England manager Gareth Southgate believes the country’s female footballers are better at opening up about the pressures and stresses of the game than their male counterparts.
Mental health issues in the sport are at the top of the agenda after Everton’s Aaron Lennon, who won 21 caps for the Three Lions, was detained under the Mental Health Act on Sunday and is currently receiving treatment for a stress-related illness.
Speaking to head teachers at the Boarding School Association’s conference in York, Southgate acknowledged elite football as a risk area and highlighted the struggles he has noticed encouraging young footballers to engage with the issue.
“It’s a highly pressurised environment, no question, for any performer going on stage there is enormous anxiety whether that person is a sportsman or sportswoman, actor, musician, comedian…there’s always an element of ‘can I do it today’, self doubt,” he said.
“We’re in a sport where boys aren’t comfortable opening up in front of each other. Our women’s senior team are brilliant at sharing reflectively. They share their feelings, they have a different dynamic as a group.
“Our men’s team are bloody hard work, that’s one of the dynamics I’ve found as a coach.
“It isn’t their natural desire. They don’t really want to show weakness in front of each other.
“I try to give them permission to do that by showing them all the weaknesses I have, but sharing and opening up isn’t a natural thing (for them) to do.”
While seeing the issue first hand – both among former team-mates and now as a coach – Southgate admits he is also prone to internalising his emotions, a sign of how deep the problem runs.
“I’m not sure I would always go and seek help, I don’t let people in to all the problems I face,” he said.
“If I had a real issue I know I’d be locking myself away to deal with it. That’s maybe not great role modelling. But trying to get people to be open and seek help is a challenge.”
He added: “I played with a couple of players who came forward with mental health issues and I didn’t understand it fully as a player.
“I have a much better understanding now as a coach. I’ve spoken to them subsequently and apologised, said ‘I didn’t understand what you were going through’. I couldn’t relate to it.”
Southgate went on to suggest that young players being let go by clubs and those heading into retirement needed specific help with exiting the professional game.
“I don’t think we’re great at the transition out,” he said. “Whether that’s young players we release or players who come to retirement age because that’s a huge shift in your life.”