Ep. 34 - Having good mental fitness: Mental Health Awareness Week
Ep. 34 - Having good mental fitness: Mental Health Awareness Week

How is the gospel good news for those in sport suffering with mental health concerns?

Danno unpacks research around identity and community that can be a real help to elite and competitive sportspeople.

You can listen to our podcast here, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts from.


Hey, welcome, thanks so much for joining us. This week is it's Mental Health Awareness Week. So this week we wanted to ask this question, Why is the gospel good news for those suffering in the world of sport with mental health concerns? It's a big question at the moment, a recent survey said 64% of adults consider playing in a local sports league to be good for mental health. And that importance is gonna increase after lockdown, isn't it? And at the moment, within the UK, we are in some form of lockdown were allowed to go a little bit but not huge amount, is rightly been talked about as something which employers, clubs, teams, and churches need to be aware of at this time. Just today, the Professional Football Association had a survey released. They said 22% of those footballers they surveyed at the moment, at the top level of the game, had been feeling a level of depression at the moment. There's real anxiety, 69% worried about their future career. So there's these real big questions and issues going on right at this moment in time. But also it's generally been a conversation which been prominent in the last few years. We've had the "Take a Minute Campaign" in football. Lots of FA Cup games, if you remember all the way back then to January, seems a long time ago now, they started a minute late to encourage them to have a think about well being. The back of the EFL shirts you may have seen, they've got that squiggle that's the mind logo on the back as it's sponsored the EFL the EFL have spotted it this year. And then there's been lots of chats in different sports as well. I think cricket my big passion and love, three Australian international players took a break recently because of mental health concerns. It's a prominent film called "The Edge" which looks at that in 2013 around the England international team. So it's a huge topic and one which I don't think anyone listening will disagree is worth talking about. So I've got Graham Daniels, I've got Danno with me. Now Danno as well as our General Director, at Christians in Sport, you're also on the board at Cambridge United and Cambridge have been really well known, you've won awards for your work in mental health. You've signed up for mental health charter, you've pioneered a campaign in local schools, so there's definitely some insight to bring here before we look a bit more deeply at the gospel and the good news it brings here. So give us a feel Danno for you at Cambridge, what has it been like? What have you guys been working on?

- Well, as you said Jonny, we have a real aspiration to be a mentally healthy football club and we've worked hard at that for the last couple of years. One of the most interesting things that you mentioned there for me, was how sad it is that the Football Association who have driven The Heads Up Campaign this year, and it was a real significant influence considering mental health in professional football. Godric Smith, who's the chairman of that campaign for the FA is on the board of Cambridge united. And so the Duke of Cambridge and Thierry Henry and Peter crouch, Julian Genus, and Danny rose and Dan Walker, all came to Cambridge United to film the right royal team talk, which was shown again this week. So deeply embedded in our own football club is a desire to be better at addressing mental health. I think if we were to be specific right now, in lockdown, probably three things spring to mind. Number one, for players who we knew wouldn't be retained on a contract after the 30th of June, we made a decision that we would tell those men early rather than later to treat them with maximum dignity in a very painful period when they know they're going to be out of work at the end of June. So we made that move very early to give them the best possible opportunity to prepare for the future. Secondly, for a number of players, particularly those who live in the vicinity, they're off work, they're on furlough. We've engaged them in alternative versions of work as volunteers in our Trust. They've been visiting people and delivering food, we have a "Here for U's" campaign, where we found all our season ticket holders and said if anyone wants to call this number at this time, they'll always be somebody there to chat. At the beginning that wasn't so popular but as time has gone on, people are living alone, and really glad to chat, and players and staff have been involved in that also. And I think those two things for our playing and backroom staff, in their own community, have given them a sense of well being at a time when you could actually be quite worried and lonely about the future yourself as a staff member of the club. So there's been plenty going on at our club as there is at many other clubs in the Premier League and the EFL. We've heard of whole cohorts who are committed to mentally healthy football clubs.

- Great. It's really helpful to hear what's going on. But with a Christian in Sport Podcast, we're speaking to people, some who may have a faith, many who won't, listening in. So it's probably helpful at the start, we just established some principles to our conversation before we dive in about how the gospel is good news. So we probably need to lay out what we can't speak about 'cause we're not experts. We're not professional experts when it comes to mental health. We're not doctors neither me nor you are. So maybe it's help outline a few of the principles which you think are helpful as we dive into this conversation.

