The Superman Effect
Every footballer has an invincible, shield-like exterior that allows nothing to affect them. But support for mental health is crucial in helping them transition out of the game.
Often in our code there is so much discussion about what needs to change, but not a lot of action.
In the Hyundai A-League pre-season, I presented the My Career Program to all players and teams.
I was once one of those players on the other side listening; now I was presenting to my peers as someone who had been in their situation. I was completely honest about my experiences and the players- responses exceeded expectation.
I had never been so nervous in a football environment as presenting to my fellow players, but the respect they showed me and the reaction I received was first class.
Although I had known some of these players for 15 years, either as teammates or opponents, this was the first time we had actually had a serious conversation. Part of what I addressed was mental health - a taboo subject in a any environment, but particularly in sport.
Every footballer lives by something I call the “Superman Effect”; an invincible, shield-like exterior that allows nothing to affect them. But we are just human beings who are affected by events like anyone else.
Every club in the A-League has a career advisor to help players with life outside of football. They do an amazing job in helping players with education and transition; however help can only be given when it is accepted.
One advisor recently asked me why they couldn-t connect to the 26-year-old players in the team they worked with, and that whenever they tried to talk to them they would simply go silent.
I asked the advisor about their job. At roughly the same age as the players, they had studies for five years to build a career - so how would they react if someone suddenly confronted them with the question that their career would be over in just a few years, so what were they going to do next?
Every player-s dream has been stamped with an expiration date. To athletes, career advisors can be their kryptonite.
A life in football requires such a sole focus it consumes every minute of your life, 24/7. A switch is flicked and nothing other than football matters. Family, friends and relationships all revolve around the footballer-s career.
Other interests are deemed as a hindrance, a distraction, and you are made to feel you are not fully committed to the cause if you have interests outside the game.
Life as we know it is basically put on hold. A pause button is pressed as life fades into the background, and football is all that exists.
In his column for The Guardian, former England goalkeeper David James recently admitted feeling “institutionalised after 26 years in the game.”
We are told how to act, what to eat, when to eat, how to play and how to think - basically we are trained to think of nothing but football.
For some players that total consumption is how they are able to perform their best; they need to beat their chests before the game and think about that ball every waking moment.
For others, the ability to switch off and take a breath outside of the game allows them to play at their highest level.
If the latter prefers to focus quietly when the game approaches, does this suggest that person is less dedicated to their career? Absolutely not. Not only do these interests help you develop as an individual, they can be grounding forces that keep you fresh, alert and passionate throughout your football career.
But silence is golden for footballers. We all have to put on our “Superman Suit” and never let anything affect us. The sporting environment is uniquely ruthless world of survival of the fittest.
In most cases, if I were to work in an office and call in sick on a Friday, I know I can come back to my job on Monday without fearing that the person at the desk beside me has taken my job.
Football is different. While I can guarantee when any A-League player steps over the white line he would do everything in his power to help the team achieve the desired result. But away from the pitch those teammates are actually your rivals.
This is where the internalisation process of a footballer-s life implants itself. You keep quiet and do your job. Silence becomes second nature.
Feeling a bit sore? Keep quiet. Mentally not feeling right? Keep quiet. For fear of losing their position or getting a new contract, players keep their concerns to themselves.
Recent developments in the game include a new dedication to the physical fitness of players. However, mental health is still taboo.
How does such an important factor in an athlete-s performance go overlooked? Why is sports psychology frowned upon if it has such a major influence on a player-s performance and, more importantly, well-being?
I am a firm believer in supporting the mental health of players. I have been blessed with a great family who have been there throughout my career.
But one person who helped me significantly through the end of my career and transition was our sports psychologist at Brisbane Roar, Jonah Oliver (now of Essendon Football Club).
Not only did Jonah give me a new perspective on football - to stop playing the game before I had even kicked a ball or that it was OK to make mistakes on the pitch - he prepared me mentally for life without the game.
A major reason for my talks to teams was the recent suicide of my Roar teammate, Tyler Simpson. It was my saddest day in football.
If Tyler had the opportunity to know how many people were there for him maybe he would be here today. Tyler was such a great guy; whenever I would see him he would always bring a smile to my face and make me laugh. I didn-t know the demons he was facing but like everyone that knew him, I wish I could have helped him.
The thought of transitioning out of the game is an obstacle no player wants to confront, but it is something no one can control. The sole focus on football is abruptly brought to a sudden halt, the internalisation becomes more profound and players withdraw when they no longer have the game to hold onto.
It is vitally important for footballers to have a support system to help them with transition into a new life. It is an opportunity to rediscover themselves and find what really makes them happy.
The steps to becoming a professional footballer are set in place and there to be followed. However, life after football has no guidelines.
Mental health is not just important in sport but a major issue in society. It shouldn-t take the passing of Tyler or Wales coach Gary Speed have to move us to action.
There are positive signs for the game, such as the partnership between Sydney FC and Beyond Blue.
This is encouraging and an extremely positive move in the right direction, increasing awareness and understanding. Our game is so much more than 90 minutes. Let-s make it a vehicle for change.
Chad has donated his fee for this column to beyond blue.