A Footballer Speaks: Football must understand and help beat depression

Following the tragic death of Gary Speed there has been much debate about footballers and depression – even though the exact reasons for the death are as yet unexplained. Those events came days after Nick Judd’s interview with Vincent Pericard, in which the former Swindon striker talked openly about the stresses of life as a professional footballer, including his own battles with depression. Vincent returns to write about tackling depression and what more can be done to help footballers.

Depression. A strong word for the majority of footballers. Fortunately, not many would qualify to have that illness but many aren’t far from it, which still greatly affects their performances, decisions and relations with friends, team mates and fans. Before they reach the stage of depression, they experience; frustration, sadness, low mood, anger, laziness and loss of motivation. Those who have reached the depression stage have been let down by the system which fails to properly manage the mental side of a player’s game.

How can a professional footballer be depressed or feel low when his life consists of fast cars, champagne, luxury holidays and more money than sense?

Understanding which triggers lead to this mental state is vital. Results, performances, public opinion and family security are the goals that define a professional athlete’s life. Unless you are Zinedine Zidane, Lionel Messi or David Silva who, solely with their natural talent, seem to be able to deliver even if they are half asleep, most of us would have to compensate with a large amount of hard work.

Mind over body. Hard work comes from your mental strength. I’m sure you all have lifted weights at the gym. How do your muscles react after a few reps? Your muscles eventually get tired, tremble or just give up. The mind works exactly the same way. When you face a challenge, that challenge is your mind’s weight; our ability to lift that weight determines our mental strength and like our muscles, our mind eventually gets tired. Beyond the general frustration, sadness, low mood, anger, laziness and loss of motivation, your mind can just give up, leaving you with depression or mental breakdown.

Fans and journalists only see and judge a player within a short 90 minute window where their focus is on the game result, style of play or they just enjoy a day out. For those who’ve played the game professionally, they have a trained eye which allows them to not only focus on the general game played but on individual player as well, with the knowledge of the day to day rigours of training and an understanding through working together. They can spot if a player isn’t in his best frame of mind leading to a missed control or pass, a lazy run or tackle. Some players can hide it very well, some can’t. The consequences are the same. When they arrive home, they don’t have to hide anymore, their emotions take full control.

Match days are the only focal point of our weeks and the result those matches consequently determine mood for the week ahead. If a player has a bad game, that will affect his mind state. The player will spend all of his time mulling over his last performance, creating and expelling negative energy.

Add to that the high visibility and pressure environment. Have you ever had to please a crowd of thousands or a TV audience of millions? Most foreign players coming from, or have relatives in poorer countries, also have the pressure of having a whole family that rely on you to just be able to have food on the table? These are the difficult challenges many professionals face week in, week out.

With such endless strains and pressures the football public should realise how despite the money, the journey of depression is just one junction away on the fast lane of a professional footballer.

Can more be done to help?

Back to the weight lifting metaphor. When you have to lift and carry a heavy box, how easier does it feel when someone is giving you a hand – support, the 50kg box become 25kg. Once again, the mind works the same.

The other day, one of my close friends, Lord Ndiwa – ex Bolton prodigy messaged me saying “I want to use Prozac because I’m so depressed; I have nothing to look forward to”.

I simply told him today is just a bad day, tomorrow will be better, which was enough to cheer him up. Encouragement is so important, give people a lift, listen and encourage as your friend. Be a person that people feel they don’t have to hide their emotions to you but you are an open hand and ears.

In the wake of the death of Gary Speed the PFA are circulating their booklet – PFA Players-Guidebook – to current and ex-players on how to handle life as a professional footballer, which includes advice on dealing with depression.

The guidance really speaks to players. So many will relate to it and the situations it describes with coping with injuries, changes of managers, anxiety, stress, struggling with performances and retirement. It is a step in the right direction, however I’m disappointed the onus remains on the individual to diagnose themselves and seek help.

To me it is like when you have an accident at home (brake your leg) they send you a leaflet to tell you where and how to get yourself the hospital but if you already have a broken leg, how can you drive to the hospital?!

Fortunately the PFA do realise more can be done, as confirmed by the guidance author Susannah Strong when speaking to the BBC last week, but this is an issue that needs to be tackled now.

What is needed is a more pro-active solution to work with players before they get depressed, to get people talking openly about whatever may be troubling them and to discuss mental health issues. There should be someone close to all football clubs and players, working with them on a constant basis to recognise early signs of depression. Players need somebody to stand as a trusted figure to help them open up and offload some of their negative energy.

As for who can help, the Sporting Chance Clinic founded by England captain Tony Adams has done tremendous work and has assisted many players, but their role has been largely to fix or cure a problem. We all know prevention is better than the cure, so as this is an area in which I’m passionate about I will use my experience to help others through Elite Professional Management. A key part of my vision is to assist players through recognising the early signs of depression and secure them the best specialist advice from the outset.

It is only through early diagnosis and prevention that player welfare will be improved. We need to look out for and help each other with a bit of positive energy. The benefits are clear, enabling players to enjoy everything the beautiful game has to offer and maximising their potential, which in the end benefits you the supporters.

Vincent Pericard currently plays for Havant & Waterlooville FC and is the former St Etienne, Juventus, Portsmouth, Stoke City, Carlisle Utd and Swindon Town striker. Vincent is the founder and MD of Elite Professional Management. You can find Vincent on Twitter and contact EPM on Twitter.

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