- I think for football clubs, and indeed of course, as you mentioned, cricket clubs, rugby clubs, hockey clubs, netball clubs, for the whole gamut of sport in our country, aspiring to be a mentally healthy institution does demand the kind of rigor and analysis that you've just described. So let's do an analogy. Any of us will have enough knowledge to know that if you go for a walk everyday, if you're able to get some fresh air, in terms of physical health, that's going to be better for your physical health, pretty mundane and we all know it. If somebody gets cancer, then they need a clinician. So nobody can say, "Well, I know what to do." If you get a certain kind of cancer. There's no room for generalists, then. You need specific clinical care clearly. And I think there's an important parallel here to mental health. We're learning an awful lot in this generation, about the importance of good mental health. And there are very fundamental things that are generic about good mental health; having good relationships with people, having people who you can love and receive love from, having space and not working all the time, giving yourself alternative ways to think about your life that aren't dominated by charging around every day, traveling and working. So we know instinctively and in terms of evidence that there are general things we can all do, and advise people to do. But when people have a serious mental health condition, you call for the clinician. Your football club community trust doesn't deal with that. You pass them on to a specialist. So of course it's important to be discreet and wise in knowing the boundaries within which we can talk about mental health generally, when we're not clinicians.

- Yeah, and Welsh preacher, you'll enjoy this, Welshman Martyn Lloyd-Jones, he really helpfully says, he was a doctor wasn't he? Martin Lloyd-Jones, he helpfully said, "There is ill health "and for ill health, you go to a doctor," you go to an expert. If you're somebody suffering with mental health problems, you go to an expert. So he was going, "I can offer the gospel, I can offer hope. "But if there's a specific clinical issue, "then you go to an expert." And I think it's really important we say that right at the start, that we feel the gospel does offer hope, and it can offer real help at these times, particularly for people as they're suffering real anxiety, maybe real doubts, what's going on, it can offer real hope. But it's worth just establishing right at the start, although we know the stresses and pressures in workplace and public world of sport yourself particularly, we're not experts when it comes to mental health, but we can talk about mental fitness. So I think with that in mind, it's worth saying you're currently finishing off a PhD looking at identity formation in professional footballers. And now I've been reading Alistair Cook's autobiography, big cricket fan, I said, I love cricket. I love Alistair Cook particularly, I love the fact that he was so disciplined in his game, he wasn't flair, he had about four shots and he executed them brilliantly. But he talks a lot about the unique pressures of cricket. And it's quite interesting that actually there's been quite a lot around mental health in cricket recently with "The Edge" film, with three Australian international cricketers all being off with mental health issues over the last few years. And Cook says this, he says in his autobiography, "I'm not qualified to talk "about the intricacies of depression "or providing a clinical analysis of the condition "but any sport forces you into a negative space "quite a lot of the time because you invariably fail." What are your reflections as you think through mental fitness and health with that condition in at least top level sport?

- Well, older viewers and listeners will remember Richard Curtis's film "Four Weddings and A Funeral," it's a long ago now but it's pretty iconic. And it's been well said about professional sport, that you should reverse that, it's never four weddings and a funeral, it's four funerals and a wedding. And it's been said that if you wanna be a professional sports person, you really do have to have an infinite capacity for disappointment. So, Jonnny, there's clearly no doubt and particularly in contemporary culture with the advent of social media is normative now. The public pressure on elite performance athletes is vast, and of course, in the more popular sports or in a more public eye, depending on your fame, you're constantly being defined not as a human being, but you're constantly being defined as the woman who won that medal, or the guy who scored that goal. And every Saturday in professional soccer, which is which I know best, every single week, you're being defined as a success in life or a failure in life, depending on your achievement on the pitch. No human being, can flourish, when that is their only identity. And yet from being a young child, I'll stick with football, the best kid in your class, in your town, then in your region, then you're part of the country, and then you're with a professional football club, and then you're an apprentice, and by the time you're a professional, or by the time you're 18, and certainly if you become really well known, established as a professional, you know yourself as a professional footballer. Everybody knows you as a professional footballer. So one dimensional identity is so crippling emotionally that that's almost the bedrock or the pivotal thing we have to address for mental health, for good mental health.

