Andy’s Story

I play, coach, ref, eat, sleep and breath football! I haven’t hung up my boots just yet but I know I want to stay in the game for as long as possible and give back what the sport has given me throughout my life. Football obviously provides great fitness benefits and that is something I’ve always enjoyed. Other benefits from the game I like are: the social side of it with my mates; the tactical debates with other coaches; and the psychological challenges both on and off the pitch. I love playing games, whether there is a ball involved or not. Anything that involves running, jumping, tackling or tagging, and most importantly, laughing, I’m in! Naturally, playing gives us positivity, a buzz, a feeling of happiness, or perhaps just a distraction from life outside of the game. In more recent years I’ve grown to see more of the effects that sport (in particular football) can have on people, especially myself.

“Mental health is physical health. We must stop separating the two, hold them in regard, as one.” (Anne-Marie Silbiger)

I remember a teacher once enlightening me, “everybody has mental health”. It sounds so simple but it struck me at the time because it was as obvious as that. I had always seen mental health as a stigma, a negative connotation to admit having or a risk to even mention it. Somewhere along the line I must have learnt to avoid it, ignore it or perhaps I just misunderstood it. Through my career I have found myself in opportunities to discuss mental health, as times have changed and breakthroughs are being made in industries to start supporting this. I began to question why in football (or any sport for that matter), we train to play better: to run for longer; to go faster; hit the ball harder etc. But when do we train our minds: discover how to feel happier for longer; learn about our anxieties; and share our struggles with our teammates? I’m intrigued by how we can use football as a platform for mental health from grassroots to our grey-roots! So I began exploring what’s already out there and who I can learn from to figure this out. Then I found Head in the Game.

The Sunday night sessions at The Den have comprised of: an initial check in within the group; followed by a warm up game; then onto a more competitive drill; and topped off with a small sided game. Then at the end we regroup and reflect on what effect the session has had on us. When the session begins we gather in a sort of ‘circle of trust’ and share a level of how each of us are feeling. This can be drawn from the week we’ve just had, or our mood on the day. A theme/topic is addressed each week which is reflected in the drills we play. Some weeks the coach will share their relationship on the topic and what it means to them and we can understand what it might mean to us. Other weeks we might just appreciate why each of us are there and break the ice before sharing an hour of football together. As we exit the Millwall training pitch each week and inevitably debate whether the last goal should have counted (or berate the coach for being a West Ham fan), more importantly what we do walk away with is something to think about for the new week ahead. This could include what we want to achieve in the week or use what the coach has informed us about mental health. So far there have been some key takeaways that have really sunken in for me…

I never have time to read, or at least that’s always been my excuse. In recent years, we’ve encountered precarious times during the pandemic, and perhaps due to this we have an improved awareness of mental health and how ‘time to stop’ is a key factor in our well-being and recovery. This has been very beneficial for me as I can get carried away with balancing a demanding work and social life. I have been caught out before burning the candle at both ends! Whilst on holiday with my girlfriend this year I finally read a book from cover to cover. I never appreciated the time to do this before, and a chance to reflect on it too. I absorbed a book called ‘Mind Games’ by Neville Southall, about the ups and downs of life and football (how original of me, I know!) This has been a great insight into the taboo of talking about mental health, especially within our beautiful game. And the chapters cover some tricky topics to talk about, such as confidence, pressure and fear. I found all of it very encouraging and I endeavour to create open environments for football folk to continue sharing our relationships with these topics, both on and off the pitch.

The HITG sessions have left me feeling refreshed, ironic when your red in the face, panting, and dripping with sweat. But that’s what they do, or at least the power of playing a bit of footy can do for you. A common factor we have shared as a group is the sense of ‘focus’, a clear head or forgetting outside stressors for an hour. When we step on the pitch, we’re like kids in a candy shop, we have this desire to go straight to the ball and fire a shot on goal, or maybe just a casual pass and chat in a circle. It’s been extra special to experience this programme under the dome of the Lions Centre at Millwall FC. It’s become a routine for me, and it really does kick start my week on a top note.

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