Monday, 19 February 2018

Hiding Nerves and Anxiety in Football

So, I wrote this 4 months ago, but I was scared to share it. But it seems like I'm not alone, and it will probably do me good to let other people read about my problems.


I was looking through Twitter earlier and noticed some posts about ex Falkirk and Queen of the South player(among others) Chris Mitchell, and how he hid his depression from his family and friends, before sadly taking his life about 16 months ago. There is a definite expectancy in general life that men especially should sort themselves out, get on with it and cheer up. But I want to write about my own troubles in football, and how I think it affected my career. It's really sad that it came to such a tragic end with Chris, but it has encouraged me to speak out a bit about my own troubles.
I should start by saying I'm not suicidal, never have been and although I have almost certainly been depressed, its so tough to write about it and I have genuinely been wanting to for so long, but the irony is, to write about anxiety and nerves you have to overcome them, therein lies the problem.

I can pinpoint to the game the first time I ever felt nervous before a game. It was for St Johnstone in 2008 against Hamilton at McDiarmid park in my first season professional. I hadn't started a game since the new manager took over in October, then suddenly I was thrown in against top of the league, in an important game for us in February. I had never been nervous before and was always relaxed before games, but suddenly self doubt and anxiety crept in. Although I would try and tell myself I wasn't nervous, my body was telling me different. I felt physically sick, couldn't eat, could hardly speak to people, felt breathless and my legs felt heavy. These symptoms are all due to nerves, lack of self belief and anxiety. I honestly think that anyone who says nerves are good for you, has never been nervous. I can 100% guarantee, that the body feels better, the head clearer and everything is easier when you are relaxed before a game.

When I was 21 I was super fit and everyone who knows me will know that back then pace was the main part of my game, but on this day I was tired after one run, my legs felt like they were cramping up in the first half and I had zero energy . I had a bad game, and it was the beginning of the end for me. When I arrived at St Johnstone in May 2007, I was flying high with confidence after promotion with Queen's Park, and my pre season and early season form was good, I felt great and I was playing. The difference between then and 9 months later was incredible inside me, and I don't think I ever recovered.
This was the start of 10 years of this feeling and the start of what was essentially a downward spiral in my career with a small peak at Falkirk which we will get to later.

The football dressing room and training ground is a very tough place to be if you have any anxiety or depression, because it is a ruthless business where everyone looks after themselves, and also most of the jokes are about making fun of people. There is no place to hide on a training pitch every day, and when I was young and at Queen of the South I found it difficult. I remember feeling so nervous before my first game I told the assistant manager I was too nervous to play, but it was ok, I was on the bench. I hadn't eaten, felt sick and had no energy. It is the only time in my whole life I have ever told anyone I was nervous. As it turned out I came on for an injured player after about 15 minutes. It was probably the best way as I had no time to think about it, and I played quite well.
From then on though, I was nervous about every game. I was sick several times, once on the pitch during the warm up and it affected my performances regularly.

The worst thing about it is that it becomes a never ending downward spiral. I lacked confidence and doubted myself a lot, and that in turn made me play worse, which made me doubt myself more. One time I remember calling in sick the morning of a game because I felt so bad. I felt ashamed doing it and I lay in bed all day feeling awful. I used to see people who were arrogant and full of confidence and wish I had that in me, I know I would have been a better player, but I think it just wasn't the way I was.

After 3 years at Queen of the South, my contract wasn't renewed and for 6 weeks I had no deal. I was resigned to stopping full time football, but luckily I got the chance to train with Falkirk. After the initial nerves at training and in my first game, I soon found myself feeling better and that is down to 2 things. The manager was absolutely perfect for me, he was full of praise, knew exactly what I was good at and he used me in a way that suited me perfectly. The second thing is the squad was younger, and the dressing room much friendlier. It coincided with the best spell in my career for those 8-9 months, almost injury free and playing every week.

