A Footballer's Shadow
Written by Jamie Barnwell
The beautiful game, our beautiful game, my beautiful game. From its humble beginnings in 1863, the game of football has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. Football has continually evolved at a lightning rate. It's now faster with lighter boots, lighter balls, and immaculate pitches. Off the pitch technology allows games to reach a world-wide audience through television and social media. The game is constantly in the spotlight, as are the players and staff. But in the shadows of that spotlight are the less glamorous parts of pro-football. The stakes are high, the pressure to perform even higher. Thousands of screaming fans line the playing field. Children look up to you for your strength and ability and although the pay is great, that unspoken pressure builds, pressure that makes professional athletes vulnerable to mental illness.
I have lived in those shadows. The media is starting to shed more light on active players and former players like me who have experienced mental illness. There are many of us in football: best estimates are that that 1 in every 4 of us will experience mental illness within our lifetime. Current squad sizes would suggest that as many as 10 players could be experiencing poor mental health within most clubs at any given time (not to mention the well-being of coaching staff, backroom staff and everyone that contributes to the running of a football club). How did we get here? Why are people unable to reach out for support? The inside story about football is that it can be hard on mental health.
Young players are joining professional teams earlier than ever before, potentially at eight or nine years old. I was lucky that I did not become an associate schoolboy at a professional club until I was fourteen. I stayed within my familiar football social circles, school football, my Sunday team and representative teams. My initial commitment to the club was to travel through at half terms and spend most or all of the school break training and playing trial matches. I got to spend most of my time just being a kid, playing out with friends, going to the youth club, trying my hand at other sports. It meant most of my football was social and recreational, fun, really fun, in an environment set by my friends and I and where I could pretend to be John Barnes or Ian Wright without a care in the world.
"The game is constantly in the spotlight. But in the shadows of that spotlight are the less glamorous parts of pro-football. The stakes are high and the pressure to perform even higher."
The modern game is an easy sell to young players and their parents, but with the rigors of three training sessions a week and a weekend game, the glamour can start to fade and the demands on the players and their families can begin to show. For some parents this means leaving work early, commuting in tea time traffic, and getting home late on an evening just to be back to the grind the very next day.
As I progressed as a player, my commitment to the club grew. At 15, I began training and playing for the youth team. This meant a weekly 140 mile trip down to the club on a weekend. The train could get me in on time for the game on a Saturday morning but the train was expensive. I grew up with my twin sister in a single parent family so the weekly financial burden was a big ask. So much so I'd often get the cheaper coach service which left on a Friday afternoon.
Player reviews and feedback were part of development then as they are now. My reviews at this stage weren't great. A growth spurt had led to some ungainly performances on my part as I tried to adjust to my new longer limbs and maturity. Modern coaches would probably recognize this stage in my development, an advantage for young players developing now. But my coaches didn't recognize this and my feedback was simple, I'd gone "backwards" as a player. A simple but crushing assessment especially with no development plan offered, just that one word left hanging. Football had suddenly gone from a carefree environment to feeling like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and on my mind. I was now dealing with anxiety on the journey down, in training and in matches. Crushing tightness in my chest, shortness of breath and dizziness were now part of my football routine, as were dark, lonely and depressed journeys home. That was just one assessment, young players now are regularly assessed. What if they're not quite ready? What if they're not good enough? Over the course of a season, or several seasons if the player is lucky enough to stay in the mix, the stakes become even higher, threatening the mental well being of players and parents alike.
"Football had suddenly gone from the environment where I didn’t have a care in the world to feeling like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders and on my mind."
The chances of becoming a professional footballer are slim especially in the modern game with just a tiny percentage of young players making it on to the apprenticeships at 16. Despite the mental challenges I faced, I was one of the fortunate ones who made it, beginning my apprenticeship with the inception of the Premier league in 1992. Not long after joining we had our first individual reviews as apprentices. There was a lot of positive things said to me in that review, I was no longer going backwards, I'd got to grips with my maturation and had made strides as a player, but, what was also said to me repeatedly, was that I might be "too nice" to be a footballer. It swirled around in my head for weeks. I couldn't make sense of it. How could being a nice person be detrimental in life? It conflicted my upbringing, my self-image. Being a nice kid was one of the things I felt was one of my good qualities.
Then, in the early part of that season, I picked up a minor injury. I was placed on crutches as a precaution and whilst hobbling down the corridor at the training ground, one of the coaches asked if I was "soft"? Was I going to be one of those “soft” ones that was always injured? Now I was "soft" and "too nice". I couldn't get these labels out of my mind. They kept me awake at night, the morning would come and with it, anxiety and fear of my dream ending. The same coach would throw little comments my way every few days "still injured? Are you too soft to train with your teammates?"
I didn't feel I could talk to anyone, especially other coaches and even though we had a good group of players, the changing rooms could be a brutal place at the best of times with craic and banter flying about. I didn’t want to be the topic of banter. I did not want to be made fun of for being “unmanly.” In this business, everyone assumes you’re untouchable from both physical injury and mental health illnesses. This assumption created a hyper-masculine environment that torn away at my self-esteem even more. Every day I questioned who I was and felt I had nowhere to turn. Even worse, football now bore no resemblance to my beautiful game. It wasn't fun, I didn't feel safe, and I felt lonely and isolated. I felt I had nowhere to turn. Who could I talk to?
Not having the opportunity to talk as a young player or feeling I had nowhere to turn meant I carried mental illness through my teens and into adulthood. I held on to the dream for as long as I could. I knew for every player like me that had made it there were probably a thousand who hadn't. Many of those had probably faced their own football induced demons as their professional football dream died. But suppressing and hiding my feelings and fears every day within professional football had eventually became too much.
On the way to training one day I stopped the car halfway through the journey. I hadn't slept properly for weeks, my hands were sweaty, my heart was beating out of my chest, I couldn't breathe, I just broke down in tears. It was like a release valve. I knew then it was time to leave the game for the sake of my mental health. The modern way of recruiting players means they could be facing that battle before they reach their double digits.
What is the real price of the "footballing" dream?
Thankfully, the Premier League, Football League, F.A., PFA, and LMA have begun to change. People are now realizing the challenges to mental wellbeing the beautiful game can place on players, coaches, managers and staff alike. There are support networks and programs in the organizations to support young scholars, established professionals, and ex-players. There is still more to be done to challenge the stigma of mental illness within the game and within society as a whole but the fight is underway and I stand proud, as an ex-footballer who did not let the game tear him down. My only wish is that others within a professional athletic team are able to speak out and voice their frustrations. I hope that we see even more change within our beautiful game so that it may continue to be beautiful for generations to come.