Mental Health: Speaking On The Unspoken

It appears as though things are beginning to take shape and people in the game that run football clubs and National associations are beginning to realize just how big of a deal mental health is within sports (in fact - within life!).

As professional athletes and professional coaches, I think we are generally expected to just be okay with life. Be able to handle whatever is thrown at us. I can say, having experienced this mindset projected on me, that it is not the case. Just because we are in the public eye and the spotlight doesn’t mean we are not normal people with normal feelings, emotions and struggles just like any other human you encounter on a day to day basis. In fact, because of our social standing, men and women in the profession are more afraid to speak out and seek help.

This piece is about me speaking my truth from my own personal experiences in both my personal life and my career. I’ve had many ups and downs, but believe I was let down, like thousands and thousands of young aspiring footballers, when I needed guidance the most. I was 12 years old when teams began to come and watch my Sunday morning team, Sedgley White Lions FC. Scouts from teams across the midlands, Manchester and Liverpool making the journey to watch myself and my team play. My dad repeatedly told scouts I was too young to sign for a club. He wanted me to be a kid while I still could; enjoy playing with my friends, which is something I completely agree with and looking back I’m extremely glad he did what he did. There was interest in me from Aston Villa, Manchester City, Everton, West Bromwich Albion, Leicester City, Wolves and Coventry, though I eventually signed with West Bromwich Albion. At 13 years young, I signed school boy forms and had a fantastic experience from then until I was 21 years old. I had the privilege to play along-side some phenomenal players and to learn from coaches who are at the top level of the game now. I earned two professional contracts during my time at West Brom and made some substitute appearances for the first team, but no one and nothing had prepared me for what happened when a new coach got appointed at the club. I found myself not in his plans even though every year previous I had been told I was the future of the club and to be patient and I would get my chance.

I vividly remember walking into Gary Megson’s office at the Stadium to find him and Frank Burrows, his assistant coach, sitting and staring at me. The conversation lasted probably less than five minutes and I can still remember every word. I was told that I had six months left on my contract, but I wasn’t in their plans and I could leave at any point. Nothing more. Nothing less. In those days, as a young player, you didn’t say anything to the gaffer and/or his staff and I didn’t say a word. Dumbfounded, I left feeling as though my life had ended. Football was all I knew. This was my entire identity. No one had prepared me for being told I wasn’t in the plans and thanks – especially being told with such brutal honesty and no explanation. No handshake. No pat on the back. Nothing. I walked out of the office that day trying to comprehend what had just happened to me. Why for a young professional who had been at the club for 10 years, I was just abandoned - or felt abandoned. It was then that I began to hit the self-destruct button in life. I made some decisions that I will always have to live with - hurting people that were close to me and cared about me. I couldn’t understand why and, quite honestly, I couldn’t help myself.

This for me is a part of the game where clubs and national associations around the world have to do better to prepare young players for these types of scenarios. They have to show how important it is for young players to understand how the game works, but to also help them with the mental understanding and the importance of speaking to someone and expressing their emotions and feelings. To help them understand how important they are off the field as well. To help them comprehend that it’s okay to not be okay.

After WBA, I signed for Herfolge Boldklub in Denmark and unbeknownst to me slid into a deep depression, which I don’t think I fully got out of until recently. I had never left “home” before and, all of the sudden, I was living in a foreign country just outside of Copenhagen. I was fine when I was at the club and training, but when I left the stadium and training grounds I was in a house at home all alone and would begin to get inside my own head. I would start the cycle of thinking about all sorts of pent up feelings and emotions. This time in my life coincided with an emotional personal event in which my first child, was born back in England. The whole situation with my career and my personal life combined with my mental state sent me into a really destructive, negative frame of mind. Denmark didn’t work out for me the way it should of due to my frame of mind. I had been blindsided by my release, I had broken up with my girlfriend and I had hurt a very good friend. I could feel myself spiraling out of control and subsequently began to drink and party a lot to block out the emotions and feelings - and the reality that this was my life. I wasn’t mentally strong enough to be able to face up to life. After a lot of speaking to a professional and working a lot on myself, I can pinpoint a number of happenings in my life that lead me to the dark place I was:

My parents splitting up
Getting released
Being transferred to a foreign country
Getting into debt

Unfortunately, at that point in my life I didn’t know what to do, who to speak to or who I could turn to. I felt as though I couldn’t speak to my friends as they would make fun of me and wouldn’t understand what I was going through. I decided to keep all of the emotions and feelings locked up in my head and tried my best to push them to the back of my mind. In short, my playing career began to suffer. Opportunities I had at Notts County and then Shrewsbury town never materialized because I wasn’t ready to face up to my demons. I fell into the lower leagues and non-league game in the UK and bounced from team to team while working a normal job - and then being on a building site daily made me even more depressed. I never had any security, had lost trust in people I trusted and wasn’t comfortable enough in myself to be able to ask for advice or speak to someone. I didn’t realize it at that point in time, but I was in a severe state of depression and very vulnerable and worst of all, I didn’t have the slightest clue how to handle it.

I needed a way out, so I made the decision to go to America. For me, this was a decision that truly changed the trajectory and the pathway of my life. I arrived in Kalamazoo, Michigan for a summer season that lasted three months. It was the perfect opportunity for me to get away, figure myself out and enjoy playing and working as a footballer again. My coach, Stuart Riddle, and his father, Alan, really helped me settle in and looked after me; I was finally comfortable and happy again. I scored the most goals I ever had from my role in the midfield and was treated with respect and normalcy. I realized America was where I wanted to be. I took an opportunity in Wilmington, North Carolina a year later. I had a fantastic six-year period in North Carolina, but the biggest thing I took from my time is how football/soccer in America has respect for the mental health aspect of the game - the wellness of the player and coach. I began to see just how forward thinking there were; how much further ahead and developed it was than any of my past experiences. There was a sports psychologist on hand every day and it’s not thought of as something embarrassing and/or intimidating. It’s thought of as a tool to improve the player/ coach to be the best he can for himself and the organization he represents. Having spoken to a few of the older players, I really began to utilize this opportunity. After a few sessions of speaking, I began to see I was actually starting to face up to my demons and realize it wasn’t just me that had been through these emotions and feelings. My mindset completely shifted and it helped me tremendously mentally. I finally began learning how to handle negative things in my life. In Wilmington this became a regular occurrence for me and it continued when I moved to Real Salt Lake - in fact, it developed even further. I saw the importance of the role even more so as I was a head coach of 24 players and staff, while also managing my ever-evolving personal problems/issues at the time. While with the Real Monarchs, I met a lady named Nicole Detling, who became an integral part of my coaching staff and philosophy. She helped me evolve as a coach, a mentor and a man. She helped me see how to handle scenarios and taught me that talking to someone and sharing a problem really does help in solving the problem. I met with her on a weekly basis and truly believe she was pivotal in winning the regular season title in 2017. Mental health is something that a lot of people ignore and it has taken me personally the better part of 12 years to really be able to face up to the demons of my past and begin to put things into perspective and make sure I’m in the best frame of mind for my family. My wife, my daughter, my son and for future successes in my career. For those of you suffering from mental health issues, please talk to someone and ask for help. Know that you are not alone. I can promise it will get better if you find the courage to seek help.

Surround yourself with genuine, positive people and remove the negativity from your life. I know I am.