Johnnie Lowery's 'Match Fit' -- tackling soccer's many mental health issues

BOOK REVIEW — "Match Fit: An Exploration of Mental Health in FootballBy Johnnie Lowery  (Pitch)

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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.

Other resources:
U.S. Soccer: Mental Health Guide
Common Goal: USWNT for Mental Health
Mental Health Resources for Athletes
Voices of Mental Health (short film)

8 comments about "Johnnie Lowery's 'Match Fit' -- tackling soccer's many mental health issues".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 20, 2023 at 11:07 p.m.

    There is nothing special about soccer that relates to mental health, except tying the book to soccer is a marketing plus. Participants (not fans) should get one of the many good books on sports pyschology. That is specifically useful information to everyone. It is about increasing performance levels, not mental health problems. For fans, I thought the best book was Fever Pitch. It is best thought of as a case study.

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, September 21, 2023 at 1:41 a.m.

    What an odd comment. I think you should read the book.

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, September 21, 2023 at 12:21 p.m.

    Ian, I think it is odd to think soccer players and fans have unique mental health problems.

  4. Grant Goodwin, September 21, 2023 at 1:01 p.m.

    Bob-I don't think it is odd at all.  When someone's entire identity is wrapped around soccer and it becomes who they are and not what they do...problems will present themselves.  These can be unique problems because soccer is the most popular sport in the world and no other sport comes close in teams/leagues/countries in which they can ply their trade.  
    -In what other sport can a child leave their home and potentially go thousands of miles away to chase their dream (Away from family and friends)? But when they don't have what it takes...they simply get discarded.  How does a child (who may now be an adult) handle that? 
    -There are no academies (at least in this country) other than soccer that will take their child (not even necessarily a teenager yet and try to develop them into a pro athlete.  
    -These children/teenagers are supposed to get an education at these academies, but the main focus is the sport of soccer.  

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, September 21, 2023 at 5:11 p.m.

    Grant, and you think that depressions and obsessions are problems unique to soccer?

  6. humble 1, September 21, 2023 at 2:56 p.m.

    Real world example.  My son gave up over time piano, chess, karate, rugby, baseball, and last winter skiiing, he had trophies in all, many - all to play soccer - with an eye on getting a spot in college.  He is a senior in HS.  We are blessed.  He will be signing on signing day in November.  What if he did not?  I know families that moved to be in MLS Academies and the kids are struggling - not to be pros - but to get a decent college offer!  This is just one subset of kids and young adults that have to process the realization that their soccer future is limited - the HS seniors - boys and girls.  In my town - the MLS Next (club's) academy was famous for it's revolving door - not with coaches - but with players - I knew a lot of these kids and families - we stayed away - took different path - only because I learned from Uruguay - what a real academy looks and operates like - many of those kids and their families struggled to deal with the exits.  Then - there were the families that moved here to be in the Academy.  Most soccer careers end earlier than the original dream - this is ok - most kids and families along the way - in the endeavor grow and share time together - there are exceptions - kids, young people, adults and their families that struggle - this book - is for them.  Offers real world experience and resources.  When you are in that boat - can be a life saver.  Thank you Ian and SA and especially Johnny Lowery, as he writes this - not to get rich - but the enrich others.  Well done! 

  7. humble 1 replied, September 21, 2023 at 3:04 p.m.

    not to get rich - but to enrich others.  Normally I don't self-correct inspite of my many typing and spelling errors - this one - I must.  I've used these types of books - not in the soccer context - but in other situations I've encountered - where mental health was a factor.  It is always - the first hand experience books like Lowery's - rather than the DSM or MMPI text books that have been helpful. Thank you again!  Sunny days to all!  

  8. Kent James, September 21, 2023 at 3:41 p.m.

    The downside of all the competition to weed out the pretenders from the pros, is that the vast majority will never be pros. For that reason, youth programs should be designed first to keep kids playing the game, hopefully as adults, at whatever level suits them.  If the kids who have aspirations to play pro but don't make it are all just incidental damage, that's a lot of damaged kids (pretenders is too harsh a term, but kids who are in consideration for being at the top but don't quite make it).  A good program will help all its players become the best players they can be, and hopefully, the pros can pull some player up rather than knocking the rest down. 

    As for Sordell's chairman, that guy is not thinking right.  It is impossible to train/play/think of soccer every hour of every day.  Players need downtime, and as the article says, a different identity for when soccer is not everything they want it to be.  Cooking and playing the piano would be about as perfect complements to soccer as I can imagine; having teammates over for a (healthy, inexpensive home-cooked) meal, playing the piano while teammates gather round to sing...what's not to like?  Downhill skiing, maybe not, but you want well-rounded players...

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