More and more sportspeople are being vocal about their struggles with mental health. Well publicised tragedies have shown the world the dangers of hiding these things, of putting on a mask. Because as a sports person you shouldn’t feel like this, should you? You’re doing what you love, maybe you’ve even achieved everything you dreamed of. So why do you feel like this? Why aren’t you happy? Why does every day feel so hard, like the clouds have gathered and joy is ever more elusive.
And of course you can’t tell anyone, can you? Sport is for strong people, weakness is something to hide, and to be ashamed of. And if you’re a Christian perhaps you feel this even more deeply. I know I’m supposed to be content in my relationship with Jesus, I know he’s supposed to be enough for me, I know I’m supposed to be thankful… but everything just feels so bleak and I’m just so lost. What’s wrong with me?
Thankfully awareness of these issues is increasing, as is the support available for those who are suffering. And it is needed. Mental health issues are soaring higher than ever, and unsurprisingly the pandemic has only added fuel to the fire.
In The Mask, a recent episode of More Than Sport, John Paul Davies was joined by Michael Bennett and Graham Daniels to delve into these issues. Michael Bennett, following the untimely death of Gary Speed, was appointed Director of Player Welfare for the PFA, while Graham Daniels is the Director of Football at Cambridge United alongside his role at Christians In Sport. Both Bennett and Daniels have undertaken PhD research into mental health in elite sport as well as working with athletes on the ground, and so were able to paint a picture of what life is like for those struggling with mental health conditions.
Bennett highlighted four themes which arose from his research on the experience of mental health in footballers.
Graham Daniels shared how these issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic. It has been an extremely unsettling time with calendar uncertainties, salary cuts and lots of players out of work. As a result, he said, “the anxiety levels from the top of the business to the bottom are higher than I’ve ever seen in my working life.” Daniels also talked about ‘the mask’ that players put feel they have to put on, when they are performing in front of thousands of people who only judge you by your performance, with the pressure to look good in front of the coach and your peers and to be able to take everything in your stride rather than showing weakness.
So with the problem a very real one, and an increasing need for support, where is a sportsperson to turn?
Bennett highlighted the encouragement that many well-known athletes are speaking out about their struggles, which helps us to see more and more that to struggle with mental health is normal. In terms of how he responds when a player calls up for help, he really wants to encourage them that in making that call they have made a huge step. It is difficult to overcome the fear of failure, the fear of what others may think, so well done for making the call. There would then be space to work through the particular struggles that individual is facing. He was reassuring that from a PFA point of view, the support is there, it just needs to be made known and taken up. Lockdown has been positive in the sense that help is more widely available because it can be online, rather than being restricted by geographical location.
And how does a player get beyond the mask? How does a player match up who they really are with the mask they wear before others? Is it possible to face our vulnerabilities, and yet still feel loved? Is it possible to have a secure identity which is not based on circumstances or performance? This is where the Christian faith uniquely has an answer to these questions.
Daniels highlighted the two areas of satisfaction and security. The ‘moment of satisfaction’ comes, he says, when you acknowledge your frailty, your weakness and your vulnerability as a human being. But then you come to understand that God knows about that even more than you do, he sees everything that you are, and yet even in that moment, in your weak, rebellious state, he loves you enough to go to any lengths to restore your relationship with him. This in turn leads to security. In this love you are so safe now. There is somebody who is for you whether you are winning or losing, your performance no longer identifies you. You have a secure identity in the One who will never let you go.
What impact does that have? As Bennett said, “I began to enjoy football more once I was able to recognise that I was more than a footballer and my faith enabled me to do that.”
Mental health is an issue for many sportspeople, and it is so important that we keep on talking about it. If you are struggling with your mental health, know that you are not abnormal, and you are not alone. Talk to somebody, get help, and above all know that the One whose opinion matters the most knows exactly how you’re doing, and loves you still.
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