• BOOK REVIEW — "Match Fit: An Exploration of Mental Health in Football" By Johnnie Lowery (Pitch)
Author Johnnie Lowery admits that when he was struggling with his own mental health as a teenager, he would never have thought about reading a book on the subject. "When you don't understand a problem, you don't really want to acknowledge it," he concedes in the introduction to this well-written, commendably researched and extremely helpful and enlightening book about soccer's depressive demons, and the many positive ways that those who suffer can now seek help.
The book covers coaches, referees and fans, but also analyses of the multiple ways that players' mental health can be affected, such as through injury, loss of form, social media attacks, addiction or retirement. Any soccer player, anywhere in the world, who is struggling within the game (and that has to be a figure in the thousands) should grab this book as a guide. It will not only help you understand that you're not alone, but that there is no shame in admitting to mental health problems, and that there are no end to the solutions for helping you get back on track.
An early chapter deals with the obvious but prevalent problem of admitting to the need for support. Lowery and some of the players he talks to recall a past age when hard-line coaches would ostracize players who were out injured, or deemed 'weak' because they had apparent psychological issues. Former youth prospect Vincent Pericard — who made his Champions League debut for Juventus at age 19, but ended his career a decade later with Havant & Waterlooville in England's sixth tier — admits that, "I had low value ... low energy, not having any motivation." The player would "put on a brave face for training for two to three hours, then go home and remove it."
Soccer "is meant to be a team sport but really it is very individualistic," Pericard says. "My teammates had their own challenges to go through. They didn't have the space, the capacity, the skill or knowledge to sympathize and have compassion for what I was going through and to help." He compares being a player to being a singer "applauded by 60,000 people — as soon as the show is finished, they go back to their hotel room and feel very, very lonely, because there's no intimate relationship with any one."
This sense of isolation recurs time and again with those suffering from mental health issues, especially in a competitive sporting environment where judgment can be much more forthcoming than warmth, advice and therapy, and where former Bolton Wanderers player Marvin Sordell (photo above) found that having hobbies outside of soccer — he played piano and enjoyed cooking — were actively discouraged. His mother received a call from the club chairman saying he needed to drop such activities and focus on his game. "My whole identity," says Sordell, "was wrapped up in a game and performance which at times you don't even get to participate in" if you've been dropped or are out injured.
A few months after the chairman's call, following a move to Charlton Athletic the player didn't want, Sordell attempted suicide. The actual suicide of Wales coach Gary Speed in 2011 jolted the UK game into the realization that its house was out of order, and the following year the Professional Footballers' Association set up a Wellbeing Department. Its head, Dr. Michael Bennett, says, "I don't deal with footballers, I deal with a person that plays football." Persons who may also like to play the piano or cook.
Much-traveled striker Marcus Bent talks with great insight about the pitfalls of retirement and his descent into cocaine addiction to fill the gap. A young Scottish player, Angus Beith, who was forced to retire through injury at the age of 23, describes how enrolling with the Open University (studying from home) helped him "creep out of that football identity that I'd had since I was younger." Betting, drug and alcohol addictions also enforce the impression of the sport as a stranglehold on the lives of confused and helpless young players stuck in an illness they can barely start to comprehend, let alone seek help for.
Yet in every chapter of this book there is hope, with multiple support bodies both within and outside of the game having been founded in response to cases that have garnered publicity and raised questions that seem obvious with hindsight. "Why did we not see this coming? Why are there no networks in place to help suicidal or addicted or injured soccer players?" Increasing numbers of people in soccer are realizing that not only is suppressing problems unhealthy, it is no longer necessary. If your club's not sympathetic to your plight, you now have the chance to find one that is. Although many clubs are still very much in the learning phase, too.
And soccer still has some major problem areas, such as gambling and the numerous betting firms that make a huge profit out of misery and addiction. Lowery points out that "the gambling industry in Great Britain makes around £14 billion ($17 billion) in gross profit each year, but contributes less than £20 million ($24 million) to pay for research, education and treatment on gambling addiction. By contrast, the industry spends roughly £1.5 billion ($1.8 billion) a year on advertising — around 75 times the research, education and treatment amount."
The author also examines the huge number of players left behind by soccer's academy system, and what that does to the vast majority of teenagers whose dreams of wealth and glory are suddenly extinguished when they don't make the cut. Former Leicester City youth player Ellis Myles tells the story of how he ended up in jail for a year for drug possession after being rejected, and how he used that year to rebuild his identity and his life. A body called PlayersNet now fills the gap left by clubs who dump players from their 'elite' programs, although — lamentably — it's not supported by the clubs themselves.
Lowery also looks at schemes run by fans of Newcastle United, Bournemouth and Motherwell FC in Scotland that help steer fans away from suicide. Again, an individual’s identity is inter-linked with depression. Although such support groups are not a panacea, they give depressive supporters a more accessible channel compared with established medical outlets. Ashley Lowe of Newcastle United Foundation says that soccer has "such a huge voice, but the sport itself can reach millions upon millions of people". (If only the owners of her club were not exploiting this realization in a counterproductive way.)
There is a core message running through this valuable and necessary book: there's no need to wear a mask any longer, and you and your mental health are more important than the game and the sometimes superficial sense of identity it can give you. But the game is waking up, and help is there if you need to reach out. Keep talking, try to keep pushing back against ignorance and prejudice, and the waning macho culture of ‘shape up or get out’ can be banished for good.
• "Match Fit: An Exploration of Mental Health in Football" By Johnnie Lowery, available through Amazon on Kindle for $12.99.