I remember when I was playing academy football in Southampton FC when I heard that the club had someone that the players could see if they wanted to. A person they could talk to about life, a type of mental coach. I listened to what they were saying but I had personally no intention of talking to anyone. Why would I need to speak to someone? I have it all figured out, I thought. I don’t need any extra help.
This was the thinking of a naïve 16-year-old that was oblivious to the fact that everyone benefits from having someone to talk to.
I had grown up in a family that gave me a great start to life. Hard work and discipline, both in school and on the football pitch, were important values in our household. My dad, who also coached me, always expected a bit more from me compared to my teammates. He was tough, but fair, and I’m very grateful for helping me kick-start my career.
But other important human attributes, like opening up and sharing ones concerns with others, didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t feel comfortable talking openly about my teenage insecurities that was on my mind. There was always some kind of filter in my brain making sure that my deepest thoughts stayed locked inside and I believed, stupidly enough, that that was a sign that I was man enough to deal with my “shit” on my own. Keeping my thoughts and emotions in check was a symbol of strength in my world.
The sports environment is not generally known for its empathic nature. Physical and mental prowess have usually been rewarded in a survival of the fittest contest. You need to be strong if you want to become a professional athlete.
But what is strength?
The stereotypical picture of a (male) athlete is well documented. You should be built like an animal and behave like someone who’s got it all figured out. You should be aggressive, macho and ultra-confident. Nothing that comes your way should be able to make you lose your balance, in one way or another.
Being aggressive and tough on the pitch is one thing but taking that attitude into the dressing room or to the outside world is not necessary. Previously I think we felt that we needed to keep up that hard exterior even after the training or game to be a “real” (sports)man. We felt that we didn’t have a choice than to be a part of that manly jargon in the dressing room. Faking it meant that we could keep our place in the hierarchy. But times are changing and a new generation is coming and they define strength differently.
I feel that the sporting world has taken big strides towards creating a more mentally healthy working climate. We see brave athletes opening up more frequently about their mental health problems and we see big organisations taking more responsibility in helping their athletes deal with their personal challenges. I see my younger teammates talking about feelings like I never did at their age.
Athletes are not super-humans. We’re not immune to mental health problems just because you see us on TV. The expectations and demands on professional athletes are huge and it can boil over if we’re not careful. Media scrutiny, long-term injuries, criticism, losing, lack of playing time, unemployment, living abroad, family problems, hanging up your boots… All these things can influence your mental health in a very negative way if you don’t know what to do or where to turn.
During my early years in professional football I struggled a bit when I was forced to sit on the bench. I became angry, distant and negative when the coach didn’t pick me. I would feel low, unappreciated, useless, and I couldn’t motivate myself to train at the level that I usually did. All these negative thoughts ate me up inside which affected my mood and confidence. I was so busy trying to deal with my own problems that it was impossible to be a supportive and empathic teammate.
Other times I would get a small injury and it would turn my life upside down. I couldn’t deal with the fact that I would miss games and it was another one of those periods when I struggled to keep my head up. Seeing your teammates going out to train while you head to the gym is not fun. Thinking positively and putting things into perspective was not something I was able to do. Telling someone how I felt, putting my feelings into words, was out of the question back then. I was raised to take care of myself and deal with setbacks on my own.
I think that we’re in the process of creating an environment where telling your teammates or coaches that you’re feeling bad is not frowned upon. Being vulnerable and sharing your struggles with your teammates is becoming more and more normal and I believe that a team where players feel comfortable opening up is a stronger team.
Sharing how you really feel helps you as an individual, it’s therapeutical, but it also creates better, more meaningful relationships between players and coaches. As a coach, knowing your players and what they’re going through is a prerequisite for good leadership. The better the relations are between coaches and players off the pitch, the better the performances will be on the pitch.
I’ve personally never experienced any major mental health issues but even if I haven’t, I definitely feel better today compared to ten years ago. I’m a more balanced person. Setbacks and other external frustrations don’t affect me like they used to do, and I’ve become mentally more robust. I see an injury lay-off as a chance to develop other parts of my game. When I sit on the bench, I understand that it’s part of football and try to motivate and support my teammates from the outside.
I assume it’s partly thanks to age and experience. I have a bigger understanding of what I need to do to cope with adversity after everything I’ve been through. I’m more open with how I feel with both loved ones and teammates and I don’t feel the need to try and be something I’m not. I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I also think that the evolving sporting landscape is making it better and easier for us athletes to cope with the demands of our job. The atmosphere is more humane. There’s more help to get than twenty years ago. Many clubs have psychologists, mental coaches or other support people to assist you in your daily life. Most of the time it’s just up to the athletes to take the plunge and embrace it. To become mentally stronger you need to work on it. Treat your brain as a muscle.
If I could go back in time, to the day when I found out that Southampton FC had a mental coach, I would probably go and introduce myself. Not because I was in desperate need of help, but just because I think I could have done with someone to guide me through life’s curveballs. A mentor, of some sort. Someone with experience and knowledge who could have been there to share some of their wisdom when I felt frustrated and low. Someone who could have unlocked my stubborn way of dealing with my problems. I would probably have wasted less time on negative emotions if I had the tools to open up and not try and deal with everything on my own.
Strength is when we have the courage to talk about our personal thoughts and feelings. Holding things in will only hold us back. If you don’t know where to turn, I’m here to listen.