With the sheer range of pressures sports athletes face on a day to day basis, is it any surprise that there are athletes who have suffered from mental health conditions? There have only been a handful of professional stars that have come out to explain the problems they have encountered in the game and this remains a massive taboo subject within sport.
Taking you through the years of a football player and the pressures they encounter will be eye opening for many as it isn’t as smooth a ride as most think it is. Sports athletes aren’t in an ordinary workplace but they do come up against similar obstacles to tackle.
From starting off in an academy, the pressures of injury, being dropped and not making it through the first year of the academy are only a couple of reasons players may encounter difficultly—let alone the experience of living in overcrowded, cramped player digs with little privacy. These early years they are consistently playing for a professional contract at the club – everything is logged and and tracked. A player can easily feel like he is living his life under a microscope!
In the senior squad, players are still worried about getting injured, being released/contract terminated and changing from the under 21/reserve team to the first team. It should be a bonus to be promoted up to the first team for a game, but once you have been there you don’t want to go back down to the reserves. How will the player mentally cope with going back a step?
Within the senior squad, as you develop as a player, those previous pressures are still with you, but then you have the added pressures of winning trophies, being in the public eye and facing the wrath of the media both in interviews and articles printed of you. You will be idolised by fans and clubs may be putting in big money offers for you, so the expectations of your performance increase dramatically.
These are the pressures players are under IF they make it. Within the academy structure there are a greater percentage of players that don’t make it through the system. What happens to those players? Where do they end up? They have to try to pick themselves up after being dropped to find another club to continue their dream of being a professional sports athlete. Unfortunately, for many this never happens and they exit the game.
A player I know—who had his future quite literally at his feet—unfortunately fell victim to these pressures. He had broken into the club's first team and been called up to the under 21 national team. His career was going at full speed. However, the player checked into the Priory to help with his mental health problems. As a young player at a big club, he was on a big wage for his age—encountering problems with alcohol, drink-driving and gambling along with reoccurring injuries which halted his appearances for the club. If there was more education and prevention in place for young players, this could have been avoided.
If we can get remove the stigma surrounding mental health, more players are likely to speak up about it and it can be tackled at the academy phase. They can be given the support they need to openly seek help without it affecting their chances of ‘making it’.
Written by Mike Thomas - Head of Sports at Thrive.