There’s been a few really good articles lately about mental health in sports which made me reflect on the subject and how I’ve personally dealt with the pressures we face as athletes. I think there’s this general belief that athletes are superhumans incapable of feeling anxious or depressed. We’re seen as warriors without emotions. We’re meant to just ”push through” and ”be strong” when adversity strikes.
But I think I see a trend towards normality. The fact that more and more professional athletes feel comfortable opening up about their struggles helps paint a more authentic picture of the athlete. We’re just as vulnerable to mental health issues as everyone else on our planet and it’s been refreshing to read athletes’ personal stories. Because up until now, showing vulnerability has been seen as a sign of weakness throughout the sports world.
The public and the media might have done their bit to create this fictional character but it doesn’t remove our own responsibility as athletes to give people a more authentic picture of ourselves. It’s incredibly important that people like basketball player Kevin Love, footballer Per Mertesacker and others have the courage to share their anxieties and worries. Only then can we start to break down the stigma surrounding mental health that still haunts the sports world.
For a big part of my football life I thought I could do it all on my own. I never really spoke to anyone how I could overcome setbacks during my career because I always had this attitude that I could solve my problems on my own. Asking for help was a sign of weakness. And I didn’t want to be seen as weak.
I did solve some of my problems on my own, but I can’t help to think how much easier and more beneficial it would have been for young Tim to have shared his thoughts with someone. My stubbornness and naivety made me into someone who didn’t welcome feedback or help. And that is one of my biggest regrets.
I want to make it clear that I’ve never had a panic attack like Kevin Love or anything similar but I look back at my career and understand that I could have done things differently. I generally feel better today and that is thanks to a few things.
Firstly, I’m more open with how I feel because I’ve learned how healthy it is putting your feelings into words. Secondly, I have a more healthy relationship with football than I used to have.
I’ve finally realised that my identity is not based solely on my performance on the pitch. I’m more than just a footballer, thank god. It’s helped me to take a step back from football and pursue other interests in my free time. Taking a step back has given me a chance to express myself away from the pitch and a chance to forget about football. It’s been extremely healthy to finally have found that work-life balance that we all so desperately crave.
Football is still the best thing I know but it shouldn’t have to determine the way I feel in the degree it did. Today I enjoy coming home from training to focus on something completely different, be it studying or writing columns. Previously I would spend my evenings thinking about how shit I was in training, worrying about a sore hamstring or getting frustrated by a negative article in the newspaper instead of being able to switch off.
Not being able to relax away from football didn’t just affect me but also the people around me. I became distant and touchy the closer we got to gameday. I felt ”handicapped” and I couldn’t really get myself to do anything spontaneous with my friends or my then-girlfriend even though the game was two days away. I was so focused on doing everything right, everything from recovery to nutrition, to give myself the best chance of a good performance instead of just enjoying other peoples company. I could sense it wasn’t a healthy way of living but I didn’t really know what to do about it. Today I know that I need things in life that take my mind off football.
Having that work-life balance and discussing openly with others about our challenges in the sport world have helped me create a mentally healthier lifestyle. Instead of trying to deal with everything alone I’ve grown up to be someone who seeks feedback and support. My hope now is that we’ll create an environment where we encourage athletes to open up.
We shouldn’t be afraid to open up to a coach or a teammate because we might seem mentally weak or because we’re afraid of repercussions. A strong team is not a team where everybody just ”suck it up” when faced with adversity. A truly strong team acknowledge that we’re all human and that we all have our insecurities and flaws.
In the words of Kevin Love: ”We’re all dealing with something”.