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'They're sensitive and easily upset': Why are we so worried about footballers being human?

It's 2018 and footballers are still being forced to hide their emotions, it's time to stop

'They're sensitive and easily upset': Why are we so worried about footballers being human?
15 June 2018

Danny Rose did something remarkable last week. Generally speaking, the media training that elite footballers receive produces bland, uninteresting soundbite by design. Though the public might crave insight, interviews are – as a rule – neutered and heavily stage-managed events. There’s a great atmosphere in the dressing room! The team have looked good in training! Our opponents are a good side, obviously, but at the end of the day, we’re hoping for a good performance and to get the win. Ultimately, players are expected to represent their clubs as “brand ambassadors” and as assets, not as themselves. In an exceptionally candid press conference, Rose bucked that trend.

The left-back disclosed that he was diagnosed with depression after a period of prolonged mental distress that began with a long-term knee injury, further compounded by his uncle’s suicide, his mother being racially abused, and his brother being a near-victim of a shooting.

It’s startling that, for all the recent attempts to remove the stigma around mental illness, there is virtually no player within football discussing their struggles with mental ill health while still also playing top flight football. Rose’s interview was courageous precisely because it was so surprising. Before this conference, even his family didn’t know about his depression.

It’s easy to see players as merely data points, as entries in our fantasy teams, as names in starting elevens. Every weekend, new sets of names appear on pitches around the country, endeavour to win games for 90 minutes, then disappear at the final whistle. When they scuff a shot wide, or make a mistimed tackle, or play a disastrous backpass, we see the visceral result of someone failing at their job, but we rarely consider what must be going on internally.

“Players are seen as commodities,” Kevin George, a former Charlton and West Ham player, tells me. For nearly a decade, George has been applying his knowledge from the pitch to a career studying human behaviour and psychotherapy. “The interest is in the player, but not the person. If you’re injured, the first thing people might say is ‘are you still injured?’ and not ‘how are you, how’s things?’

“When you stop playing they don’t even introduce you anymore, they say ‘oh this is Kevin, he used to play for West Ham.’”

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When Mohamed Salah and Loris Karius exited Liverpool’s Champions League loss in tears (though both in different circumstances), Paul Scholes dismissively commented that players in the modern game “are sensitive and they get upset easily”. In his day, he said, they would have gotten a “whole load of stick”. Dietmar Hamann echoed these sentiments, criticising Karius in particular: “to publicly show his suffering after the final whistle was just as unnecessary as his tearful asking for forgiveness from the Reds fans.”

It’s tempting to dismiss these comments as irrelevant outmoded nonsense, containing limited amounts of basic compassion. Yet the opinions held by two players only a generation removed from the present game are unlikely to exist in a vacuum.

If attitudes to the sport had really developed to the point that Scholes and Hamann could be considered outdated outliers, would Danny Rose’s conference still be considered that remarkable?

Bradley Busch is a psychologist and director at Innerdrive, a ‘mindset training’ company that works from Premier League to non-league level, with both clubs and individual players.

“When we started 10 years ago, there were only a handful of clubs who [regularly] worked with a sports psychologist,” he tells me. “It wasn’t really spoken about much in the media, it was generally seen in a negative way.”

“It’s changing now, but traditionally football’s had quite an old-school approach. You either have ‘it’ or you don’t - you’re either ‘mentally tough’ or you’re not. Whereas [now] I think a lot of people have come around to the concept that some people develop at different rates and in different areas.”

There is a common sentiment that footballers’ exorbitant salaries should make them impervious to misery: that the ability to deal with the various hyper-pressures of the game is exactly why they’re paid so handsomely. It’s a notion that asks why we’re supposed to have sympathy for multi-millionaires, and tells them to try doing something “really stressful” (almost always joining the army) and then re-evaluate their apparent distress. It’s a notion which requires a denial of psychic pain. The relatively flush status of your bank account cannot immunise you from human emotion. As Danny Rose proves, it’s entirely possible to be an international footballer and still endure psychological trauma.

This isn’t to simply make the point that anyone can experience mental health issues, regardless of their financial status - and it certainly isn’t to say that, where present, they are experienced universally or equally. The broad range of experience represented under the umbrella term ‘mental health’ are almost infinitely myriad in their different causes and effects. It’s fair to say the issues afflicting a Premier League footballer might differ considerably from those belonging to the unemployed, or rough sleepers, or even just the ‘average worker.’ But if we are to make decent inroads towards wider understanding of the psychology of stress, it is necessary not to treat it as an amorphous entity, but to identify the individual structural conditions which may create or exacerbate stress, and how we can better cope with them.

In your job, you have the ability to think ‘oh for chrissakes, I might just ring in sick today’.”

For better or worse, there are few other arenas so heavily or so widely scrutinised by the general public as football. Terraces, pubs and schoolyards across the country are filled with those who feel well versed enough to hold strong opinions on exactly how footballers should carry out their job. Many fans even feel they “pay” the players’ wages. While this might not wholly be true, it’s as oft-repeated in grateful post-match press conferences as it is indignantly hurled during furious Fan TV vox pops. When the general public believe themselves to be quasi-employers, players may feel unable to be candid about their mental health.

“In football, unfortunately, the game is about results,” says George. “People always want to see direct results, but a lot of it is based around feelings. In your job, your boss can get you to want to jump out of bed in the morning and make you want to go in, but they also have the ability to make you think ‘oh for chrissakes, I might just ring in sick today’.”

George says fans can pick up when a player isn’t trying “hard enough” or when their attitude has changed, but they rarely ask the most important question: “why?”

“You could have a player who’s had knock-backs, who stores a part of every knock-back in his mind… Then what happens is: bad body language, tone, effort, all these things happen… When it affects their behaviour, we end up saying: bad eggs, bad attitudes.”

Both George and Busch name a number of other stresses unique to football: the length of time remaining on your contract; not knowing whether your manager rates you; moving to clubs based on stature and not on the likely opportunity; the sheer amount of travel involved; the lack of downtime; the fact that going out is incredibly risky given the spotlight.

“A lot of players struggle to sleep the night before a match,” Busch says. “The adrenaline’s going too early, or they’re overthinking about what they’ve got to do. Quite commonly, the nearer it gets to the match, the more they worry about the consequences of playing badly. Will I get dropped? Will the fans get on my back? What will this mean for my future? A lot of players spend too much time trying to focus on the outcome.”

The public theatre of a footballer’s life means they’re going to endure criticism far beyond the dressing room. “Everyone I know has probably Googled themselves at least once in their lives,” says Busch. “If you have stuff written about you regularly, I think it would be a natural human instinct just to find out what’s being said about you.” Busch says this is difficult because both fans and the media are fickle “and you’ve got to stay the course because it’s a long-term career.”

“So what’s happening for two weeks shouldn’t derail you too much, but if you read what everyone’s saying – you wouldn’t be human if it didn’t chip away at your confidence.” 

In his autobiography Old Too Soon, Smart Too Late, Kieron Dyer discusses the pressure of representing England: “You don’t try to make something happen. You don’t try the clever pass because you’re worried the crowd will get on your back or the press will give you a three out of 10. So, you do not try to stand out. You don’t try to alter the game. You try to disappear. You try to make damn sure you don’t do anything wrong and you limit your ambition to that. And when you do that, you become average.”

Innerdrive advise players to spend as little time on social media as possible (“It’s like TripAdvisor – people only go on to give 1 star or 5 stars. There’s no middle ground”). They also help clubs conduct post-match debriefs.

“I think in football the temptation is to think: if we win, everything’s good,” says Busch. “That doesn’t lead to good learning. And conversely, they think: if we lose, everything’s bad. That doesn’t lead to good learning either. By having a balanced approach of: what went well, or what do I need to improve, what’s my aim for training this week – just making sure that they’re reflecting on their processes, we think we can help accelerate their development.”

“When I felt like rubbish, I played rubbish”

George reflects on how a knowledge of psychology could have improved him as a player. “I went from being the worst player, because I thought I was rubbish, and then I went to being the best player, because I didn’t care anymore. Now if I knew that when I felt like rubbish, I played rubbish, then I would’ve been aware of my state and coached my way through it.”

An individual’s emotional state undoubtedly affects their behaviour. The ability to become more self-reflexive helps manage this, but this needs to be developed in tandem with empathy, with managers needing to notice how stresses might be negatively affecting someone. This means fans and commentators need to encourage emotional honesty, while not discouraging behaviours that could be read as ‘sensitivity.’

“We had Mental Health Awareness Week and everyone opens their mind,” George notes. “As soon as it finishes, Joe Hart’s upset and makes a statement about him not being in the England squad and everyone says he shouldn’t have said anything. We’re trying to shut him up and that’s why players try and isolate themselves, because they can’t express their feelings. They’re told how to express, when to do it and their views.”

In Capitalist Realism, the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher describes the ‘privatisation of stress,’ whereby we are encouraged to ignore the factors contributing to our distress beyond the chemicals in our minds, our traumas, and our personal problems. Fisher argues this benefits capitalist systems who can better exploit their workforce if said workforce is conditioned to dissociate work stresses from their mental health. The ability to deal with the anxieties of ‘work’ defines the worker as a ‘good employee’ within a capitalist system, so a worker will do best not to acknowledge any adverse effects their job has on their mental health for the good of their career.

Tactless though they were, Scholes’ comments seemed intended as professional criticism, an expression of a belief that the Liverpool players’ perceived ‘sensitivity’ belies a lack of mental fortitude that he believed was crucial in his day. “What’s crying going to do?” he asks, baffled. To Scholes, to be overcome by emotional pressure enough to display it visibly is tantamount to not being able to do your job.

Of course, this seems absurdly harsh in the case of Karius, a 24-year-old who made two humiliating mistakes and knew he would have to shoulder the burden of blame for his side’s defeat, one which cost them the biggest prize in club football and one which will quite possible have a cataclysmic effect on his career. Who wouldn’t be broken by that? But viewed through the lens of Scholes and Hamann, in this moment, Karius ceases to be a person, but a faulty cog in a machine. That the pair of pundits are former footballers themselves makes their lack of empathy interesting.

It’s strange to adopt a corporate callousness towards players which demands they repress their emotions, at least visibly, when the precise opposite is true for fans. “You get fans crying in the stadium,” says George. “That’s why a lot of people love football, it’s a sport that allows you to feel. Those same people that are there aren’t allowed to feel outside.”

“But there’s conditions for those feelings as well. Gazza was allowed to cry. If you get knocked out [in the manner that England were in World Cup 1990] you’re allowed to cry. If you do certain things. But otherwise you’re not allowed to cry. Gazza was seen as an icon, but if he cried on the streets it would be like: what on earth is this guy?”

Where we adopt attitudes that encourage ‘privatised stress’ as fan-employers - we apply them to our own lives, and to our conceptions of society and the workplace. How much sympathy do you feel towards your coworkers when they make errors, and how much are you encouraged to do so? If you yourself were at fault, how much sympathy would be forthcoming? Are you afforded individual understanding, or expected to suffer your failures as being indicative of a bad employee unable to cope with the pressures of your job?

Returning to George’s earlier point about players suffering an erasure of identity, particularly when injured, one of the most illuminating admissions in Rose’s interview was how difficult he found it to watch Tottenham, his club side, perform well without him. Given most footballers are conditioned to talk about how their individual needs and concerns should be sublimated to those of the ‘team’ - it’s surprising to hear a professional vocally express something which could be construed as jealousy or resent, but it also seems like an entirely natural and honest response.

If your worth is tied to your ability to perform a job and provide a useful role, and you witness your side able to succeed without you - then who wouldn’t feel disposable?

And yet the media can feel, at times, relentlessly cruel and determined not to understand. Raheem Sterling is routinely pilloried for as little as eating breakfast, being a non-white young man who earns a lot of money and spends it on houses for his parents, and for as much as being England’s most exciting prospect for years. “We saw it with Rooney, we saw it with Paul Gascoigne,” says Busch. “I think there is a burden on the players with the most ability.”

George once felt compelled to contact Fabian Delph after a minor misquote in the press, in order to let him know the mistake. “He goes ‘it’s alright, I’ve not read a paper for the last 3 years anyway!’ I think that’s what some players do, they just don’t read a paper, they avoid it.”

It seems both deflating and telling of the kinds of sentiments expressed in the public sphere that this enforced avoidance would be necessary, and this is what makes Danny Rose’s interview all the more remarkable.

Things are improving, slowly. I spoke to Busch the day before Rose’s conference, yet our conversation was extremely prescient. “If an England player came out and said they were working with a sports psychologist, that would be far better received now than it would be 10 years ago,” he said. “But it would still make news.”

“Eventually, what you’d want is: that would not even be seen as newsworthy, just seen as common practice.” 

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Kevin George’s latest book Soccology is out now