Charlie Webster: How players are being helped with anxiety

Charlie Webster banner

Charlie Webster is a broadcaster and writer, a campaigner on social issues, and is a keen Ironman and triathlon competitor.

It wasn't that many years ago where the mention of seeing a psychologist in football was seen as a weakness, because a player was 'soft'.

But for a while now things inside clubs have been changing.

In the higher echelon of the game, psychologists and personal development departments are central to performance on the pitch.

I was recently given an in-depth insight into what sports performance really looks like in the department of one anonymous Premier League team.

I was interested in how players are doing right now, separated from their team-mates and in isolation.

Players have been sent new guidelines of what they should eat, taking into account that their energy output isn't as high as they normally are.

But there are particular challenges around anxiety and mental health, something we're all having to manage in these strange times.

In this club, they have been creating a culture to support players for a while now.

From a very young age, players are being exposed to conversations around dealing with performance anxieties as well as anxieties around things like being judged, injuries, the media, and even stress within their own families, such as in the pressure of suddenly becoming the main breadwinner.

Their first team has gone from flirting around the idea of mental health and performance anxiety to it being a recognised part of elite sport and competition.

When a player is not feeling or acting himself, they don't brush it under the carpet or presume it's down to a physical complaint.

These are interventions the club have found have a massive effect on the player and their results on the pitch.

The psychology department can dig deeper into a player's mindset and investigate if anything in their past has influenced their behaviour.

For some, it can be events from childhood. Clubs have players who were brought up with economic disadvantages, in war torn countries or have been split from their families at a young age.

Saido Berahino, the former West Brom forward, lost his father in the Burundi civil war and travelled alone aged 10 to England. Fabrice Muamba, who made a miraculous recovery after collapsing on the pitch playing for Bolton, grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and left at 11 with his mum to start a new life in the UK.

So the club might ask: "Why is the player doing this? What ways can we help them deal with this?"

Responses including envisaging worst case scenarios and the possible reactions - "controlling the controllable" - or giving a player the opportunity to discuss their concerns and worries, not just in terms of the game but life in general, which is very relevant at the moment.

Sometimes a psychological issue can cause an increased pain response to an injury, or even lead to avoiding certain moves on the pitch due to worrying about injury.

Club physiotherapists and doctors can help work out when this is happening.

When a player comes back from an injury, the club look at the doubts over being able to get to their previous level of performance - "will I ever be as good as I used to be?"

But there is an awareness in the club that just because a player has been to the psychologist they are now "cured". That would be a bit like saying they have been to the gym once so are now fit. It's a constant commitment.

It's about teaching that anxiety is a normal part of performance. Players who can manage anxiety are more likely to perform at their best - it's something I think we can all be aware of, especially right now.

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by mental health issues, help and advice is available at BBC Action Line.

Top Stories

Elsewhere on the BBC