Troubled players deserve a Sporting Chance

November 24, 2009
By Mark Lomas

In the wake of the tragic suicide of Robert Enke, the world has begun to ask questions about the levels of psychological support available to players who have to deal with the highly pressurised environment of professional football. In England, the Sporting Chance Clinic has been asking those questions and providing that support for the eight years since its inception.

Robert Enke
GettyImagesThe death of Robert Enke has raised questions about the mental well-being of footballers.

But at a time when the psychological wellbeing of footballers is such a prominent issue, Sporting Chance chief executive Peter Kay has exclusively told ESPN Soccernet that the English Football Association (FA) is threatening to withdraw its funding for the clinic.

Sporting Chance was the brainchild of former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams, who, inspired by his own recovery from alcoholism, founded the charity in 2000 to provide a safe, dedicated environment where sportsmen and women could receive support and counselling for the kinds of destructive behaviour patterns that exist in the world of competitive sport but are often denied.

The organisation works closely in conjunction with the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), Premier League, Football League and League Football Education to provide an independent support network for troubled players.

Footballers from all levels have passed through the doors of Sporting Chance and, while most prefer to remain anonymous, the likes of Joey Barton and Adrian Mutu have spoken out and commended the support they received.

The main problem, according to Kay, is that professional football, as with most sports, is not an environment conducive to being able to share feelings and fears.

"The unfortunate thing about professional football is that it is not an accommodating arena for people to talk about their problems," he told ESPN Soccernet. "The pressures are very high but players can't turn round to their team-mates or managers and say, 'I'm feeling scared. I'm feeling frightened'.

"If a player gets injured, he's going to be fearful about his future, wondering if he will be the same player again or if the guy that takes his place will perform better - but he's not going to admit that he's scared."

Sports psychology is a field that has grown exponentially over the past two decades but, while most top-level clubs employ psychologists to provide counselling and a person to turn to, the reality is that players remain reluctant to discuss their issues with someone who they worry will take the information straight to the manager.

"At football clubs, they provide these sports psychologists and say, 'Go and talk to this player'," Kay said. "But the last person in the world a player wants to talk to is someone who has the manager's ear.

"I saw a player last year with a gambling problem and his fear about going up to the manager with the issue was that he would be dropped. So much of players' self-worth, esteem and identity comes from excelling on the pitch. It's what they do best. It's what they do well.

"Their biggest fear is that they will be dropped from the team. Now, if you went to a sports psychologist in a club and said 'I'm having a really tough time and I've had suicidal thoughts', the manger's going to panic and you're certainly not going to be picked. If your contract is coming up in six months as well, that's really going to affect how the manager thinks about offering you a new deal."

Kay explains that the crucial difference between the support Sporting Chance provides and that on offer from club psychologists is that everyone on the staff has direct experience of addiction or depression themselves.

"I was treated for depression for five years, which turned out to be alcohol and drug addiction. But when I was lying in a hospital bed in a coma for three weeks, no one knew I was an alcoholic, drug addict or manic depressive.

"We hide it, and of course we hide it, because we have shame and embarrassment about it. That's why people come to meet us [at Sporting Chance] - they are talking to people who have been through it themselves. We take away the shame. A dressing room is not a place where you can address how you are feeling."

Kay believes it is Sporting Chance's direct experience in sport and particular football, that separates the charity from the many similar organisations that provide support for those suffering from mental health problems.

"We are not too attached as to who delivers the work as long as it is delivered.There are many clinics and organisations out there doing terrific work, but our expertise is with sports people. Footballers have taught us so much of what we know today.

"There are also many managers who we work with who recognise that our specialised area is not one that they know how to deal with, therefore they work with us."

But it has not been an easy ride for the organisation, as Kay admitted many clubs had treated the charity with suspicion when they first began to offer their services.

"I would say, six to eight years ago, the majority of the clubs weren't interested. Really, the attitude back then was 'I don't care what happens to them as long as they perform on a Saturday'. If players were in any way problematic, the attitude was 'We don't care as we've got ten others to choose from'.