The second year was a different story. Hamstring injuries had ruined pre season for me, and although I did get into the team by September, I wasn't playing as well. I remember coming back from another injury and I was playing my first game after a few weeks training. I felt fit and was due to play right back. However due to so many injuries and weeks missed I felt really nervous that day, and in the first half I got hammered by the winger. I had jelly legs, no energy, sore head, all the usual symptoms. I remember the manager saying my fitness was a disgrace, and it probably looked like that, I wish I could have told him the truth.
Two days later at training I did 10*400m in 70 seconds, 1 to 1 rest on my own and then hill sprints with the res of the team . My fitness was very high but my anxiety was the issue. I hardly played again for Falkirk, apart from a decent spell in February/March, and I knew my time there was coming to an end. My old problems had returned, or never gone away really, just hidden under the surface.

I have learned to deal with the feeling over the years, but they never really go away. I can force food down before games and I can relax sometimes, but the truth is I was never the same player again. I never ever felt carefree and confident like I had when I was 19, and it resulted in part time football and dropping down the divisions.

In the years since then injuries have been a problem, my pace has gone, and although I still had the appetite to train hard and try to get back to a good level, my body didn't let me. I lost confidence, I felt anxious every weekend and even some training sessions. I felt unfit every Saturday even if I was as fit as I could be. I could never produce anything like the form I wanted, and even if I was training well I never gained confidence. I've seen many players I played with go on to higher levels and even become internationals and I honestly feel that if I didn't have my issues I could have gone on to a higher level. It created huge self doubt, depression and many hours worrying and going over performances in my head. Now I am trying to come to terms with not having football at all as although I am 31, I can't love doing it when it makes me feel this way. I have dreaded games for nearly a decade, and that is the opposite of how it should be. I can relax at training and enjoy it, but never in a game and I am tired of that and don't want to do it anymore.

Looking back I wish I had asked for help, or at least spoken to a manager I trusted. But I didn't and I am sure that is normal for more than just me. This is my way of  opening up and telling people my issue, and there are so few people in football that are an open book. It is a huge taboo mental illness, and in football I think if you show it you are just tagged as mentally weak.

People always say you get out what you put in to life, and football is the same. But if your mind doesn't let your body work the way it is trained to, then you won't get your rewards. Although I had a decent career, it should have been much better and I'll probably always think that and a forever regret it.



After finishing this, I read Chris Kirkland's article on the BBC, it literally came out as I finished typing. It is exactly the same as what I feel, everything about it. Irrational feelings, and it helps that other people have the same problems. I wonder how many hide it...
Read that article here

I have also been reading the book on former Germany keeper Robert Enke, it absolutely spoke to me in so many ways, so many similar feelings. It's a tragic story of a top keeper, but well worth a read for anyone else struggling with what I did.

A big thanks also to the Queen of the South fan, who made this video of my goals at the club. It made me feel better any time I was down, and helped me feel like a better player than I probably was! Probably half the views on this video are me...
To any manager that wasted me out at right wing, here is the evidence that I am a poacher.

39 comments:

  1. One of the best players I ever saw at QP and your part in helping us get promotion was invaluable. Loved your speed, your attitude and your fantastic goals. Thanks for everything you gave the Spiders and all the best in the rest of your career.

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    1. Thanks for the words. Loved my footy education at QP, and promotion capped it all off. What a team!

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    2. Really good blog right from the heart. I watched you playing at Falkirk in a really good team. Seem to remember it was your cross from the left wing that set up the equalising goal for Jay Fulton against Celtic in a semi final at Hampden. I couldn't believe it when you left. I next saw you playing for Stirling Albion. No disrespect to Stirling Albion you were much better than that. You came on as sub in a game??Now I have read your blog and think I understand why. Hope the next part of your life turns out really well for you! Take advantage of your support network if needs be. Take care I

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  2. What a fantastic and brave article. Although I have known and lived with anxiety, I cannot begin to understand playing out and dealing with anxiety with thousands of people looking on and providing immediate, brutal and vocal feedback. Very brave article and obviously a very brave guy. Well done and good luck with your career.

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    1. Thanks for the words. It transfers to every walk of life, and affects me and others in other ways. Definitely affected football more than anything else I have done, purely because the way my body felt. Almost impossible to perform at times.
      Hope you are well

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  3. Best of luck David. I think you've done alright, so don't be too harsh on yourself!

