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It is time for change in dealing with mental health in professional football

(Rania Elhilali/The Intermission)

Football, one of the world's most popular sports, has changed rapidly as of the 21st century. It’s become a source of communication for fans, a means of uniting peoples and nations (or calling for that unity, at least) and a game of millions, if not billions. As with any and every competitive sport, football stars are placed under a harsh spotlight at very young ages. The constant pressure can seem overwhelming and this can lead to an increased risk of mental illness. The football world has created an atmosphere where clubs seek for the most capable of players to sign up, and if they were to admit of dealing with mental illnesses, it might come off to clubs as a barrier to inking up a contract. If one thing is clear, it is that football does not deal well with mental health, the support mechanisms are not there.

What clubs fail to understand is that one's mental state affects performance, good or bad..

You see every athlete has their own zone of optimal functioning

(IZOF model by Thanin). This model essentially means that everyone needs a different amount of stress to achieve their best performance, and if the stress is too much the physical activation and performances begin to drop off. It’s important for every athlete to know their range of optimal performance. When someone is overwhelmed, when they feel they are unable to meet the demands of the game and their own and of others’ expectations, their performance will drop. For example,we can see that in Loris Karius’ performance drop it was evident. That alone has its effects on one’s wellness, it causes this constant cycle to continue, in which the athlete has to deal with the stress of their last performance, in the up and coming following. It’s an ongoing pressure cycle.The pressure players like Karius feel and go through is intense. And this so-called constant cycle of pressure is so overwhelming that it takes a toll on the way you think. Cause sometimes their sole focus and thoughts is solely on the moments they messed up on the pitch, like retired Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, who said, “Even now, in retirement, people talk to me about Istanbul, Champions League adventures and the great days in Cardiff, but I can’t clear my head of the bad moments.”

In all honesty it’s just miserable that players like Jamie, Karius and many others go through this just because the atmosphere surrounding this topic about mental health, and expressing and coping with the issues and the feelings the players feel is just the push through it slogan cause everyone is in the football world. This naturally makes the player feel alone and left to deal with the feeling of stress and pressure. When in reality many people struggle with the pressure of the game and with the stresses that can happen to anyone in life. Nobody should be left in the tunnel alone to deal with these feelings, what should actually happen is players should be allowed and be comfortable to come out and discuss their feelings and their mental health so that they are able to cope with it. Yet the harsh reality in the football world is that it’s the series of dodge everything associated with mental health.

If you haven’t already gotten the memo already, well it is sadly true that Football clubs do absolutely nothing about the players’ mental health. To clubs it's an ongoing cycle of signing a player, playing them until they are no good and then they move onto another younger talent. Clubs treat athletes as nothing more than financial assets. It is as if mental health is non-existent in football. If change is to be made, football must alter the entire means by which athletes are treated and looked after. What we’re used to as fans is that, in every sport, an athlete may only reach the pinnacle of success by being flawless. This leaves many to internalize their emotions and core issues; they are taught to suck it up and move on. This is a consequence of how clubs view players, as just as athletes rather than humans, as dollar signs rather than individuals with distinct needs.

Meanwhile, in the NBA they are taking steps to increase the mental wellness of athletes implementing an independently run mental wellness program funded by the league. The football community’s time for change has come for the better of the sport, aftertall football is a sport played for fun and joy. Football has opted to change it’s perception and outlook of players, we view them as superhumans, but when in reality they are just like us, they are human, they breathe, we breathe. Yet the stigma will live as long as we (football community) equate mental illness with weakness.

Whether they’re plagued by anxiety, depression, or something more, many athletes have no idea what they’re dealing with. This is because the first instinct they feel is ‘I don’t feel so good’, they’ll feel sad about this because athletes are trained to work through everything and put everything aside, cause at the end of the sport sole focus is the physical fitness that is all that matters. Yet the connection between mental and physical health is as similar as it is to a sporting team. If the defence starts to drop it then affects the middle and attack, this is because a team moves as one and so does our body when our mental health drops so does our physical performance. When one part struggles the whole body does, it’s like a game of dominoes there is no health without mental health.

Mental health is equally important as is physical health to the wellbeing of professional football players. Yet football’s explanation for an athlete's drop in performance tends to be that the player is “low on confidence”. In reality the actual issue is being dealt with alone by so and so behind closed doors. We as a whole should vanquish the myth that professional players are invulnerable. The stigma around mental health in football is one of football’s greatest barriers in keeping players healthy and in progressing as a sport. Mental health issues must become normalized in the eyes of fans, coaches, managers and owners, the opportunity has come the football world is listening and times are changing.

*Special thanks to Julia Eyre


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