Paul Gascoigne
GettyImagesPaul Gascoigne: Tolerated because of his genius.

"The only ones who would slip through the net would be players of incredible quality, those with outstanding natural talent. The likes of George Best, Paul Gascoigne and Eric Cantona were tolerated because of their genius.

"That's why it's so important for education and support to be provided from an outside organisation like us: we are independent from the clubs. And there has never been a bigger wake-up call in football than now that there is a need for what we do."

When Robert Enke's widow, Teresa, announced shortly after his death that he had suffered from depression, his club, team-mates and manager were shocked.

But Kay revealed that half the players who have come to him at Sporting Chance have considered taking their own life at some point and that Enke, who had just recovered from a long period out injured, was at the stage of his career that provides the most concern for a professional footballer.

"I'd say 50% of the players I've ever worked with have at some stage felt suicidal, either through their depression, their addiction or an amalgamation of the two.

"I see it more obviously with injured players. When they get to around 31, 32 and 33 and you can see the end of your career drawing closer, it's the toughest time. Enke was that age and he had a succession of clubs where it hadn't worked out. The problem wasn't the clubs - it was himself. That wasn't being addressed and it wasn't spotted."

Players suffering from depression face the paradox that playing football is both the cause of their problems and the solution to them. Enke's widow revealed that her husband was driven by a constant fear of failure that surfaced most aggressively when he was not in the team.

But then the pressure that he put on himself when he played first-team football often affected his ability to perform, most notably during his spells in Spain and Turkey, and it is difficult for players to escape from this unrelenting cycle.

"Most driven and successful players often have this incredible feeling of low self-worth and a lack of belief in their own ability, which is often mixed with a terrific arrogance to create an alter-ego of sorts," Kay said.

"They are driven by a fear of failure and fear of not being good enough, though each time they kick a football, it proves they are. They create this facade that stops other people seeing how they feel about themselves. They see it as a weakness so they hide it because they view it as a distinct weakness to show any signs of weakness.

"How often do you hear commentators talking about, 'He's just lacking confidence at the moment'? You see it with certain players, their shoulders just drop. Their talent and their skill has gone nowhere, but it's just a lack of belief."

Gordon Taylor
GettyImagesThe support provided by Gordon Taylor and the PFA has been invaluable, according to Peter Kay.

Kay believes the impact of the PFA and most notably the contributions of deputy chief executive John Bramhall and chief executive Gordon Taylor in realising the need for an organisation like Sporting Chance cannot be understated. And he admitted that discussions are already happening with football associations from other countries, exploring the possibility of implementing similar support networks.

"The PFA didn't know much about the need for this work but, when they recognised this need, they've been 100% supportive. Only with their support have we been able to succeed.

"We're now doing in-depth educational programmes for all Premier League clubs and I've been asked to design a training program for all academy staff to help recognise and identify problems. This is really forward-thinking and the Premier League should be commended for that. They've been very diligent in seeking out what they think works.

"We've had people from other football associations come to see us already about our organisation and we're in serious discussions at the moment about opening another Sporting Chance clinic in Australia. And I would hope that within three years we are doing serious work in Holland, Germany, France and around Europe."

But at a time when the charity's work appears more valuable than ever, Kay revealed that essential funding provided by the FA is in danger of being withdrawn.

"There's a desperate need for this work and the PFA recognised that years ago. The Premier League, League Football education and Football League have all come on board and worked tremendously hard to help us grow.

"Ironically, the FA are in the process of deciding whether to withdraw their £50,000 a year funding to Sporting Chance, when all around would say this is essential work. I would be able to understand their thinking were we to have upset or angered them, but our relationship over the years has been superb.

"Tony Adams and Sporting Chance have been consistently supporting FA initiatives on mental health, education and the disciplinary commitee, and for all of our endeavours to stop now seems absurd.

"My question is 'Will it take an English player's suicide to convince the FA that they need to take responsibility?'"

Enke's suicide has brought depression in professional football firmly into the public arena. There can be no better time for national associations or even the world governing body FIFA to start taking a central role in co-ordinating the use of external organisations like Sporting Chance, to help deal with this critical issue.