Yesterday was always a day I loved – the first day of the new football season, a time to play for real, a time to score goals.
After weeks of gruelling physical and mental punishment, the day has finally arrived when many players finally get to kick a ball with a purpose, as the first games of the new football season get underway.
Preseason training is fundamental to teams in shaping their formation, style, and fitness levels towards the vision of the manager. As a player it is the key time of the season in preparing you for the following 10 months of relentless action, this period being fundamental for improving the obvious, strength, power, cardiovascular fitness, technique and so on, the list goes on.
Other areas that are not quite so obvious are in establishing an underlying strength throughout the body, especially the core, lower back, and pelvic strength to reduce injury within the season.
Apart from the physical role this period achieves, there is an undeniably vital role that preseason plays in preparing the players mentally to cope with what now is becoming a year-long and therefore continual process of playing football. Players at the top level now have little time for their bodies to recover, with the World Cup this year, Champions League, Premier League, and domestic cups, I recently read that Belgium’s star player Kevin De Bruyne could play as many as 87 games this season if he were to start every game, ludicrous in my view if you want a level of consistency.
For me, it was all about playing games, indeed if anyone asks me, and from time to time they do what I’m my most proud of about my career, it is the games I’ve played (721), and the goals are scored (221)
It was all about the games, it was always about metrics, chasing targets. Training is one thing and I enjoyed training but, the game environment is what excited me the most and I subsequently miss the most. The first day was the first one and I loved it. I scored on the opening day of the season 6 times in my career, and they remain some of my best memories.
I was injured for one opening day game, and it remains one of my worst.
I hated sitting in the stands, I even hated even sitting on the bench.
I always question players who are happy to sit on a long-term contracts without making appearances, I question their desire and I question their professionalism.
As a manager I liked nothing more than to hear a player say “I just wanna play gaffer”
I wanted to play every minute of every game.
Indeed, last season the great Cristiano Ronaldo, came in for criticism after being substituted in one game at the grand old age of 37, throwing his jacket on the floor in a public display of frustration having been brought off. But I loved it, I love the passion, love the hunger, what a show of authentic emotion, yes I understand that it is a team game and every component must fit together but, you cannot extinguish a desire like that and nor should you.
Very often in life we are taught from a young age to bottle up these emotions, to suppress our authentic self, to suffer these emotions in private and portray an image of professionalism above all else, but I completely disagree. At a time when mental health issues are becoming more and more common, especially in elite athletes who have found it difficult to express such issues, we need to accept them when they occur, accept them in ourselves and work on them to lessen long-term impact of them.
My son Jake, a professional footballer himself has recently had to deal with any footballer’s worst nightmare, long-term injury in the form of anterior cruciate ligament rupture and reconstruction and the emotions that are associated with this challenging injury. Accepting the injury, understanding the surgery and subsequent rehabilitation time is one thing, and he dealt with that with impressive resilience, it is a characteristic of his that I admire and respect.
Processing the impact that this injury has had on his career trajectory is another challenge that is often more difficult to compute than the transition back to playing.
He has done this and yesterday was ready to be a player again, in front of a crowd at last, undeniably a special moment. The moment didn’t come.
We had a conversation yesterday morning on his current situation, where he was not involved in the squad for the opening day and how he will deal with that mentally, I know missing out on the first day especially when you’re fit and ready to play is extremely tough, and he was bitterly disappointed not to play for his club, Charlton Athletic, but football can be harsh, I remember during my time at Brighton, a well-respected and experienced coach say to me, “Foz, you know football, great game, shit business!”
The message to Jake was to remind him that the struggles of life sometimes are there to remind us on how strong we are.
He will be back, and he will be stronger as a result.
Sympathy from many outside the bubble of professional elite sport is often scarce, and for some reason, especially towards professional footballers, the view is one of privilege, not living in the real world, incredibly fortunate to be earning large salaries without having to do a lot in return, but the reality for a large percentage of professional sports men and women is completely different, completely at odds with that opinion. The reality is similar to the iceberg analogy of above the surface players displaying success, fame, wealth, self-confidence bordering on arrogance, happiness, but below the surface there is a much larger surface area of self-doubt, at times low self-esteem, increased pressure, anxiety, stress and often unhappiness in a far larger percentage than is visible above the surface.
Stress affects us all, at different times at different levels with different results, and the reality of stress is that we often don’t talk about mental health in our workplaces until it’s past the point of help, a third of us now will suffer increased anxiety, stress or mental health issues within our lifetime, they are responsible for 30% more absences in the workplace than any other reason, and that includes the world of elite professional sport.
Mental health is extremely complex, and I’m not for one minute saying that I am a specialist, but we all have mental health, everyone has mental health, and this much we do know, nobody wants to struggle with mental health issues, nobody wants to be off work with mental health issues, nobody doesn’t want to live a life of fulfilment because of mental health issues, they don’t want to struggle with the routine of life, they don’t want to find it difficult to speak about their issue, for fear that no one will listen, or will not understand, or will manage them out of their positions, the worry about support and a support system within an organisation is very real.
As always much more needs to be done to support not only those in elite professional sport, but in all professions, it’s easy being happy when we’re happy but it’s incredibly difficult being happy when we’re struggling.
As the saying goes, the true measure of a man/person it’s not where they stand moments of comfort and success, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.
My role now as a goalsetting/life coach is now spent more and more coaching clients online and in person on how to deal with the stresses and pressures of balancing professional life with the home life. This always revolves around them looking at themselves, their current position, here and now, and then trying to understand where they want to go, what they want to be, working a plan to bridge the gap between the two.
This always includes them working on themselves in small incremental step towards a chosen goal. The components of our lives that we need to work on to be healthier, happier and maintain a healthy balance in all areas. These include relationships with our family and friends and loved ones, our health, physically emotionally and spiritually, our social networks, (not digital), employment and financial planning, personal development, all of these I called the components of life, and we must work on most if not all of them to be complete
The problem with this is that it requires substantial time and effort and even with this investment we will at times fail, failure is part of human behaviour, it’s part of life, the trouble with this is it often leaves us feeling disappointed, rejected and affects our self-esteem.
One big barrier towards making any change is fear, fear of failure fear, of the unknown fear, of losing the comfort zone that we are currently in, even if we don’t like that comfort zone, we don’t want to risk it for a place we deem to be better for fear of ending up somewhere less favourable.
So, we are always listening to the two voices inside our heads, the one that encourages us to make changes and to improve ourselves and the other that says it’s a waste of time and it won’t lead to anything substantial or worthwhile. But like many things mental resilience or grit can only be improved by constant practice.
Ultimately, only if you love yourself will life love you back