Mental health is something I've always regarded as something we enhance through youth sports. Until last week, I though mostly about positive enhancements. The youth sports platform is great, for example, for helping kids learn empathy, self-discipline, respect, gratitude, work ethic, mental toughness, etc. This is true, of course when the club, coach, and parent teams are not driving obsessively towards winning at the expense of these important foundational building blocks.
As a coach, my understanding of mental health in soccer has expanded to include working on a few of the typical challenge areas like developing courage, confidence, a sense of teamwork, and overcoming mental blocks that stifle performance. The Alter Ego Effect by Todd Herman is a great book I'd recommend if you're interested in overcoming mental blocks. It's always a huge victory for me when I see players overcoming mental challenges and emerging as newly improved players and people.
Last week, Hayley Woolner and her soon-to-be husband Paul and I found ourselves in one of the most interesting three-way conversations I've had in a long time. I was hiking up and down the staircase at the Wolverhampton Wolves training academy in the UK. While our players were getting some world-class training I was feeling cramped and unexercised after several days of long plane and bus rides. Hayley's desk was at the foot of the stairs. While I climbed up and down the small staircase to stretch my legs, I asked Hayley why she was there and what her passion is for soccer. She said: "My passion is for the ones that don't make it."
The Darker Side of Mental Health in Soccer
Hayley's question stopped me in my tracks. Literally. I turned, came down the stairs and parked myself in front of her with a big open question mark over my head. "What you just said got my attention," I told Hayley and Paul. "What is your background and what can you tell me about the players that don't make it? I'm interested."
Hayley is a mental health nurse. Paul worked security for the Academy. One of Hayley's biggest concerns is for mental health in soccer. One of the problems she would love to solve has to do with the unacceptably high suicide rate among players who don't make the cut.
As with any competitive process, getting onto a First team that plays in the English Premier league is a gauntlet. Kids start off very young. They train hard. They hope to get noticed. They try out - often more than once - to make the Academy. If they make the Academy, their first year is all about proving themselves. They compete against other players who have been playing since before they started primary school from countries where football (AKA Soccer) is by far the most popular sport everywhere - from backyards and schoolyards to pubs and stadiums. It would be fair to say that most everyone knows the game of soccer, millions of kids (and/or parents) have dreams of playing on a first team, and being in the culture or out of the culture have an impact on everyday life. The talent pool is deep and the competition for those coveted first-team spots is intense.
If a kid spends their entire life working towards one goal. If a family invests all of its resources towards one goal. If siblings are sidelined in favor of superstar players and those who are passed during the climb up the Academy selection process are looked down at as lesser capable people, mental health-related conditions like anorexia, anxiety, depression, and even suicide are often not far away.
The lights came on and left me feeling a little uneasy as I thought about the very small percentage of children who make the cut over and over again on their way to the first team - and even more about the vast majority who don't. With Hayley's help, I saw in my mind's eye all the kids who were NOT there with us that day. There were many more kids NOT there than there were there that day, and I found myself wondering about the mental health of the players who had made it this far.
Less Visible Mental Health in Soccer Challenges
I'm sure that what I'm talking about here is not limited to soccer but since you and I spend time together in the context of soccer, I'll start there. I once had a father get very angry with me. His son was one of my lesser engaged players. He often didn't seem to want to be on the field. I was conflicted about pushing him during a game or allowing him instead to lead me where he really wanted to be. This player wasn't technically gifted and to be sure, I hadn't really found a position on the field that he excelled at. He seemed to enjoy being higher up the field in a more attacking role, but this being a recreation team and the players all being about 13 years old, I still had some flexibility and would gladly allow kids to try new positions if the one I thought they were best suited for didn't appeal to them.
This young man played with low energy. He didn't seem to want to run. Back on the bench, I asked him if there was a different position he'd rather play. He shrugged his shoulders and looked at the ground. At the time I was thinking that maybe he was having a bad day. I asked if he wanted to go back in or if he wanted to sit out for a moment. He again shrugged his shoulders and looked at the ground.
