One of the things you realise when working with elite athletes is that many define themselves by what they do. With that in mind, I foresee this period of shutdown as being extremely challenging for a huge number of people in the game.
This isn’t just a problem in sport but society in general and maybe is more applicable to men than women. But if a footballer isn’t playing football, and won’t be for several months, then who are they? Many find it hard to see themselves as husbands, sons, fathers or friends. For them the next few weeks are going to be highly stressful and I’ve already begun to see an upturn in the number of referrals to see me.
Part of the issue is that many footballers are institutionalised in the everyday camaraderie that a club offers. One player I work with admitted that the thought of not seeing the “lads” every day and enjoying all the “banter” would be detrimental to his mental health. “Don’t tell the club, but I’d play for nothing,” he told me.
He’s back home right now, many miles away both geographically and emotionally from the “lads”, and I know he is concerned about what the future may hold.
That player is certainly not alone. I am part of a wellbeing WhatsApp group for players and athletes around the country and earlier this week one individual posted a picture of his garden tools with the caption: “I’m not sure I can put up with this any longer”.
Many in the game will sympathise with the sentiment. My job is to help vulnerable young men and the coaching staff make sense of the world, and to be honest there’s not much sense in current events. Sport gives meaning to those involved in the game. Each week at a club is measured out by training schedules, video analysis, strength and conditioning work, recovery from injury to get back to first team football, scouting work, negotiations with contracts and agents.
In normal circumstances psychologists would describe football clubs as ‘VUCA’ – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Well, things are definitely ‘VUCA’ right now, and from a psychological point of view that is concerning because the one thing we can’t bear is uncertainty. One the greatest advances on the London Underground in the last one hundred years, for example, have been the overhanging platform signs that tells commuters how long before the next train will be. Having the knowledge of how long we need to wait gives us a sense of comfort that keeps us from all manner of behaviours motivated by anxiety and fear.
In football that sense of certainty is provided by the rhythm of matches and seasons, and at present that does not exist. Instead, coaches and players are sitting at home, wondering what the future holds. Some may have contracts that expire on June 30th, which is another cause of concern, while more are employed by clubs who must be worrying about their future and whether they can survive this crisis.
That impacts on your day-to-day life. Training from home is fine if there’s an end goal in sight. That motivation can change if your next fixture might be a month, two months, three months or even six months away.
This is also a potential issue for fans as well, with so many using football as an emotional safety valve. I was at Kenilworth Road earlier this season, for example, and was taken aback by a man in his 60s who spent the 90 minutes hurling abuse at all and sundry before, at the final whistle, turning round and saying: “Good game that”.
I’d argue that match was a form of therapy for a man who wanted to safely let off steam. My concern is where that anger and frustration goes without football.
Another issue is that many of us find refuge in idle thoughts regarding our team, and that escapism is strongly ingrained for most people. Again, without those distractions, life becomes more and more difficult – and at the moment that is clearly an issue.
This is something fans, players and coaches are going to have to get used to. We are living in difficult times and the lack of football will have a huge impact on all manner of people.