Depression in Football

Football is a sport you are supposed to enjoy – Right? Sometimes it is not as simple as that writes CLAIRE WILLIAMS.

If you suffer depression football can be both the cure and the cause of anguish or deeper depression.

Often when I was depressed football was my one consistent escape – maybe I was withdrawn and less loquacious than normal, but getting out there in the fresh air and playing or training was confirmation that life was worth living and whatever problems were in my life – football was my escape for 2 hours or 90 minutes on a Sunday.

If you don’t suffer from depression this may sound strange and I would stress that depression manifests itself differently in every individual. When I was at clubs, it was never really talked about openly and it’s only as I have got older I wonder if that was a discomfort issue or that it was the best way to deal with me. Sometimes acting normal around me, like there is nothing to worry about can be an anathema to the low mood and introspection.

There were always some people who knew that I had difficulties and in the most part, management were excellent at making my life simple and alleviating any difficulties in respect of training or failure to attend functions. As long as I performed on a Sunday and worked hard in training my self-isolation or temporary truculence was ignored.

There is a lot of bravado in life and in football and often to show weakness is to show vulnerability. We live in a dog eat dog world where there is always someone looking to take your place or make your position less comfortable. I have met some players who saw this as a way to get at me and I sometimes reacted in ways that I should not have. The worst part about this is that afterwards, I was the one who carried the emotional baggage for weeks or months

Another problem with football is that the ferocity of competition that drives us on and gets the best out of us can also expose you to mental fragility or insecurity. We dig deep to climb high and sometimes the reservoir can be empty. This is when you need to talk to friends, family, and the club. Football is full of characters that have seen and experienced much in their lives and most will be more than happy to help you when you struggle.

Sometimes this life can take a toll on you, particularly if you suffer from clinical depression. It has many guises – Lack of belief, Lack of confidence, Insecurity, Paranoia, feeling unworthy. I used to call them the Black Dog days and it is akin to swimming up a waterfall made of treacle.

For me I found that I was always very withdrawn and often on the periphery of my clubs. I was always friendly and supportive but often felt misunderstood or that some felt I thought I was special and hence my aloofness. Often I would not participate and be part of the social side. To be fair this was less trouble, playing higher up the ladder, as that is a more normal attitude.

I would say that whist I believe team bonding is very important this can be built on the pitch as well as on an evening out. But maybe letting your hair down and having a drink works for the majority. They certainly had a lot of fun.

I definitely do regret that I was never able to get the most out of the social side of football and often missed Christmas parties and even failed to attend the Millwall Player of the Year presentation, when I won. I was happy playing on the pitch in front of people but not so keen on being under the spotlight in this type of situation.

I remember reading that a young player I knew had tragically taken her own life, when she was at West Ham. I had played with her at Charlton. She was a lovely girl and totally different to me in the way she handled herself. She had always been at the centre of the group and was universally popular and funny and fully ensconced in all the activities- football or otherwise. This demonstrates that we all handle depression and stress in different ways. You genuinely cannot tell who is suffering as at times we all put on act or as I said earlier- Football can help you as you can maybe leave the depression at the ground entrance. Trouble is of course you usually find it waiting for you when you come back out.

I wish I could have spoken to her and made a difference, as I am sure all who knew her and liked her would say.  I have had three suicide attempts in my twenties and as you get older your perspective changes and you realise nothing is insurmountable and you will always have people who understand life’s difficulties and the trials and tribulations that life throws your way. Essentially things can seem desperate under the black clouds but sometimes the light is closer than you think. I got to a point where I felt if this is the worst life can throw at me, I might as well hang around for the better days – a kind of life affirming obstinacy.

I can’t lie it was often the case that football would rescue me from the darkness. I would be really low and the thought of playing on Sunday would pull me through the dark days and afford me some hope and feeling of being needed. I feel most happy when I am playing football and despite my distance I loved the banter. I did not like the unnecessary besmirching of players or how a group can turn on an individual, the political machinations and manoeuvrings of players to better themselves on the backs or at expense of others. 

I am yet to know what it is like when you give up the playing side of game completely but am aware of top players in our game suffering from the vacuum left behind. How do you fill the time? How do you get that feeling of self-worth? Feel that your life is focused on something greater that yourself. We see male players like Paul Gascoigne suffering and turning to drink and drugs- anything to escape the massive void left behind – the training ground banter, the match day adrenalin. I made the choice of playing on at a lower level but I understand that this cannot work for everyone and as you get older this brings a different set of problems – you hear whispers – I thought she was good or she is not all that. When you are feeling low you take it on board far too personally. It’s only my fiancée who can add some perspective and laugh at me saying they wouldn’t have got near you 10 years ago and you’re still better than them now. Sometimes this works – sometimes not.

Well known international players maybe don’t have the luxury of dropping down as the way football is played is so different and the enjoyment is not really there.  They also have to think about their reputation and I really hope that in most cases they have achieved enough to walk away from the playing side feeling satisfied with their achievements. This is not something us people with depression find very easy, as we often readily take a lot of the blame but give up being part of the glory far too easily.

I  have made mistakes in my football life, bad decisions, bad reactions to situations, taking people seriously who were not worth any credence. I think my depression informed my choices in clubs that I went to. I often went to the struggling clubs not because I couldn’t have gone higher but because I wanted to feel a more visceral sense of helping those around me.

I think that my depression has cost me a lot but it is who I am and in some ways it has made me a better person. I stand up for the weak and I empathise with anyone who finds challenges in their life for I know that life in general is not always easy and life in sport can be harder still. But when you overcome these tests you are a winner whatever league you play in and sport will give you back so much more than it ever takes.

Keep the ball moving.  

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