- That's really interesting because one of the things again, I said, definitely not an expert in professional cricket but reading Alistair Cooker was fascinating 'cause he says, he struggled with a lot of issues going on with this form, the pressure of captaincy, the Kevin Pieterson affair. He thinks one of the reasons he didn't necessarily struggle as much as some other people was first his ability to switch off, he's never on social media. He said his schooling really helped him with boarding school, the discipline and focus as well but ultimately often goes to farming, he's a farmer. So he'd regularly go back to his farm just completely switching off from the stresses and strains of cricket. So he had seemingly at least two identities; he's a father, he's a husband as well but then as his other pros talk about it as the bizarre nature of his, it's one day be winning the ashes the next day the birthing lambs. So unpack this here on these multiple identities and then particularly what again, Christians in Sport Podcast, what does the Christian gospel offer here which may be a secular worldview wouldn't?

- Yeah, good. Well, I think you can put it as, I hope not too simplistically, but I think you can put it simply as something like this: You'd want a coach, let's stick with elite athletes here, you'd want to coach, an elite athlete, to actually say, "I play football." Not, "I am a footballer." Now the difference in that phraseology is critical. "I play football." "I am footballer." You're trying to help somebody from the get go as you said in the excellent Alistair Cook example, you are somebody's son, you are someone's best friend, you are someone's partner, or husband or wife. You are a footballer. You are somebody whose hobby is creative dance. All these things are what you are and therefore, in one sense, unless you're able to say I am all these things, then you must find a way of not having a sole identity in the way that the public wants to squeeze you into. "I am a footballer," you're are all of those things. So I find it easier to say, "I play cricket professionally." "I play football." That keeps your language, it keeps reminding you that that's not your identity. So let me just start there. I think that's got to be the starting point. And let me offer you one more thought. The way this is reinforced clearly, is that when you are in elite sport, Cook captures it brilliantly. I mean, they've got to be people, not just hobbies that you do or jobs that you do like farmer. There's got to be people in your life at the most prosaic level, who don't really care whether you win or lose on Saturday, not because they don't care for your feelings, but they care for you, regardless of your success or failure. Their love is unconditional, on the performance identity. If you don't have that, you're going to struggle to be mentally healthy as an athlete. Now, let me take one more step from there then. You've asked me about the Christian faith and how that influences what we know our principles of good mental health in elite sport. But clearly, the Christian faith is predicated on a significant non-secular fact. And it is a claim of a fact that there is a God and the way we can know that God is that he showed himself in coming into the world and being born as a human being, living and dying on a cross and beating death, doing two things; pointing out that he had the power to handle death, and he had the power to take us, if we trusted in him, into a relationship with God that would last forever. Now at the heart therefore, pivotal to Christianity, is what I would say is the definition of unconditional love, that God would do this for his creatures. So all human analogy and indeed reality, emotional reality of unconditional love for the Christian is drawn from, is predicated upon, the God who made us to be these kind of human beings to love each other. And that's Christianity, that's what it is.

- That's really, it's really helpful. These two things which I think you said recently on Sky Sports interview, establish research about identity in professional sport, you've got independent whether you win or lose, independent of your performance, you need to know that somebody loves you. Which potentially maybe is why I don't know when this is, this is correct to true but as people go on in their careers, they maybe have more of that around them than they would do when they're younger, you have a better balance on life. And you're saying here clearly that the Christian gospel irrespective of your age, or your stage, offers that unconditional love independent of whether you win or lose, whether you perform to a certain standard or not. You also said in that interview which we may want to reflect on a little bit more, you said if you achieve that better balance of knowing that you're loved whether you win or lose, you'll have a better vision for life beyond your sport. It'll make you a richer human being, which is critical for good health and in my head that's linking back to what you're saying you've done a Cambridge. Right at this moment you've gone, "Let's give you guys something richer "and broader than just a professional sports person." Why will an understanding of an unconditional love lead to a better vision for life beyond sport.

