They have fame, salaries mere mortals could only dream of, and they play football for a living. What on earth could these demigods have to complain about? Before judging, it pays to look at the statistics. Recent research undertaken by FIFPro has shown that over 26% of professional footballers suffer from depression or anxiety which are the most common mental conditions in the world; the situation is even worse for retired players, 39% per cent of which are affected.

The study, involving current players in six countries, also found that 7% smoke, while 19% have problems related to alcohol. Footballers are hailed as heroes by their fans, but they often battle mental health problems that interfere with their ability to enjoy their hard-earned success.

Wasn’t Sport Supposed to be Good for You?

It is, perhaps, ironic that exercise is commonly prescribed to battle depression in seniors and young people alike. Numerous studies carried out in the past decade reveal that exercise can be helpful with a number of conditions, including stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD and more. However, in the case of footballers, their sport is actually the biggest source of stress, largely because of the competitive nature of the game.

Former New Zealand captain Chris Jackson, recently admitted that his disappointment at not making it into a top European team resulted in depression, which in turn prompted him to abuse drugs and alcohol. He also spoke of the intense pressure of captaining different teams: “I had to be the face of the team when going through tough times. It was coupled with depression as well. I often went inside myself and only found release by going crazy on drugs and alcohol…”

Clarke Carlisle, a former Premier League defender who attempted suicide at one point in his life, also spoke of the loneliness of success: “I knew what support mechanisms were out there but I was so poorly that I was totally introverted. That is why these illnesses are so dangerous, because they force you to disengage. That is the total opposite of what you need to do.”

In May this year, Everton winger Aaron Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act in the UK after showing signs of a stress-related disorder. Research shows that the number of footballers seeking professional help is soaring, indicating a need for increased protection of their mental health.

Keeping Footballers Mentally Fit

Team managers must start placing as much importance on building mental toughness off, as on the field. Footballers should mentally train with mindfulness techniques, which will help them focus their attention on the present moment and observe their thoughts and feelings without emotional reactivity. Research published in May this year in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, found that the mind, like the body, “needs regular mental exercise to keep it cognitively and emotionally fit.” Both relaxation techniques and mindfulness promote general wellbeing, but only mindfulness enhances players’ attention as well.

Top teams with players subject to high expectations and great psychological stress need to pay more attention to mental training. Mindfulness based activities such as yoga and meditation can help players deal with negative thoughts and emotions, without being overcome by them. A hallmark of a great athlete is his/her ability to thrive in hostile environments, but we are still in the early stages when it comes to recognising the problem and taking important measures to treat mental illness as the serious problem that it is in football. – By Sally

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