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The truth about mental health in football

As a child, it’s hard to imagine anything better than making a living by playing the sport you love. For a lot of little boys and girls growing up, football is seen as simply the best sport in the world. 

Turning out for every match in front of thousands of screaming fans, while getting paid figures in excess of £100k a week, sounds like a dream come true. And for most, it is. 

foot and football mental health

But all that glitters isn’t gold. While the glamorous lifestyle of a footballer might seem appealing, human mental health is delicate at the best of times. It may be hard for someone who’s never been at the top to truly fathom, but it can be a cold, isolating and stress-laden place. 

High-profile cases like the suicide of Gary Speed, or Aaron Lennon’s recent struggles, are both testaments to the darker side of the game. In the case of the former, Speed was beginning a promising career in management, having retired as a hero. Nothing about his public life would have suggested his mental health was in such a dark space. 

It’s hard to deal with being told you’re amazing on a weekly basis, only to then be completely forgotten about just months later. These peaks and troughs are not the kind of thing most people are genetically built to deal with. Our brain doesn’t cope well when it’s met with extremely positive and negative affirmation in such short periods of time. 

His death came as a shock to everyone, with BBC pundit Dan Walker even going as far as to describe him as being in “fine form” while filming a show just hours before he passed. Depression is an unseen killer and can affect anyone. But why is it so prevalent in the world of football? 

The pressure at the top and its impact on mental health in the football world

It’s hard to ignore the immense level of pressure you find at the top of any profession – whether it’s business, education or sport. People expect results, regardless of how you feel both physically and mentally. 

While a player’s club will provide them with some level of protection, there’s only so much that can be done to shelter them from a crowd of unhappy supporters who are baying for blood. 

READ: The Need for Mental Health Care in Sports

The higher you rise, the more is expected of you. Arguably it’s the management team who have to bear the heaviest burden. It’s ultimately their responsibility if performances aren’t going to plan – even if they aren’t the ones who can directly impact it. 

A life spent in the spotlight 

This is a particular problem for players who’ve been in the game since a young age. Being famous for the majority of your adult life can give you a skewed perspective of the world, and even directly lead to mental health problems both with a football and without it. 

As Thriveworks highlights, common issues for celebrities include things like clinical depression, anxiety and SUD (substance use disorder). Often, it’s the extreme contrasts of being the flavour of the month, followed by relative obscurity, which triggers these kinds of problems. 

Playing sport professionally certainly isn’t something which should warrant pity – but it’s not all sunshine and roses either. Keep that in mind when you next berate a player from the terraces. 

It’s hard to deal with being told you’re amazing on a weekly basis, only to then be completely forgotten about just months later. These peaks and troughs are not the kind of thing most people are genetically built to deal with. Our brain doesn’t cope well when it’s met with extremely positive and negative affirmation in such short periods of time. And it’s even truer for the mental health of football players.

Football stadium
Keep the mental health of football players in mind when you next berate a player from the terraces.

The effects of the ageing body on mental health in football 

It would be foolish to overlook how the physical impact of the human body ageing can affect your brain. Optimale highlights how a natural reduction in testosterone as you get older can have a huge impact on your mental health. 

READ: The Sport Psychology Stigma and How to Break it

This ageing process – sometimes colloquially referred to as “the male menopause” – has a massive impact on men as they reach the mid-point of their adult life. As players and coaching staff age, they become more susceptible to this common biological problem. 

Playing sport professionally certainly isn’t something which should warrant pity – but it’s not all sunshine and roses either. Keep that in mind when you next berate a player from the terraces. 


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