- Yeah, that's a really helpful question, Jonnny. I'll do my best to explain them. There's evidence for how these two things work together. Let's put it like this: We know that when you're not frightened, you'll probably play better. Fear is crippling. So professional sport is always dangerous, because you can always lose. I mean, many people have commented and watched "The Last Dance" on next Netflix about the Chicago Bulls last year with Michael Jordan and the great team that won six out of eight years in the NBA. What's remarkable about that team is they know danger. They know when they're in danger of losing the big game. But they'd never seem to have fear and there's a very discrete difference here. All elite sport has its danger because failure is around the corner. But fear, that's disabling. So I think what happens is when a human being knows that they are loved unconditionally, and in the Christian faith, when you actually have a faith that the very creator of your talents, I mean, this isn't even your best friend, your mom and dad, or your husband or wife, I mean, this is the creator who made your body in the womb, gave you that talent and doesn't judge you by how well you did on Saturday by it. Clearly, there's a liberation in that, there's a freedom, there's a lack of fear. You cannot, you cannot lose the love the Creator who made you able to run, jump and kick. You can't, winning or losing won't alter the love, that's what unconditional love is. Clearly in any facet of life, when you are free from fear, even in dangerous situations, like crucial moments of a game, what happens is, and this is the second part of it, you are liberated to think about other people, rather than looking internally at your own needs. That's what's critical. You can look at other people because your eyes are off yourself because you're not terrified and then you can see other people's needs. You can look at your teammates, you can see their fears or their hopes, or their uncertainty and you can serve your team better. So I would say they link like that. You'll never take away the danger of professional sport but you can take the fear away. Unconditional love takes out fear, perfect love casts out fear, says the New Testament. Once the fear diminishes, it doesn't ever really go because we're fractured human beings but once it retreats, you can look at other people rather than look in. Now you build a community. Now you love others in an authentic way, and your relationships become relational not transactional, to protect yourself to get through a game. Somewhere in there, the two luck, throw out fear, gain the capacity to have the security to love others.

- When we talk about the importance of unconditional love within that perfect love, unconditional love casts out fear. The Christian gospel offers the only guarantee of that, doesn't it? We can talk about spouses, we can talk about families, we can talk about, but actually ultimately, all of our other relationships are predicated on how we respond to each other. We may want with me and my wife, I long for it to be unconditional but ultimately I'm still, I am broken. And I there is some elements of conditioning there whilst with the gospel, it's clear, isn't it? That it is completely unconditional. So if someone was listening now and they would go, "Well, great, I get that and I've got those relationships. "But I don't need Jesus, why would I need Jesus" What would you be saying on why the gospel specifically can really help with our mental fitness, worth going back to the mental fitness not necessarily a clinical issue which needs medication, but our mental fitness. Why do you think the gospel offers such uniqueness?

- Well, you use the word gospel frequently, and then you interchange it with good news, Jonny. So let's nail this down.

- Yeah.

- I mean, the word gospel is a Greek word that is translated into English, good news. For example, one of the four accounts of the life of Jesus, Mark's account starts like this, "The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, "the Son of God." That's how it begins, the first words. And of course, that's from the Greek. Therefore, gospel is a Greek word which we translate as good news in English. So we're talking about good news. I mean, your question is, why is why is believing in God and trusting in Christ, good news? Well, I think again, there are two parts to the answer. I think first and foremost, as you rightly say, in a world if there is a God, which of course as a Christian one believes, then that God has created human beings in his image, says the Christian story, in his likeness, and he has made us like him. Well, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Christian belief and therefore he is in intuitively innately inherently relational three in one. So he's relational. So guess what, if he makes us like him, he makes us to give and receive love. That's why with our family and friends, and so we want to give and receive love. It's how we're wired. And equally, the creator of the universe, according to the Christian story, didn't just make one planet or even one galaxy, but hundreds of millions. He's creative, he's remarkable. And guess what, he made us creative. We're constantly thinking of new ways of tactics for our team and ways we might play and what players would work best and we spend our lives thinking like that in a sport. So the difference is, I think, to a an atheist worldview, is the belief that those things in humanity aren't there by chance, they're there by design. We were made to love and receive love without conditions. And we were made to interrelate to each other, to relate to each other, and to interact with each other, to make things happen in the world, to cultivate the world, to create things in the world. Well, if you're atheist, you say, "Well, that's just the way humanity is developed." And it's a very rich thing. And we should have ethics that buck it up. And I value that. I mean, the society without that kind of ethic of community and collaboration is a sad society. The Christian perspective says, "Oh, it's not a mistake that that's happened. "I mean, there's a God was like that. "And we can know the God who is like that, "because he showed himself to us in the most intimate, "loving, generous human being who ever lived, "who loved people so much "that he was going to die on a cross to reach out to us." So if that's what God's like, it makes sense to say that Christianity is good news for mental health because it must be 'cause it aligns to the purposes of the very one who made us to live.

- Brilliant, and as we learn so, I wanted to take us through, you talked there, right at the start, it's good news that it's also we're designed to be in relationship. And I know particularly these last 6-8 weeks, you've been spending a lot of time with elite top level athletes in Bible studies with them, grappling with the Bible together and having community together and wrestling with some of these issues together. Why is church essential in all this? And I say that without giving the definition of what it is, but what would you be saying around church to do with mental fitness as well? 'Cause it seems to me that's a key aspect for helping us have multiple identities.

