Jack Dixon (L&S Mind Trustee) reflects on the importance of openness and honesty around mental health in sport
The world’s biggest international football tournament has finally begun! Around the world, and here at L&S Mind, our excitement for the World Cup has reached fever pitch.
But amid the big match build-up, mental health has hit the headlines.
Little more than a week before kick-off, England full back Danny Rose revealed that he had been experiencing depression following a period of turmoil in his private life. A knee injury picked up in January of last year, which kept him out of action for eight months, was the start of this challenging time for the Tottenham Hotspur defender.
In a series of frank national newspaper interviews last week, Rose revealed that during his rehabilitation – often an immensely frustrating process for professional footballers, who may only have a few years at the very top – he had also had to contend with his uncle’s suicide, a frightening gun-point incident involving his brother and racial abuse directed at his family members.
During this time, due to his injury, Rose could only watch from the sidelines while rivals for his place in the England team performed week-in week-out for their clubs under the watchful eye of manager Gareth Southgate.
“It all stemmed from my injury when I was advised I didn’t need an operation […] I don’t know how many tablets I took to try and get fit for Tottenham, how many injections I took. I had cortisone and platelet-rich plasma injections trying to be fit for my club.”
It is easy for spectators to dehumanise professional footballers. The eye-watering pay packages; the champagne lifestyle; the adoration of fans around the world. These indulgences make it hard for us to sympathise when things go wrong.
But the comments made by Rose in the build up to the World Cup shine a light on how mental illness is truly indiscriminate. And often remorseless.
So why does it matter if Danny Rose opens up about his difficulties? Aren’t organisations like Mind already doing enough by talking about mental health?
It matters because, in the pursuit of glory, sports men and women embody the spirit of triumph over adversity that echoes the everyday battle that we all face to look after our mental health. As we prepare to cheer on our footballers at the World Cup – just as we cheered on Team GB in Rio de Janeiro, Andy Murray and Johanna Konta at Wimbledon, and Mo Farah in the London Marathon – we will live through their struggles on our sofas, praying for every pace, point and penalty along with them.
We admire our sporting heroes so much because they show us what we are all capable of – with a little hard work, dedication and commitment. It is why thousands of us plod round our local park on a Sunday morning when we’d much rather lie in, why tennis courts are booked for weeks once the roofs are back on at Wimbledon, and why boys and girls will print their names on the back of their England shirts this summer and emulate their World Cup heroes in back gardens and driveways up and down the country.
That is why it is so powerful for sports men and women to talk openly and honestly about not only their moments of glory, but also their moments of heartbreak and despair.
When we hear that Danny Rose has faced the darkest of dark times but emerged stronger for it, we can carry that into our own lives. We can look at the challenges we face – whatever they may be – and not feel ashamed. We can appreciate that good mental health is something that we all have to nurture and protect.
Rose is perhaps the most high-profile footballer to speak publicly about mental illness. But he is by no means the first. In recent months, others have felt able to step forward into the spotlight.
The likes of Burnley winger Aaron Lennon, and former Liverpool goalkeeper Chris Kirkland – both ex-England internationals – have revealed their personal difficulties. In a high-pressure, results-focused competitive culture, their courage to admit that they were unwell is commendable.
World Cups are often seen as watershed moments in the development of the game, heralding new tactical eras and crowning football’s elite players at the highest level. Perhaps this year’s tournament can be the dawn of a new age for thinking differently about mental health in the beautiful game.