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Mental Health in football with Alan Tonge (ex Manchester United & Exeter City)

Mental Health is all around us, the trouble is you just can't see it. As the football world becomes more demanding albeit more rewarding, we took time out with ex Manchester United and Exeter City player Alan Tonge, now part of Mental Health FA, to discuss his views on mental health in football.
Follow Alan on Twitter: @Alan_Tonge 
  1.  Tell us more about your mental health ambassador role and how you came about it?

It was through a lad called Colin Dolan and an organisation he set up called Mental Health FA. Colin asked a few ex professional players to support ventures either physically or within social media.

  1.  You retired early due to injury after spells with Manchester United and Exeter City, how does an early career end effect a player and what is the biggest strain mentally?

It effects a player in many ways (financially, physically e.g.) but the biggest strain can be loss of identity. Football was something that I had been involved with since I was very young and when I had to retire injured I lost a big part of who I was. When there is no training to go to, or games to go and play in, it is a huge shock to the system and you can become quickly forgotten about.

  1.  What Are the biggest contributors to mental health issues in football?

There are plenty of challenges to mental health issues whilst you are in football. The main ones that I found during my PhD research were deselection (getting dropped or released), long term injuries, playing whilst injured, poor manager/coach relationships and not holding a regular place down in the 1st team. A high percentage of players have reported these issues via interviews and through a survey I sent out.

  1.  What has been your biggest observations in mental health in sport from the 90s to the present day?

Most definitely the amount of scrutiny that players face. Professional football, especially at Premier League level, is quite simply the biggest game in town and through the emergence and growth of various media outlets, the world and his wife can have an opinion on you and how you perform! You are surrounded with public views, internet and social media comments and 24 hours a day sports channels. This can be a challenge.

  1.  You played at two very different league levels as such, does the support or stigma around mental health change between levels?

I would say again it’s down the level of scrutiny that you get. For example Man Utd are an absolute monster who everyone wants to writeand speak about and teams lower down the league can be a lot quieter with much less scrutiny. Also, within professional football, mental health and sport psychology still seems to be lower down the support order than other positions such as performance coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, fitness coaches, performance analysts, scouts etc.

  1.  How much impact do fans chants when negative have on players on the field? Do they leave a lasting impression?

I would say this can have a potential impact on confidence. The majority of professional footballers have had long and tough journeys into the game and have developed mental resilience along the way. They can usually deal with issues like this readily, as it is part of the game, but fans are fickle and thousands can vent their spleen when things aren’t going so well. This can be an uncomfortable experience, but often says more about the fan, than it does about the player! If you are getting plenty of grief, you can use it as fuel to prove people wrong. It tests your character, builds courage and you need players to stand up and be counted in tough times and not take the easy option and hide.

  1.  If You could implement any new support mechanisms within sport, what would be your go to support method and biggest wish regarding mental health?

More qualified people in football environments (especially professional level) who understand players and what they are going through and also understand the best ways in helping the players move forwards via appropriate support. One of the hardest things is getting players to open up. This could be largely to do with issues around confidentiality and trust. The danger is that players may be carrying something that they want to speak about, but are fearful in case it gets out and into the media, or they don’t want to appear weak in front of the manager/coaching staff/ other players.

  1.  Would be right in assuming there's a dark side to football, away from the glitz and glam that puts strains on players mental health?

Due to the huge rewards, there can be potential issues around acting and not being yourself (i.e. being inauthentic), or not showing true feelings due to the pressure of stigma, or creating unwanted media attention for the club you’re at. They know that something is not right with themselves, don’t want to reveal what it is and many turn to other means to cope such as gambling, drugs, alcohol and even in extreme cases some have committed suicide. In my humble opinion, this is one of the biggest issues within professional football (and life!) which needs attention. The very best I’ve played with are not only great players, but are also strong peopleand characters too. They remain authentic and true to themselves.

  1.  Your time is appreciated. For any sportsmen or fans alike whonare struggling with mental health, what would you advise?

I’d advise speaking to someone immediately, getting your issues out and not bottling it up. Bottling up is unhealthy and can create mental health problems. You only get one life and you’ve got to strive to become as happy as you can. One of the problems I often see in modern culture is that people tend to continually look at what they haven’t got, as opposed to looking at what they have. You have to self-accept and take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. Tyson Fury has done fantastic work recently informing people to talk and open up and has been a total inspiration for millions across the Globe.

This interview is to support our charity partnership with CALM who lead a campaign to prevent male suicide.

CALM support lines open 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Please note: If you are in need of text based support, please use the webchat facility at https://www.thecalmzone.net.


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