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    1. Thanks, I'm sure I did ok, just should and could have been better! Got some good memories to look back on that's for sure.

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  4. David thanks for your time at QOS. All the best for the future.

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  5. That's braver than playing on a Saturday... Great article and a great help to players with similar circumstances. Good luck.

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  6. that is honest, and very well written. You really do convey what it must've been like. Good lad for sticking as much as you did, and all the best for the future. I liked you as a QOS player btw.

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  7. Good article and all the best for your battle. I too suffer from anxiety from time to time and find the NoMorePanic web forums a big help.

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  8. Superb read and well done for being so honest. It’s needed.

    As a St Johnstone fan, I think our club breeds this self doubt in younger players and has done for a long time and I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s lack of consistent game time that causes it or if there are deeper reasons.

    I’ve seen so many young talented guys come in the door full of promise and talent and for one reason or another, regress backwards very quickly. Blair Alston springs to mind at the minute.

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  9. You were my favourite Falkirk FC player in your time at falkirk

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    1. I'm glad someone liked me!
      Always gave it my best, and loved the club. Hope you enjoy many years of watching the Bairns!

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  10. Hi David. What a great read very revealing and insight what the mind can do to the body. That one manager showed great compassion and great man management to help you reach an improved level deserves praise. I thought you were fantastic at queen's. I was over the moon when you signed as at queen's park you were one of the fastest players I have seen. I remember you scoring 2 or three at partick away one night. Was a great performance. Just keep talking and excercising. You have me pleasure at queen's abs I wish you ask the best.

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  11. Hi David, You might recall that I met you when I was scouting an end of season game for Stirling (Brechin v Peterhead). I was impressed with your comments then, and wished you luck with your new life in Scandinavia. If you'd like to pick up on this, I would love to speak to you again for my website www.howtowatchfootball.co.uk. I am also working on a US-based project called www.prep4pro.com. Drop me a line at greg@dowanside.co.uk. I think I can help turn your negative experiences into a positive. Something that can help young players, wherever they are. Thanks again and all the best,

    Greg
    Greg Gordon

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  12. David in your time at Palmerston you were the nearest thing I had seen to a whippet in the team. Thanks for your efforts and I’ll give the video a view to remind me. More importantly thank you for your heart-felt honesty. I hope your article helps someone who is struggling with anxiety right now. Best wishes, Iain.

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  13. David I admired you as a saints fan I'm sorry you didn't get more chances with us.all the very best for the future u should be proud if yourself 👍👍

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  14. All the best. So hard to open up, i hope you find a new' thing' to feel passion for again. Good luck

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  15. I'm the person who made the video of you and can I just say it was a pleasure.

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    1. You have no idea how grateful I am, and how many times I watched it. Probably a strange favourite goal...but my movement for the goal at Dunfermline that Burnsy crosses for me, definitely a favourite. That 2-1 night at Firhill though, on my 23rd birthday, will never be topped as a birthday present!

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  16. Huge respect for being strong enough to go public. Having suffered from anxiety and panic attacks I know how hard it is to ask for help. Whatever the future brings I wish you all the best

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  17. Brave and honest. How difficult to appear confident and calm when your body is pumping fight or flight hormones at you. Your pain and discomfort talked about so frankly may help someone else to seek assistance. Thank you for your time with Falkirk! You often produced moments to treasure David. Be proud of yourself and move on to the next chapter in your life with the same courage you confirm in writing this article.

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  18. You haven't said anything about whether you feel better playing in Norway. I sincerely hope that is better. Thanks for your great performances for QP.

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  19. A fascinating article. Well done for speaking up. Such an honest article that I think it would be impossible for anyone to judge you or do anything but take it at face value. I am a Queen of the South fan - you were fantastic at times for us. Back then I suffered from depression and anxiety like you and going to watch you and the rest of the boys at Queens was the place I went to escape from it and get some relief. Watching Queens was the only place I felt kind of alright. So a big thank you! I hope you can overcome it like I have, and if not then that's okay too.

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  20. I can relate to this so much!