Throughout the rest of that came, I returned over and over to check on him and encouraged him to get back in the game, but he clearly did not seem engaged or interested in going onto the field. "You can play any position on the field you want to," I told him. "I'll even put you in goal if that's a position you've always wanted to try. Just say the word and I'll put you anywhere you want." He shrugged his shoulders and looked at the ground.
This young man got very little play time that day, I admit. I thought I was giving him some space and allowing him to have a little control over his experience. Boy did I read that situation wrong!
His father was on me pretty quickly after the game. His face was red and he was clearly upset. "Why did my son not get play time today?" he demanded. I explained what I was seeing and the reason I made the call I did. Sometimes players just have a bad day and don't truly want to play. They show up to support the team or because they feel obligated, but they really don't want to be there. I thought I was giving him a break & the team was doing fine against our opponent. We had plenty of breathing room that day.
"Playing on this team was part of his therapy!" this dad exclaimed. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I learned that this player was under a doctor's care and that playing and being a part of my team was therapeutic. This father seemed to suggest that to support the plan, I was supposed to force this young man to get into the game.
This family had played on my team for several years. I know this player was a little awkward and had occasional outbursts of emotion, but I had no idea that I was part of this young man's treatment plan. When that family left the field that day, I never saw them again. I wished I had been clued in, and I now consider kids on my other teams who may be working through similar mental health in soccer issues that I never knew were there.
Mental Health in Soccer extends well beyond the stuff we usually think about. Hayley taught me that there are a host of things parents and coaches should be thinking about.
Build Up and Sudden Let-Down
Loss of self-confidence and self-worth is a key area of concern when it comes to mental health in soccer. The data on the number of kids coming up through the system and the numbers who end up not realizing professional status is not easily available, but we have some clues.
NCAA reports there are 456,362 high school aged boys and 390,482 high school aged girls playing soccer in the US. 5.5% of the boys and 7.1% of the girls (a total of 6.2% of all high school aged soccer players) go on to play any level of college soccer. That means 93.8% of high school soccer players will not go on to play college soccer at any level. In real numbers, this means that 794,340 kids every year will not go on to play college soccer at any level.
I couldn't find reliable statistics on how many total youth players we currently have in the US online without paying $600, but Colorado Rapid Youth Soccer Club published a nice infographic in 2016 that shows we had 3,055,148 youth players in the US in 2014. They cited their source as a media kit released by US Youth Soccer. I couldn't find any recent media kits or statistics released since then, but the New York Times in an article dated July 14, 2018 states that youth soccer has declined by 14% over the previous three years to 2.3 Million players.
Whether we're talking about 2.3 million or 3 million, that's a lot of youth players, and the numbers grow even bigger when we zoom out from the US. A confidential report I read that was written in the Netherlands and studied mortality in international professional soccer claimed that soccer is played by over 250 million people in more than 200 countries and is followed by 3.5 Billion + fans. That's a lot of players and a lot of fan pressure!
This same study concluded that suicide accounted for 11% of the deaths of professional players.
In talking with Hayley, she told me that suicide and depression are real problems in the system. As she put it, kids self-worth becomes wrapped up in their performance on the soccer pitch. They get approval from the people around them when they perform well, and they can feel worthless if they don't perform well. This can be especially true for kids in vulnerable teenaged years where kids are trying to find their identity and tend to be sensitive to criticism and opinions from peers and their support network of parents and coaches.
When kids get cut at these ages after having invested tremendous amounts of time and money in their soccer career, they can be even more susceptible to depression and suicidal thoughts. Think about it, when soccer is everything and our family's lives are centered around travel schedules, matches, practices, and so forth, then suddenly all of that is gone - and the reason is because a player didn't make the cut to the next level, where do they go and how do they adapt to life in the real world at that point?
Hayley mentioned that siblings of these travel players were also a concern. Often, siblings are ignored or get used to a life of living in the shadow of the superstar in the family. They suffer self-confidence and identity challenges of their own and the dynamics change drastically when the superstar is no longer the center of attention.
