Mental Mentors: The Role of Agents in Mitigating Mental Health Issues


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Mental Health & Football

In recent times, mental health has become a part of everyday discussion which has raised awareness of how mental illnesses such as depression can affect people from all walks of life. Whilst some may think that it is impossible for multi-millionaire, famous footballers to suffer from bad mental health; examples like Gary Speed, Gianluigi Buffon, Andres Iniesta and Michael Carrick show that this assumption is far from reality. A FIFPRO study estimated that approximately 43% of all professional footballers will experience mental illness at some stage in their career or after retirement. This is becoming a more recognised issue, demonstrated by Tottenham Hotspur becoming the first club to employ a dedicated mental health and emotional wellbeing manager, perhaps setting an example to other football clubs.

            Mental highs and lows are inevitably a part of football. Losing in a cup final, not being picked for the national squad or missing a penalty can all be detrimental to the mental health of a player. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns has also added a new dimension to the mental dangers for footballers. However, there are four major events or times in a footballer’s career during which they may be more susceptible to poor longer-term mental health. These are summarised below:

  1. The football academy system: Academies are high-pressured, intense, high-performance environments. Coupled with the expectations of families, this creates conducive conditions for mental illness. Youth players that are released may also find themselves with no option other than football and struggle to cope with the failure of not becoming a professional.
  2. Injury:  Studies have shown that severely injured players are more than twice as likely to succumb to mental illness.
  3. Relocation: With players being treated like commodities and traded between countries, cultures and language barriers at short notice, this can have a negative impact on their mental health.
  4. Retirement: The loss of routine, adrenaline rushes and dieting can have a huge impact.

It is possible to write an entire book on these issues so in this blog, I will view mental health issues through the lens of a football agent. I will focus on the four main areas that I have outlined here but it is vital that everyone is aware that mental illnesses can arise in anyone and any footballer, regardless of their circumstances.

In this, I will consider the importance of the roles and responsibilities that an agent has in protecting a client’s mental wellbeing and whether they can prevent it completely or at least help to mitigate its impact and the player’s mental vulnerability.

Youth Players

            Whilst the agent cannot be paid until the player is 18, often a relationship begins to build from an earlier age when the player is identified as having the potential to become a successful professional. The relationship between an agent and an aspiring academy player should take the format of a bridge between the player, his family and the club. The agent should be the trusted link between the three parties and someone who the player can confide in.

            The pressures on a youth player don’t only come from themselves but also from family expectation. It is not uncommon for players to be watched by numerous family members each weekend as they rise through the ranks of football. Consequently, they feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility to succeed as a professional footballer. Their family may desperately need the financial support that a professional football career would provide, or they may just long to see their child in the spotlight. Either way, it is the child who has to handle this weight of pressure, and, at a young age, this can be difficult to cope with in the face of failure.

            The role of the agent is to protect their client from this pressure. Although it may not be possible to eradicate it completely, especially if the player sets big goals and expectations of themselves, the agent should make sure they are aware of the dangers of reality in football and try to help them aim towards challenging but realistically achievable goals. Part of this service is preparing the player for failure. This begins by ensuring that the family and the player themselves are acutely aware of the likelihood of making it as a professional that earns the millions of pounds they may be hoping for.

            Agents regularly start to build a relationship with a promising player aged around 15 or 16 as they begin to develop physically and show real signs of potential. Often, they would have entered into an academy system at the age of 9. Even at the point where they are now succeeding at a higher level, the agent’s role is creating a less-pressurised environment by helping the player and family realise that a professional contract is far from guaranteed. In fact, only 0.5% of players that join academies aged 9 will go on to get a professional contract at any level. That’s one in every 200 kids. If their dream is of playing at the highest level, then the statistics are even more damning. Only 0.012% of youth footballers will ever play in the Premier League. The football industry is cruel. At any point they can experience an injury which they never recover from, or they are simply deemed not good enough to make it professionally.

            By working with the academy to make the family and the player aware of the reality of professional football, the agent can ease the expectations on the teenager. They should then use this realisation to encourage the player to continue to work hard and pursue an education route as another option. Rather than advertising an academic route as a ‘failure’ of making it as a professional footballer, it should be proposed as simply ‘another path’ that the player can choose to take. This remains a relevant responsibility of the agent throughout a footballer’s career as I will explain more.

