After World Mental Health Day, MHFA England Ambassador Matt Alexander reflects on his time in the football industry, what he has learned about the importance of community support, seeing employees as people, and the impact that big changes in our lives can have on our mental health.

Since my time in football, I’ve become an avid reader. Currently I’m reading about Ikigai, a Japanese concept about how to live a longer life. The book explores three communities across the world which report the longest lifespans. The three groups had very different diets, different alcohol intakes, and different exercise patterns. The main thing they had in common? A strong sense of community.

Football communities and mental health

The career of a professional footballer is short, and during that time they are very reliant on their communities for their wellbeing. Many of them will have played football since the age of five and won’t know anything else. Players have their whole days organised for them, right down to what they eat. They see the same faces, speak to the same people, and everyone is driving towards the same thing, together. When you get that community feeling, it can often bring success as well as be good for our mental health. But what happens next when that community is suddenly gone?

A friend of mine played in front of 40,000 adoring fans every week. In the space of two years, he went to playing in front of 5,000 people, and then not being able to even get a contract. Suddenly, another life had begun for him, ‘Life 2.0’ as I call it. When you’re that dedicated to a cause and that involved in a community, nothing else matters. Suddenly it’s gone, and you’re back at home with the family, trying to work out what happens next. The effect that can have on your mental health is significant.

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When I was in football, I immersed myself in that bubble too. I had complete tunnel vision, worked 25 hours a day, and made sacrifices. When you’ve spent years of your life away from home it can be difficult to embed yourself back into a family unit and make new friendships. Friends of mine have told me they felt worthless, their confidence has completely gone, and their mental health was at an all-time low. It’s no surprise that the National Football League (NFL) in America reports such high rates of suicide in ex-professionals.

The office of positivity

We’ve all had huge changes to our lives since the pandemic, and that can be difficult in any scenario. How you support people through those changes is so important for their wellbeing, and currently I don’t think football clubs are doing enough to fulfil that duty of care after they’re done with you. I’ve even known players who have been bullied out of clubs by coaches because of the amount they were being paid. In my experience at a lower level, you were always over budget, and just like in any other end-of-career process, employers can forget that these are human beings they are dealing with.

When I worked at Notts County, I worked in what I referred to as the ‘Office of Positivity’. Of all the things I did in football, all the players and people I met and relationships I built, some of the conversations I had in that room were the most memorable. We had Jack Grealish on loan one year and we talked about everything. Getting to know him off the pitch was just as important as watching him on it, because understanding people as people is important, however they are performing at work. That’s how we built our sense of community – by seeing and treating our players like people, not just footballers.

That five minutes to lend an ear is valuable for mental health in any walk of life, but only if it is genuine, not just because we feel like we have to. I was told by my Gran, a West Indian woman, who said that “you should listen to hear, not listen to reply.” She always spoke so softly, so that people had to lean in to hear what she said. Sometimes in football it felt like if I didn’t take that time to listen, no one else would, because everyone was so focused on the sport, and not the wellbeing of the people within it.

Seeing the whole self

When I speak to players now, I try to help them understand that football isn’t their entire being. Every player will have had knock backs in their careers, just like everyone will have difficult moments which will impact their mental health throughout their lives. When we are genuine, open, and listen to hear, not to reply, we can help people widen their lens and pull back from that tunnel vision.

Care costs nothing. It’s up to football clubs and all employers to make sure that there is a culture of care, so that it’s not all about the work. Changes will happen, the people around us will change with them, and this can have a big effect on our mental health. If we all offer a listening ear, and see the whole person, we can bring that community feeling into every club, every workplace, and every part of life. It might even help us achieve our ikigai.

Checking in on our own and our colleagues’ wellbeing can help us keep engaged, productive and prevent us from becoming unwell. Start your conversation with the My Whole Self MOT