Mental Health in Sport

Mental Health in Sport

Awareness of mental health problems faced by sportsmen and sportswomen is certainly increasing.

One in four of us will suffer with mental health problems in our lives, from feeling slightly depressed occasionally to taking our own life, the effects are wide ranging but often as  troubling for those who are affected both directly and indirectly.

If you go online you can instantly see the volume of information that is out there and the number of bodies and organisations that are working tirelessly to offer information and help for those affected. The Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation was launched last year in conjunction with the mental health charity, Mind, and alongside the Professional Players Federation (PPF). The country’s biggest sports organisations have all signed up to the charter including The FA, Rugby Football Union, English Cricket Board and UK Athletics.

In my sport, football, there have been a number of high profile cases in recent years of players, and ex-players, struggling with their mental health and associated illnesses. We have watched Paul Gascoigne’s well documented struggles through the media for many years, Clarke Carlisle battling his illness and subsequent excellent work in raising awareness and of course, the tragic death of Gary Speed several years ago. The Professional Footballers Association have a 24 hour helpline for current and former players to call if they are worried about their mental health or addiction problems.

This is all great, but it is a start, and only a start. In my sixteen year career, my mental state was never addressed at any of the clubs I was associated with. Sure, managers and coaches would often comment that a player “wasn’t right mentally” to play, but no offer of support from an outside source was ever made, nor would it have been taken had it been offered. We had a poster on the dressing room wall at one of my clubs stating that ‘Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body’, and this, in my humble opinion, is the problem.

Athletes are afraid to show any sign of weakness, physical or especially mental. It is ingrained in them from a very early age not to show your opponent that you are hurt, do not give him/her the upper hand in any way. I trained and played in games when I was in no physical condition to do so, afraid that if I said I was hurt I would lose my place and never get it back. I had injections and took painkillers with no thought for my later life because I was so desperate to be on the field representing my team and more importantly holding my value to my employers.

Sport is an incredibly competitive environment, managers and coaches are constantly making decisions on individual’s progress at all stages of their development, from youngsters right through to experienced professionals. To be labelled as someone with a mental health problem during your career could be seen as catastrophic to career hopes and plans.

A physical injury is an occupational hazard to an athlete, something that can be quantified and assessed accurately, with a time frame for your return. A club, team, manager, or coach will stick by the athlete knowing he/she will be back. An admission of a mental health problem does not work like that, there are no previous statistics to work from, every problem and individual’s reaction to treatment or therapy is different.

The increased awareness and help that is on offer is fantastic, but I fear that until athletes feel that opening up about mental health issues will not count against them and hamper their career prospects it will stay as a taboo subject and they will continue to suffer in silence. I hope I am wrong.


About the author : Andrew Thomson has played football professionally for a number of years for clubs including Bristol Rovers, Portsmouth and Swindon Town. He now works in the Personal Stability department, Tactic Counsel offering support to organisations and athletes addressing issues such as mental health and athlete support. 

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