Inside Voice: Mental Health in Professional Sport



We hear about wellbeing in sports quite often and how it can be a crucial lifeline for sportspeople, but why not hear it from a professional sportsperson themselves? We spoke to ex-professional footballer and current coach, Michael Nelson, about his thoughts on mental wellbeing and the hardships within the sporting industry…

Mental Health Issues in Sport

Personally, I had a couple of issues outside of football, which if anything, football helped with. The teammates and the manager I had at the time played a big part in getting me back into football, so the sport actually helped with any mental health issues I was having at the time. For me, football acted as a bit of a release for that 1 ½ to 2 hours I was training or playing. Not that you forget about your issues, but you can push them to one side and be fully focused for the time, so football was actually a release in that sense.

Beyond that, other issues could crop up and they would be around injuries or if you weren’t in the team. So, if you had an injury and you were out for a while then you would start to think (if the teams were starting to sign other players), then possibly your place is up for grabs and you might not get back in the team; that can really have an impact on your mental health and how you cope with that.

Also if the manager changed, and a new manager came in and he didn’t seem to like you, you thought you might have to move clubs, asking yourself the questions - "Where am I going to move to? Am I going to have to up sticks and move house and region and go somewhere else in the country? Will my family come with me or stay where they are?" There were a lot of issues in terms of what was best for the family life, in and around football as well.

It meant there was always immense pressure to perform at your best to be able to stay in the team and if you didn’t, and you came out of the team, you could be out of it for a long time. Obviously the pressure intensified as your contract was coming to an end, so if you were on a 2 or 3 year contract and only have 4 or 5 months left and were out of the team, then you felt more pressure around getting a new contract. Also there was worry around perception from other clubs and your chances with them. Then if you did get another club, would it affect wages, and it creates other questions from there. The pressures to stay in the team are always high.

Coping With Criticisms on A National Stage

When I first started, it was mostly criticisms from the fans and opposition fans at the stadium usually on a matchday. As my career went on, social media grew and regardless of whether you had won, lost or drawn, you would always get some criticism after the game - from your own fans if you didn't play well or from opposition fans if you did win. You have to try and block it out, but some were quite personal, I had instances where remarks were made about my wife and kids, and you’d have to report it to the police. There was a lot of negativity and some people find it almost impossible to block it out, especially when it can affect home and family life as well. Some players I’ve played with have really been affected by comments they’ve received on social media, and it’s had quite a detrimental effect on their career.

External Support

Independent and specialist support would definitely help. Sometimes players don’t want to go to their coaches or manager, because they feel that if they open up and say they’re possibly struggling mentally. Their performances still might be good, but because they flag up a mental health issue to the manager, they might then be taken out of the team, which would then probably add to the mental health issues. If they had someone to speak to externally, who had no influence on the team, and no influence on team selection, then they’d be more inclined to speak to them. Without the risk of putting their place in the team in jeopardy. So, I think having someone external would be good. I know there’s the PFA and stuff like that but I think more on-hand organisations that can be available to players, then that would be better.