BEHIND the bravado, the super-stardom and the money-no-object lifestyle there remains a stigma, a taboo subject that footballers struggle with just the same as the man on the street.
As the glitz and glamour of the new football season whisked fans off their feet this weekend, so depression and anxiety will remain as rife as it has done for years, plaguing the millionaire footballer just as much as the person who works six days a week to pay for a match ticket.
But there is a ray of hope. Steven Sylvester is a sports psychologist who has been credited with possessing the Midas touch behind the scenes.
The pressure of performing in front of thousands is no longer just restricted to the pitch. With the growing exposure of social media, it means what you do is scrutinised 24/7.
“Sportsmen are human and they also need support,” said Sylvester. “People will say what have they got to worry about as they have a dream job with a great salary. But that’s not a justification of being happy.
“Clubs need to have a bigger duty of care for the modern sportsman. Gone are the days when players bottled things up and just got on with it as it doesn’t help your performance. So much is played out in your mind. If you are content and happy off the pitch, then you are on it.
“You need to support those feeling vulnerable, fragile and exposed. Knowing I’m there is good for the players. They are finding it’s OK to talk about things.
“I think playing the game helps. I will stay back for shooting practice with a player or simply have some throw downs before the start of a day’s play.
“I will work in between the lines and when things are not quite right I will flag them up with the manager and the player also goes away feeling better.”
During Sylvester’s first season with AFC Wimbledon in 2014-15, an unlikely promotion from League Two followed.
Recruited by Sheffield United after four straight defeats at the start of last season, the Blades have taken their place back in the Championship.
And to complete the list, Sylvester helped old county Middlesex end their 23-year wait to win the County Championship last season.
“Performing as an entertainer in front of the masses comes with high pressure,” said Sylvester. “But you can’t get away from it as your game is analysed by everyone.”
Think of sportsmen with mental health issues and the list is vast. Most recently, Aaron Lennon, of Everton, was sectioned under the mental health act during last season. He has since returned to training and thanked the people around him for their help.
Former German goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide at the age of 32 in 2009. His widow later revealed he had been fighting depression since the death of his daughter.
And the problem is wider than football; former cricketers Marcus Trescothick and Jonathan Trott have both suffered from mental health issues, former Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton wrote in her memoirs about self-harming.
Angus Fraser, Middlesex’s director of cricket, said: “The world is a tougher place now than when I played. Players need support on the physical and mental side and Steven plays a big part in that.
“Cricket especially can be a lonely, from travelling and away from the family, to practicing in the nets for hours. It’s a team game, but as a batsman or bowler you are on your own so you need that level of support.”
Neal Ardley, the AFC Wimbledon manager, revealed Sylvester acts more than just a 12th man or as a cheerleader.
He said: “He’s a vital cog in our engine. Straight away I made sure he was involved in the changing room and in the dugout.
“He acts as a sounding board and we bounce ideas off each other. Steven is brilliant at picking up any potential issues affecting a player that I wouldn’t have seen.
“That can be the difference between the player having no impact on a game and a man-of-the-match performance to help us win.”
There has been a culture shift in recent years. While some old school sceptics still might claim a player is mentally weak for seeking help, the modern forward-thinking manager will now reach out and embrace a support mechanism.
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder said: “Group ethic is vital and the work with players frustrated at being out of the team is just as important as the ones in it.
“Steve is very talented at what he does as he will never force a player to speak. They come to him as they feel comfortable in his company and he has their trust.”
If this ethic can spread throughout sport and to the wider world, the harrowing stories might soon become a thing of the past.
Article written by Darren Witcoop for The Daily Express (7th August 2017) Read it here: