person who’s got it all, the fame, the money, and therefore wouldn’t understand why you would suffer from your mental health. So for me, after going home, this is when you feel very lonely."

Managerial burnout

Brian Clough with football teamCredit: Hans van Dijk for Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons. Brian Clough prioritised time off to keep the pressures of managing from overcoming him

Brian Clough was known for taking a mid-season holiday around February each year, leaving his coaching staff in charge of the team. It certainly wouldn’t be seen as conventional today, but Clough claimed it prevented him from "going stale", and certainly nobody could argue with his record.

Failure to address the day-to-day signs of stress in the job can eventually lead to burnout, as Paul Lambert found out.

"You only enjoy success for a really, really short time. You enjoy it in the moment, but then it’s finished and you have to crack on again and try and do something else. The Norwich job…that took me to the limit. I was tired after that."

Life after football

Having been through the emotional trauma of being released as a teenager, feeling lost and ending up in jail, but still coming out of the whole episode stronger, Ellis Myles feels he can help more than just himself with his experiences.

"There was never somebody like me, somebody who had a bit of adversity"

"When I was at Leicester, I remember people used to come in and do talks," he says. "They’d be footballers or retired footballers and they’d talk about their lives or careers. But I always feel like those people who come in, they were all successful or doing things in their career to be proud of. There was never somebody like me, somebody who had a bit of adversity.

"Maybe I could just take time out to go and talk to the younger people. If I go and tell someone, right, listen, prison isn’t the place for you, you won’t like it and you won’t enjoy it, compared to someone who hasn’t been there or done it, who are they going to listen to? I’d like to think probably me."

Why are people football fans?

Black and white photo of footballer shooting goalFootball is an aspirational sport that helps fans escape the trials of everyday life for a moment

Alan Pringle completed his PhD in 2008, a detailed study which involved looking at how supporting a football team could affect the mental health of those supporters.

"We can suffer anything if we think there’s a redemption at the end, whether that’s 'I can suffer a life because I think there’s heaven at the end' or 'I can suffer this job because at least I’m getting a decent wage for it' or whatever," he says.

"We have to have something in the future that we can aspire towards to keep us going through the really bleak stuff. What football does is it means that no matter how bad things are, there is a time where you are not faced with your problems."

Coping with tragedy

Rupert Taylor was on holiday. Confused by a number of texts asking him if he was okay, he turned on the TV to find out the tower at the centre of the community he loved so much was on fire. Rupert has spent his entire working life in roles to benefit the community, living just a couple of streets away from Grenfell Tower throughout.

"I’ve had players that were on suicide watch that have said that without the team they don’t know where they’d be"

For all the work Rupert has done in the community throughout his life, it is clear he sees Grenfell Athletic as his most important project.

"I’ve had players that have stopped drinking. I’ve had players that have started working. I’ve had players that were on suicide watch that have said that without the team they don’t know where they’d be."

Match Fit: An Exploration of Mental Health in Football by Johnnie Lowery is published by Pitch Publishing (August 28, 2023, £18.99)

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