“A game?’ … ‘A bloody game?’

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The title of this article is taken from the book `Wings of Sparrows` by author Dougie Brimson and reflects how football can represent our innermost values, aspirations, absurdities and rivalries. Football for many, as the title suggests, is much more than a game it is an expression of life itself with all of its complexities and sadly casualties.

Throughout elite sports, much like broader society, there are currently initiatives to address a responsibility of care to athletes and reduce the incidence of mental ill-health. In past years media attention has generally been confined to salacious accounts of sports men and women who have experienced episodes of mental ill-health. Because of personal wealth and professional status emotional upheavals have been met with in, many instances, unsympathetic responses. Envy of wealth and intolerance of vulnerability can prevent elite athletes from seeking help or voicing their difficulties. However, research in various forms has recently played role in highlighting the complexities involved with high performance sports and ways mental health can be compromised.

The value of research

For some, research might conjure up images of white coats, test tubes and laboratories. Arguably, this is an impression perpetuated by the film and media industries. However, research can take various forms including conversations and personal biographies, which can provide a rich source of information – helping each of us to understand specific situations more clearly. English Premiership football, both academy and first team, functions at the high end of competitive performance. Managers, players and coaches are judged by the outcome of games along with the position a football club occupies in the league table.

The pressures associated with winning calls for a certain type of resilience. Yet anxiety, invoked by the demand for unrelenting success, can impact negatively on individuals and also the club as whole and interconnected systems. Our body of knowledge concerning the challenges and commercial pressures of modern day football is growing rapidly because of various methods of research. Researchers, sports psychologists and governing bodies beginning to make significant contributions to understanding the Impact of high performance sports on an athlete’s physical prowess but also the interactions with emotional well-being,

The demand to be winners

A team of researchers at the John Moores’ University in Liverpool, UK recently indicated that players and others involved with high performance football are constantly aware that all activities, including players’ welfare, are subordinated to the goals of winning and achievement (Nesti, et al). Harmful media coverage, failure to be selected for the team, conflicts with coaches and managers along with potential hostility from other players, can all impact on an individual player’s performance but also the team as whole.

The authors also discuss difficulties negotiating transitions, not only concerned with retirement, but also as a constant throughout a player’s career. They refer to ‘critical moments’ e.g. loss of form, unexpectedly falling out of favour with management and fans together with performance related injuries. However, issues related to gender and critical life events such as bereavement, divorce, ethnicity and sexual orientation can all impact psychological health and individual performance.

While critical events have potential to provide a positive learning experience, repeated challenges can also impact negatively on confidence, identity and self-belief resulting in reduced performance and emotional concerns. Positive self-regard and a sense of constancy are critical to sound mental health yet because of the ever changing nature of high performance sports become provisional and conditional. Repeated `critical moments` may rob a person of any sense of order and life can seem turned upside down.

Anxiety and career decisions                                                                                                                              

Marked anxiety can follow along with the need to make career choices, at a time when sufficient personal capacity to do so is diminished. Engagement in elite sports can initially ward off tendencies for an individual to become anxious or depressed. This may be due to the structure, camaraderie and distraction football and other sports can provide along with an escape from preoccupations with the usual activities of daily living. Nevertheless both personally and professionally, over time participation in highly competitive arenas can become emotionally draining and weaken a player’s resolve leading to more entrenched mental ill-health, relationships and possibly wider social problems.

Football as therapy

Perhaps an irony, but research has demonstrated that football and other sports are increasingly called upon to aid mental health and well-being taking the form of tournaments. In addition, well-being groups that use football vocabulary as a means for grappling with life are proving beneficial. In my own clinical work as a psychotherapist, I have found that, where relevant, viewing life as a game of football can prove less challenging to a person than orthodox approaches and offer a novel but relevant method of reflecting on difficulties. All initiatives have undergone evaluation and contribute to research in their various ways.

Retired football players who have themselves experienced poor mental health are increasingly giving over time to developing young people in ways that provide the necessary resilience and robustness to cope with the pressures of life. To illustrate, Andy McLaren, formerly of Dundee United and Scotland, experienced a major depressive episode complicated by alcohol and substance misuse. Recognising football’s potential for good he currently coaches a team made up from people suffering from mental ill-health and is closely affiliated with Scottish Football Association’s initiatives to educate and promote mental health in the community.

Conclusion

Mental ill-health affects elite athletes of diverse backgrounds in similar ways, and with a comparable incidence to the general population. Research regarding elite sports, while helpful has been relatively modest and so insufficient in expanding our knowledge. We require a deeper understanding of risk factors predisposing elite athletes to mental ill-health.

Only in recent years has society along with sports governing bodies begun to take seriously the mental health and well-being of sports men and women. Nonetheless, in recent years, events concerning high profile sports men and women have thrown light on subtle nuances of elite football and other sporting activities and ways competitive sports culture contributes to emotional discomfort.

Elite football, like many other sports, much more than a game to athletes and spectators alike. Governing bodies have a responsibility towards elite athletes and their families to safeguard well-being. Doing so would contribute to a healthier spectator sports culture, while providing helpful examples to wider society.

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