If any of this mental health in soccer talk is grabbing your attention, then please check out the resources section in the show notes for this episode at TheSoccerSidelines.com. Once my eyes were opened to the magnitude and significance of the challenges we're facing, I found a ton of articles and research papers written about the subject. There isn't one of them in the resources section that I would not recommend having a look at. It's impossible for me to paint the full picture in one episode. This deserves our attention.
What We Can Do To Help
Of course, as a listener of this show, you know that I'm not a fan of dropping problems without offering some solutions. And you'd be correct if you're thinking it has something to do with you. I don't expect you to be the one to solve mental health issues for youth athletes, I do expect you to be able to help your own. Positive mental health in soccer begins with us.
Whether you're a parent with a child or a few children playing youth sports, or you're a coach shepherding dozens of kids through the development, it's important to make a distinction between soccer performance or results and self-worth. I personally do my best to ensure that my players know that I value progress over perfection. In the youth ages, I believe it's important to value the effort over the outcome. I prefer the player that is working hard to improve over the player who can do a hundred juggles without trying. The hardest working player on the team wears the Captain's armband, not the player with the fanciest footwork. Long term meaningful results in anything come as a result of incremental improvement, not from being the biggest or fastest on the pitch in a given day.
I'm also a fan of diversification. I am incredibly proud that many of my players are in honor societies, participating in youth in government, can play musical instruments or sing or create art, or swim, or run track, etc. etc. My kid's value is not bounded by touch lines and goal lines. It's not won or lost in a shot on goal or a tackle. Give the 93.8% of kids who will never play soccer in college a chance to feel good about who they are in whatever other areas in life they show interest. Make it so that if/when they don't get picked up for a team or they find themselves on the sidelines due to injury, they DO have other avenues to pursue.
When it comes to mental health in soccer, I'm also a fan of celebration. Celebrate wins on and off the pitch. Celebrate losses as opportunities to learn and grow. Celebrate family and friends as opportunities to practice gratitude.
- Conn, David. “'Football's Biggest Issue': the Struggle Facing Boys Rejected by Academies.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/football/2017/oct/06/football-biggest-issue-boys-rejected-academies.
- “Depression and Suicide: Football's Secret Uncovered - BBC Sport.” BBC News, BBC, www.bbc.com/sport/football/23226524.
- Rech, Dominic. “After Several Suicide Attempts, Ex-Footballer Marvels at Miraculous Survival.” CNN, Cable News Network, 11 Oct. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/10/10/sport/world-mental-health-day-suicide-depression-clarke-carlisle-spt-intl/index.html.
- Beard, Raymond. “Research Links Severe Injuries to Mental Illness.” FIFPro World Players' Union, fifpro.org/news/new-research-links-severe-injuries-to-mental-illness-in-football/en/.
- “Anxiety and Depression Association of America.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/.
- “Home.” Home | Mind, the Mental Health Charity - Help for Mental Health Problems, www.mind.org.uk/.
- “Wellbeing.” The PFA, www.thepfa.com/wellbeing.
- “Retirement and Anger.” The PFA, www.thepfa.com/wellbeing/mental-health-and-football/retirementanger.
- Hansen, Liliana, and AthleteNetwork. “The Prevalence of Mental Health in Student-Athletes.” Athlete Network, an.athletenetwork.com/blog/the-prevalence-of-mental-health-in-student-athletes.
- O'Connor, Philip. “Shock Findings Thrust Mental Health into Soccer Spotlight.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 22 July 2017, www.reuters.com/article/us-soccer-mentalhealth-idUSKBN1A70MC.
- Off The Ball. “Michael Calvin on the Dark Side of Football's Youth Academies.” Off The Ball, Off The Ball, 22 Jan. 2018, www.offtheball.com/soccer/michael-calvin-on-the-dark-side-of-footballs-youth-academies-242078.
- “US Youth Soccer Statistics Infographic - Rapids Youth Soccer Club.” Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club, 8 Aug. 2016, rapidsyouthsoccer.org/us-youth-soccer-player-statistics/.
- Drape, Joe. “Youth Soccer Participation Has Fallen Significantly in America.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 July 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/sports/world-cup/soccer-youth-decline.html.