    My job involves visiting people in their own homes in an attempt at getting new business. The feelings you describe in your article are the exact feelings I have before every appointment. It's horrible!

    Well done for having the courage to write this 👍

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  21. My favourite queens player from that era. I was aware you were quiet, but took everything in your stride. That’s always how it appeared. I used to say to my 2 sond repeatedly that if you want a role model in sport, follow David. They would be 7 and 11 at the time. It wasn’t just on the pitch but I admired the fact you were a clever guy too. As I saw it, you had it all - I’m sure you still do.
    Thanks for such an honest piece of writing.
    Great to see these queens goals too to rekindle fond memories.
    Both my boys are playing football regularly now and the eldest goes to Glasgow uni in September. You can take some credit for that !
    Thanks again David and best wishes in your new ventures

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  22. Having played professional football at youth level, I completely relate to how you felt. I was brought up in a nice area and received a good education and perhaps was ‘too nice’ for pro youth football at the time. My team mates were often more confident than me and this allowed them to perform better, even though their ability was not always greater. I would regularly be sick before kick off or in the changing room toilet and never looked forward to playing a game, although once the game had started, the sickness went away. I ended up choosing further education over football which has worked out well for me but always wondered what could have been. You’re one of the good guys and have a very bright future ahead of you. Thank you for sharing your story-it has made me feel more ‘normal’ about my football days.

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  23. Thank you David for being so open and honest. You have lived the dream many only wish they could and no one can ever take that away from you.

    You still have your life in front of you and you can make a difference in so many ways to so many people.

    Thank you for the share and always remember no matter how many times life knocks you down if you can look up you can get up.

    Chris

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  24. Great words mate and you have achieved so much despite crippling anxiety. That is true bravery. Really amazing as i know anxiety.Reassuring to know I'm not the only one. I'm an ice hockey player and anxiety ruined any career I could have had. Wish it would be different but we can only give our best and we are who we are in the end. Good luck and best wishes,
    Adam

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  25. David , your story was shared briefly in a school assembly today here in Largs. I have no doubt that it will have helped those present to think more clearly about some of the issues raised. Best wishes from a QoS fan.

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  26. I know you were well liked at QoS by the fans. I think it's great you've opened up about these issues and hopefully this article will be a useful tool for others.Fab player for QoS and I'm sure all queens fans wish you all the best David.

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  27. Hi David,

    I found what you have written very inspiring and brave and want to commend you for your bravery. It makes you wonder how many other footballers suffer from the same issues. I think the common fan needs to see this and understand that footballers are humans too.

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  28. David and Susan Meldrum22 February 2018 at 20:41

    Well done David for having the courage to talk about what you went through.Hopefully it will make football authorities more pro active in dealing with mental health issues. We wish you all the best for the future

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  29. Dear David, thank you for speaking out. I have felt every one of those symptoms too. They spring out of nowhere and the worst part is when someone asks "what triggered it?" Ehhh breathing...life....existing!!! You can't pinpoint that moment before they kick in because if you could you would do everything to divert your thoughts and feelings so you never get to that stage. The person who cracks that will "cure" anxiety and become a billionaire!!!
    I'm so glad you had the courage to speak about your experiences, especially as a guy. Not enough males feel comfortable letting their guard down and anxiety/depression is nothing to be ashamed of. It is an actual physical chemical reaction not a choice.
    Stay brave David!! All the best. Lorraine x

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  30. Thank You Dear David,For Sharing Your Story It Is Inspiring Me. I'm Going Through Same Feeling & Situation Since Last One Year...Now Its Better since last one month...nd going better nd better...Yes Its Better To Talk With Someone...I'm Helping My self ..You Give Me That Positivity ....That People Seek during depression...You Better Understand It...Thank You Once Again..For Sharing Your Story.

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  31. Takes a huge amount to get those feelings out to the world David, so well done.

    I’m a Morton fan, and I have seen you a lot over the years. You’ve always been a very decent player for all your clubs causing us various problems over the years! Football fans and their shouts from the stands are notoriously there to unsettle the good players, so I would take anything as a complement.

    All the best for the future!

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