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The Power of Mental Health in Elite Sport

18.10.2020 @Saul Cuttell

What if I told you, 1 in 8 males suffer from mental health issues? Or that 35% of athletes suffer from a mental health crisis? Therefore, if you had the opportunity to speak to anyone related to mental health and athletes who would you turn to?

Who are you?

I had the amazing opportunity to talk Mike Armiger. He came across as an empathetic, kind, informed and smart thinker on first impressions. It struck me from our conversations from the outset that he was extremely thoughtful and always seemed to think of others before he thought of himself. In fact, as soon as I got on the phone to him I found the conversation flowing, and I was talking about myself, I’m ashamed to say. He was an active listener! Rare it would seem these days! I always get the sense people talk to hear their own voice and do not really listen. They hear you but don’t listen, as they just wait idly by for their chance to talk. With Mike he was far removed from this, he was engaging, listening and seemed to genuinely care about what he was saying as an attentive listener.

A journey into mental health

I wanted to know what his journey into sport and mental health was--his why? Mike’s answer was inspiring-- he had worked in rugby predominantly, and had experience at international and national level (Wales International Coach for the under 18s and 16s. Also he had worked with Cardiff Blues). He had also worked with athletes across the world involved in football, athletics and more. It all started for him when he was coaching and saw the different issues that kept arising in athletes, and also perceiving the different coaching standards. But one thing fundamentally that always was observed from Mike’s perspective, was that athletes were viewed as players with problems rather than patients with symptoms. Because of this observation he found himself taking on the responsibility of simply asking questions of the players, such as how are you, how are you doing, what’s going on? Probing questions that sought to understand rather than to be understood. Let that sink in for a second! He engendered an open-door policy that allowed players/athletes to seek out support and to talk to him. This in turn helped him to develop a passion for helping others through empathetic approaches, and indeed started his journey into wellness, mental health and being an athlete centred coach/educator.

Football academies

With Mike having this approach, I had to ask him his perspective on football academies in the UK, and his thoughts on this related to mental health. He aptly answered with ‘’they seem to have a lot of problems in my opinion and the most prominent is that we narrow the search for sports very early, and we don’t allow young athletes to explore other sports so readily’’. He went on to say ‘’it seems like academies these days have a selection process of choosing 100 to get 2 positions filled, which is probably not an effective process and probably needs some refining’’. This caught my attention. I thought, that’s right, we do look too closely for talent and narrow the opportunities for other sports. Maybe we should be making a greater allowance for other sports, but sometimes it would seem that football is ingrained into our society. So much so, that it’s common place to see parents or coaches shouting (sometimes even screaming) on the side-line of a football pitch for a young player to ‘’do better’’ or ‘’run faster’’, when really there is no thought on the mental health and wellness of the player, and the impact it could have. This always reminds me of a Twitter post I read, that stated something like ‘’all thoughts are my own, I have been influenced by parents, friends, society and more, but still I consider the thoughts I have as my own’’. The point, I guess, is that we are influenced by many different people in life and all will have an impact on our mental health. Also, mental health is not directly observed. For instance, if you are un-fit you may put weight on and therefore it may be easily observed, but with mental health it’s almost like we forget its’ existence at all, and then we shout at each other, or maybe, on the side-lines, or treat each other in ways that we may look back at and shudder. This dichotomy of wanting the player to do well (as a coach, player or parent on the side line) but affecting the mental health in the long run, is something we may not be able to escape.  

Mike went on to further explain that athletes in academies could do with much more support, and academies could do better by having a graduated process in allowing players to leave. I thought this was a fantastic idea and very much linked with the idea behind Pitch, a system that helps released or out of contract players (access here). It seems that academies have pressures to produce good players, and consequently, as Mike put it, ‘’it seems like they choose 100 to get 2’’. So, maybe the issue is not necessarily all the hard work that coaches, managers, staff and scouts do, as they have a very difficult job, but maybe it’s in the way we identify talent in the first place. The FA currently have a 4-corner model for talent identification. Maybe this needs addressing, maybe we need to select in a different way? Look for similar attributes, potentially by doing it in a different way completely.

Talent identification

This got me wondering how talent is identified in different sports and the point that Mike mentioned that it would be great to allow young people to experience other sports more, so they get a wide breadth and depth of experience. Especially when you think about the mental health, wellness concerns that we have in this modern age. Maybe we should consider the athlete and how intertwined the sport is to the identity of the person, as Mike said, as this is critical to how you even perceive yourself. This seems like a very important issue! This lead me to discussing with Mike the talent ID process and release process and what he thinks may be better alternative to the 4-corner model. Mike replied with ‘’there should be a reidentification process, a more drawn out extended way to leave a club, a slower progressive development. I think we should almost have more scouts working in the community, or many more community-based scouts and coaches. Where coaches almost have to collect evidence over a longer period to show to scouts a worthy player to go to an academy’’. He went on ‘’And when a player leaves or is deselected, a process for reidentification could be established’’.