            The concept of a second option can prevent tragedies such as the death of Jeremy Winsten in 2020, a former Manchester City academy player who never signed a professional contract. ITV estimates that 90% of academy players that are released after the age of 15 experience clinical depression. The agent may no longer benefit from their player once they have failed to make it as a professional footballer, but they should have encouraged their client throughout the relationship to put in the foundations of a good education or work experience. This may not completely eliminate the disappointment of not making it at football, but it can go a significant way in preventing mental illness as the player does not have a complete dependency on a football career. The agent has ensured they have a second option and can move forward with their lives in another career.

Injury and Retirement

             Those that do make it in football become accustomed to strict routines, high-performance environments, clean diets and rushes of adrenaline that are completely unique to the sport. Eventually, their career will finish. The worst-case scenario is when it is forced upon the player such as a career ending injury or being dropped from a team such as in the recent case of Jack Wilshere who has openly spoken about his mental health difficulties. For the rest it happens when they choose that it is the right time to retire.

            The sudden loss of this lifestyle can have a huge adverse impact on the mental health of an ex-professional. It can affect everything from financial problems to low self-esteem. It is often said that the feeling of scoring a goal in front of crowds of people and the highs of adrenaline that comes with playing professional football can’t ever be replicated by anything in the outside world. This can partly explain the worrying list of footballers that have turned to drugs, alcohol and other bad habits after their careers have ended in a search for a rush.

            Agents should take on the responsibility of mitigating this decline. Hugo Scheckter, founder of the player care group and the former head of player care at Southampton and West Ham, speaks of creating a ‘dual career’ for footballers. In other words, agents should provide a holistic service to their clients that incorporates creating a second career alongside football so that when the day comes where they have to hang their boots up, they are already set to continue another life. This is a similar but more advanced approach to encouraging education in academy players.

A starting point for footballers can be smartly investing the money they have earned into property or similar. The agent can also help them find the best career option for after football, encouraging them to upskill themselves and explore careers outside of the world of sport. In some cases, footballers can continue in the industry through punditry or coaching but many will have to find other options. Some may have earned enough money to be financially secure for life, but the sudden loss of adrenaline and routine can lead to boredom, isolation, divorces and mental illness. The agent should ensure their player has something to go to once they have exited football to look after their mental wellbeing.

Unfortunately, when it comes to replicating the rush and feelings of being a footballer, an agent cannot help. Players often long for the adrenaline they would experience during games, and it can be difficult for them to cope with this mentally, especially in the first few years after their career. The role of an agent in this is simply checking up on them and monitoring their mental state. This may lead to seeking professional help or can involve trying to find ways to keep the ex-professional busy and their mind occupied.

Relocation

            Last week saw the end of the 2021 summer transfer window. Every year, dozens of players are exchanged internationally during these windows. They are faced with the challenge of relocating to a completely new city that may have an entirely new culture or language, unknown to the player. Some of these players have families which creates difficulties and tension between wives and children who are either left behind or forced to relocate with the player. The added responsibilities of finding new schools, houses, cars, friends, language lessons and more is where the agent can step in to help. Part of the service provided by the agent to protect the mental wellbeing of the player should be to help with the relocation process.

            Agents can use their contacts and help with research to help the family and their player settle into the new environment. By working in partnership with the clubs and their player liaison officers, this can make the transition between clubs and countries far easier for a client. Without this help, they may experience loneliness and a struggle to cope with a new life, which is of detriment to their mental health. An agent should ensure that their client is able to focus on football; all other worries should be alleviated to be conducive for optimal performance. Added pressure, isolation and mental lows can cause long-term mental illness battles.

Conclusion

            Mental illness has a widespread presence throughout football. There are many stages and events during a player’s career where they are particularly susceptible to poor mental wellbeing.

            An agent can provide a holistic service that not only focusses on contract negotiations but also on protecting the mental wellbeing of their client. Their role is to be aware of the mental dangers that football can create and find methods of mitigating their impact.

            Agents have a part to play in reducing the problem of mental illnesses in academy players, injured players and retired players. They must also be aware that mental problems can affect anyone. Players that may seem absolutely fine on the surface, are playing at their peak, earning millions and aren’t injured can still be affected. The agent should continually check in with and assist their players in speaking about and protecting their mental health, particularly after low moments in their career.

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