- Yes. Well, the research I've been able to do thus far on elite professional footballers who come to a belief in God and Christian faith in the course of their career shows one very basic and simple application of our conversation, I think. When it is intense, that you're judged by how well you did on Saturday, and your life feels like it depends on winning or losing, or certainly on playing well, you can get into a very, very one dimensional life where you don't see anybody who's not involved in football. Your whole week is consumed with playing and then your weekend was consumed, if you fail, particularly, with keeping away from everybody. At the heart of the Christian faith is their local church, I mean, probably look out your window and you'll see a spire somewhere. And for virtually a couple of thousand years that there have been churches in this country and certainly across Europe. Just picture this; you've played on Saturday, you've had a fantastic match, and you've won and the whole crowd cheered for you and social media thinks you're a star. But then the next morning, you wake up, you have a bit of discipline, you have a shower, have your breakfast, head off to church, in a church as a couple of hundred people and there's all people who have no interest whatsoever that you played football yesterday. And then there's somebody who's just had a baby, who's totally besotted with their little child. And then there's somebody who's got serious physical health problems and they're really troublesome but they're there that day. You've got or ethnicity, a range of ethnicities, a range of ages. And then you're humbled, you're one human being amongst others. Secondly, you think, "I'm a creature, not the Creator." And so church is a word we're used to as a religious word but in its original meaning, again, in its early formation of Christianity, it's an assembly. It's a gathering, it's a get together. It's a get together of all ages and stages in life. Well, what could be better for you as an elite athlete than to be in a room with people of all varieties and not to be so special that either everybody's fawning all over you or groveling and mourning because you lost yesterday? And I can tell you no Jonnny I've 30 years of this, when elite athletes can find a place of refuge like that, of normal community, where they share the experience of other people's gifts and talents, not just their own, that eclectic breadth creates a degree of stability, which the data I'm finding shows that they are so much more capable of navigating the end of their career, retirement, injury. Because, and this is the point you made earlier, they can see their optics have a better wider view of life than their own one dimensional performance identity. And it makes them healthier work colleagues in professional sport. So that's where I see the church fits in, if you like, to the broad mental health agenda of seeing yourself as more than only a player or a coach. It's very exciting when you see it, and so many players navigate their retirement from the game so much more effectively because they've engaged in this younger stage in life.

- No, great and thank you, Danno. Well, we hope it's helpful, as we've wrestled with some of these issues. It's Mental Health Awareness Week, people are thinking about it anyway. It's worth going right back to the start, we've said, "Hey, the difference between clinical "and non clinical," Martyn Lloyd-Jones that great quote, the great preacher, a doctor who said, "No, no, if you got a medical problem, you go to a doctor." And so I think it's worth being so clear, isn't it? That what we're not saying is get your identity sorted, understand unconditional love, get plugged into a church, and you will not have mental health problems. We're not saying that, that's not true. That's not biblical. That's a false gospel which says, come to Christ, come to Jesus and you won't have problems. And anyone living today will know that is not true. We need to make sure we're really, really clear on that. If you have problems, go to an expert, speak to an expert. But if you're listening and you're struggling with some of these questions, these issues, with where am I or who am I, what is going on at the moment, then we wanna say that the gospel is such good news to offer, it has real hope and stability. We think it really can help mental fitness. But we do also want to recognize we live in a fractured world now as well. So thanks Danno, thanks for joining us. It's worth flagging a few things which Donna, the Royal team talk, it's still on BBC iPlayer, Cambridge United, Prince William, the world of professional football as well is well worth a watch, "The Edge," "The 2013 Ashes Documentary," on an insight into some of the loneliness and the pressures of elite level sports. That is superb, there's lots of great documentaries out there but I'd recommend that one. And we encourage you to continue to wrestle and think these things through. We'd love to hear more, we know this is not the universal definitive statements on the Christian gospel of mental health, what we're saying now at all. So we'd love to hear from you, if you've got comments, questions, and things you want us to discuss and wrestle with we'd love to speak with you and hear from, you can get in touch with us on podcast@christiansinsport.org.uk or just find us on our website. We'd love to hear from you. But thanks so much for joining us, Mental Health Awareness Week. Thanks for joining us Danno. It's been great to have you with us. and we'll see you again soon. Good bye.

- Bye.

Get the perfect start every

A weekly devotional for sports people

Choose your game day