Football has been described as “more than just a game” (Jones, 1995). As a result, footballers are experiencing psychological distress despite achieving great sporting success. To attest to this point, more than one quarter of professional footballers suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety (Gouttebarge, 2014). Football is a highly pressured environment where emotional experiences are entwined in many aspects of performance, and the exasperation of negative emotions can result in more long-term negative consequences. But when does psychological distress begin?
Football is a popular career ambition for youth males, however; the likelihood of becoming professional is minimal. Professional football clubs recruit players as young as 8 years old, and make contract cuts until they are 12 years old. The fortunate players then sign two-year contracts, but between the ages of 14 and 16 years old, players have to survive the pressure in order to get a three-year contract.
Hill (2013) said: ““It can be harsh. At its worst, we are talking about an environment that can develop, foster and maintain a mindset where athletes are wholly invested into the idea of being the next David Beckham.” However, the reality is that in approximately 10,000 young athletes participate in football, it is estimated that less than one percent will make to professional football.
As professional sports contracts are extremely difficult to obtain and maintain, the pressure felt by competing athletes may contribute to the psychological distress. Although we do not know the prevalence of psychological distress experienced by youth footballers, we do know that adolescents are not exempt from experiencing issues of mental health. The prevalence rates of psychological disorders among young people and adolescents (16-34 year olds) are high at 25-25%. In fact, adolescence may be a key time where psychological issues begin to occur as 75% of mental health problems start before the age of 25 years old (Gulliver, Griffiths, & Christensen, 2012).
In the extreme case of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who committed suicide at the age of 33 years old, it was apparent that he felt pressure from football during his adolescent years. In the book, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke, his anxiety seemed to start being detrimental during his adolescence. Enke felt crippling anxiety as a 16-year-old ‘thrown in’ to play with the 18-year-olds (Naume, 2011), and felt debilitating emotions when he made mistakes in a game. To exemplify this, Enke said, “for the whole of the next week, I had the error in front of my eyes. I couldn’t get it out my head. I couldn’t forgive myself a mistake” (Reng, 2012, p.24). Following a game where he made a ‘crucial’ mistake, he stayed off school for a full week, and used the excuse that he was ill. There are various accounts in his book about the pressure he felt to be the best, and sadly he suffered from depression throughout his playing career.
Adolescence may be a crucial time to intervene with athletes, particularly as this is a time when significant transitions occur and pressure may become significantly greater. What could have been done to support the likes of Robert Enke? How can we alleviate the pressures of sport and make sure that individuals have adequate coping mechanism? And in particular, how can we support those suffering from mental health issues? Within the recent report, the New Strategy for Sport Consultation, it was emphasised that we need to ensure that if mental health problems emerge in athletes that they receive the proper care and support they need to recover. It was also noted that:
“Given the increasingly early age at which young, talented athletes are identified and put in high potential programmes, we need to ensure they are still receiving the right sort of support to all them to develop in a balanced way, ensuring that if they don’t achieve their dream as an athlete, they are able to pursue other options and retain other skills” (p.47, Department for Culture and Sport, 2015).
With that being said, it is imperative to athlete’s wellbeing that we teach them about their value as a person. I like to tell athletes, “sport is something you do, and not who you are”. Of course, sport gives people an identity, nevertheless, sometimes this is an athlete’s only identity. In that case, an athlete’s self-worth may be contingent on their sporting performance and this is when we need to show that they are worthy as a person, as well as a performer.
For those suffering from issues of mental health, creating a culture shift where mental health issues are no longer stigmatized and youth athletes feel supported both on and off the pitch. There has been a lot of good work in raising awareness of mental health. Specifically, the charity MIND made a national call to tackle mental health in sport after a number of high profile sports people disclosed their mental health struggles. The Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation was launched in March 2015. The Charter aims to tackle the stigma towards mental health using the power of sport. Time to Change campaign is led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
In conclusion, it is imperative to create an environment where athletes feel valued as people and their self-worth is not contingent on performance. Additionally, it is important that athletes who are facing issues of mental health feel supported and valued. I would recommend reading The Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation and information on the MIND website for further information on mental health and issues within sport.