I immediately thought that a number of different exit trials over a drawn-out period could be given to players when they leave, maybe two/three trials a year for a period of 3 years. Equally, I thought the idea of community scouts/coaches was a fascinating idea. But from my perspective there seem to be a lot of scouts who are coaches too, and many work in the community. But maybe this needs more of a formalised process, a community-based scout group or organisation. This may be more what is happening recently with Barry Faust and the Scouting Network Group that is on LinkedIn and Twitter (check them out if you are a scout here). But I thought Mike’s ideas were brilliant. I really liked the idea of coaches collating evidence over a longer period of time in order to present the evidence to scouts or a reidentification system. That almost seems like a reversal of the old system, in that scouts may traditionally be thought of turning up to watch grass roots games of varying standards. But now they may be required instead to be on a panel listening to coaches explain why the player should be picked for an academy. To be honest, I am not sure if anything like this is already happening? But I certainly think the idea warrants more thought and potential action. All this chat again leads me to explain to Mike what I am trying to do with Pitch, and trying to help young men back into football. Also the idea of a conference in the summer of 2021, to showcase this talent. If any football scout or coach reading this is interested, please do complete this survey that explains it a bit more.  I was conscious of time talking to Mike, as it seemed to fly by. He was captivating to talk to, but I wanted to move the conversation on, so I didn’t take up too much of his time.

Coping strategies

I went on to discuss coping strategies and how this links to mental health, as this idea of talent in football is fascinating. What is it, that these few elite players have that so many don’t? I am convinced it’s attitude and coping strategies. So, I asked Mike ‘’what is it that you see as a commonality between all elite players? What is it that gives them the edge?’’. Mike answered with ‘’they all tend to have a desire to understand their experiences, a desire to improve, a desire to be in a better place or situation’’. I hear this word “desire’’ so many times on my quest to better understand the topic of talent and football. But how can you teach a young person desire? I am not sure you can, I think it’s innate, I think this may be one of the rarities that singles these players out over others. I think this desire also links with a good attitude, to want to train, to want to be a team player, to want to work with the coach, the sport scientist, the nutritionist, the teachers, the parents, the friends and everyone else involved. Mike also went on to explain that this desire has invariably led them to a better place as an athlete, so they see the merit in it. But then we got to heart of the topic, how is it that mental health and wellness is connected to this? Of course, it is! Mike stated ‘’it’s interesting how many players develop this desire too, they allow sport to give them a sense of meaning, a purpose, an identity. This is so intertwined with all that they do, how they move, how they conduct themselves, their body has become their commodity and so much more’’. I thought this was an amazing way to view an athlete, more than just an athlete, they have a clearly entangled identity with their body. But also this notion of desire keeps popping up when I talk to industry experts like Mike and so many in the football industry. Maybe this is the factor to search for, desire?!?!?

One thing that Mike did say which I found fascinating about coping strategies and when things go wrong, is that athletes sometimes get labelled with the tag of being ‘angry’. When they are just grieving especially with the loss of sense, identity, struggle and more that they may feel. He went on to explain that they may even feel like they have a problem with emotional literacy, especially as in today’s society we are often told that we are feeling one thing, when actually we can feel a multitude of different things all at the same time. That is the complex nature of being a human I guess. Mike ended this topic with a great piece of advice on how a coach can respond to this issue, not by asking how are you, but instead asking what do you feel like today and allow for a number of different emotional responses.

Emotional literacy

Mike was captivating, so I wanted to know more broadly about society and the effects on this emotional literacy and how this fits with athletes. We spoke at length about how an athlete or a young man more specifically is told to conduct themselves in the world, that is in some part to be tough, not to cry and be almost emotionally stoic. This in my opinion is wrong, we should be teaching young boys and men to be emotionally aware or as Mike put it literate. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a boy or man crying, nothing wrong with feeling the pressure of work and family life. The best thing we can do is talk when we have a problem, and reach out to someone. Don’t bottle it up. Its so important to have the difficult conversations. I actually always say to my students ‘’hard decisions easy life, easy decisions hard life’’. I cannot remember where I first heard that, and I wish I could say that I coined that term, but I know I didn’t. Nevertheless, it’s still true, if we make the hard decision to talk to someone, then maybe our problems will be shared, and we can become more emotionally aware.

Mike then started to explain to me about a time when a young male athlete came up to him with worries and concerns about his next contract. Picture this, a young athlete (a man), who had twins, in his twenties, and he recognised that his career, if he does well, will last into his thirties may be mid-thirties, if he is lucky. But he still needs to provide for his children! The pressure to perform and to contribute to his family must have been overwhelming and must be why he reached out to Mike to talk through these issues. Mike’s example is the pressure an athlete goes through, as their job has a life span, so they need to factor in many things. So, its not so simple to say to them they are lucky because they get to play a sport for a profession.

My time talking to Mike was ending, but I was interested to hear if he had thoughts on the differences in rugby and football and more specifically the culture of football. One of the biggest differences that he thought contributed to the cultural difference was the amount of pay. Simply put some athletes are paid so poorly in other sports, where it can even become an issue that the athlete cannot afford a mortgage. The money is so disproportionate, and some young people may think that they need to have a lot of money to be happy, when the reality is far removed from that completely. Money does not equal success, success is in fact what ever you define it as.

If you want to know more about Mike, as an educator, coach and more, please follow @MikeArmiger

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