Football in the UK has signed up to the “Mentally Healthy Football Declaration”, which is spearheaded by the Duke of Cambridge and commits to making mental health a priority at all levels of the sport.
In a video call, Prince William, who is president of the Football Association, spoke to former England captain David Beckham, Aston Villa defender Tyrone Mings, Crystal Palace winger Andros Townsend and Manchester City defender Steph Houghton about their mental health and the state of the problem in football.
Here are their personal experiences.
Beckham on ‘different era’ and ‘keeping it all in’
After being sent off for England in the 1998 World Cup against Argentina, Beckham, who was 23 at the time, was vilified in the press and abused by football fans in the stands for months.
“When I look back on it now, I didn’t realise how hard it was. The times I’ve faced adversity throughout my career – ’98 was by far the toughest,” said former Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder Beckham.
The all-time England appearance record-holder added: “The reaction at the time was pretty brutal, but times have changed.
“If social media was going around at that time in ’98, it would have been a whole different story. Did I feel OK to go to someone and say I needed help? No. I just felt I had to keep it all in and deal with it myself.
“Now I’m the one preaching to my kids and to other kids that it’s really important to talk. We all know now that it’s OK not to be OK, and it’s OK to say that. It’s OK to come out and say I need help.”
Townsend on ‘football going backwards’
Palace winger Townsend, 29, says he is “not very shocked” to see racial abuse aimed at Premier League footballers, including his team-mate and Ivory Coast forward Wilfried Zaha and other high-profile sports stars.
“We seem to have gone backwards in football. We seem to have a kind of a copycat era where people see one person give out racist abuse and, for some reason, they think it’s cool to do the same,” said Townsend.
A 12-year-old boy was arrested over the abuse Zaha was subjected to, something Townsend finds “quite scary”.
He added: “We all need to kind of look at ourselves and think, how can we do better? How can we bring up our kids to not know these sort of phrases in the first place?
“It’s a real eye opener and we have to keep working hard to try and eradicate this – not only from football, but from society as well.
“Since the stuff with George Floyd, everyone seems to be getting behind it. The Premier League, the FA and clubs, they’ve backed us.”
Townsend called for social media companies to come down harder on racist abuse.
“People can so easily make false new accounts under aliases and make a racist remark and then delete their account and not be held accountable,” he added.
“Every person needs to be held accountable for their actions on social media.”
Mings on how academies can be ‘challenging’ for young players
England centre-back Mings, 27, played a key part in Villa avoiding Premier League relegation, but has had to overcome several injury and personal setbacks during his career.
“I was at Southampton as an academy player and got released at 15,” Mings told Prince William. “I’ve kind of seen the good and bad sides of academies.
“They have great pools of talent and they can be a pathway into the professional game. But they can also be quite challenging.
“I felt like kids are exposed to pressure at such young ages in academies and it’s year-long contracts – will I be kept on for the next year?”
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As a result, Mings has set up his own football academy.
“If kids want to be away from that and not feel pressurised to win games or impress people, then that’s the environment we have set up. We’ve had really good feedback.”
Houghton on the mental health pressures of being captain
“I spent a lot of time worrying and it affected the way I played as I was trying to be everyone’s best friend,” says Manchester City and England skipper Houghton.
“But I was the one who was suffering and my form dipped.”
As a result, the 32-year-old defender, who made her international debut in 2007, has had to learn to control her own performances and stay “true to her beliefs” on how football should be.
Beckham, Townsend, Mings and Houghton were speaking to Prince William, while Townsend was also interviewed by Nick Robinson about mental health on Radio 4’s Today Programme.
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