The mind matters – not just the feet – for footballers

Aaron Lennon looks on during a match. - Reuters

IMAGINE driving home from work in your very expensive sports car to your huge mansion in the countryside. When you get in, you check your bank account online to see if this week’s wages have been paid. They have: £50,000 (RM270,937).

You smile half-heartedly, shrug, close the curtains and go to bed. It’s 3pm. You’re depressed.

Wealth, fame, status – Premier League footballers have them all. They also have mental health issues, just like anyone else. And they’re starting to talk about it, which is a very good thing.

A few days ago, Anthony Knockaert of Brighton told the media how his form had suffered last season as a result of depression. He sought counselling and says he’s now doing much better.

He’s not alone, either in football or society.

Earlier this year, Burnley’s Aaron Lennon (pic) also opened up about his battles with a “stress-related illness”. Indeed, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) in England have recorded an increase of over 200% in footballers seeking help for their mental health in the past two seasons.

The Health Ministry, meanwhile, estimates that around 30% of Malaysians may be suffering with some form of mental health issue.

Footballers experience the same stresses and anxieties in life that anybody might, plus a few additional ones. It’s a good thing that more footballers and more people generally are accessing professional support.

While footballers are no more immune to mental health challenges than those sitting in the stands, they do face some fairly unique pressures.

Most of us are not required to perform our jobs in front of 40,000 people every week (and admittedly it would be hard to fill a stadium to watch me write this column). And those 40,000 people will be quick and loud in criticising any mistake that a footballer makes.

Not to mention their boss watching, judging, and not infrequently screaming at them.

I never made it as a professional footballer (yes, it was one of those great hard luck stories) but I did play at quite a high level and signed “schoolboy contracts” at a couple of professional clubs. What I remember most about that time, aged 15 or so, was the pressure – intense and unrelenting.

Every game was a test of nerves and a duel against doubt. “Am I good enough?” is a question that lurks in the back of your mind all the time and occasionally at the front. Ultimately, I wasn’t and part of the reason is that the pressure made me play in fear.

I was scared of making a mistake and having a bad game would unsettle me for days after, to the point that I often couldn’t sleep. Imagine what a poor performance does to a player in the high stakes of the English Premier League.

And I didn’t have to deal with fame and all the strange distortions that it can bring to life, especially in the social media age where privacy is becoming a quaint relic of the past.

Footballers are some of the fittest people on the planet but the mind is as vulnerable to rupture as the Achilles tendon. Those on the pitch are starting to recognise that fact and helping the rest of society to do likewise.

It’s OK to talk about it.

In other health matters, it was wonderful to see Sir Alex Ferguson return to Old Trafford this weekend for the Manchester United vs Wolves game after having brain surgery in May.

And I would also like to add my voice to those of the many sports fans in Malaysia wishing Datuk Lee Chong Wei a full and speedy recovery from illness.

Craig Wilkie. Football Writer. Football Coach. Football Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ciwilkie

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