Anxiety and depression: The new pandemic in soccer
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
New statistics linked to depression and anxiety in soccer players have come to light after the recent suicide of 30-year-old Uruguayan soccer player, Santiago García. This problem has persisted for years, though it was seldom mentioned.
Latin American soccer fans are mourning the death of Argentina’s 1st division 2017-2018 top scorer. Best known for his charisma and sympathy, along with his great power and strength as a striker, “El Morro” took his life in his apartment in the Argentine province of Mendoza, on the morning of Feb. 6. His mother confirmed to ESPN Argentina that he was undergoing psychiatric treatment for several months prior to his death.
Many fans and journalists are asking questions about whether “the soccer world” contributed in any way to García’s mental state. In 2019, the International Federation of Professional Footballers, a worldwide representative organization for 65,000 professionals soccer players, revealed that 38% of soccer players suffer from depression or other psychological problems. For the world’s general population, this rate is estimated to vary between 13% and 17%.
“The professional footballer is generally admired,” Sebastian Dominguez said on Twitter. Dominguez, a former Argentine national defender, is a soccer analyst. “A lot of money in a short time. Much recognition in a short time. A lot of power in a short time. A lot of everything, and sometimes all of nothing. El Morro, like other kids, lacked something to be happy. Mental health does NOT distinguish positions on the field, and it isn’t bought with money, prestige, or recognition.”
During an interview in December 2018, García stated an obvious truth, but one that is not frequently recognized in the soccer world:
“We are not robots. We go through things. We have feelings.”
Are soccer players treated as people? Are the clubs, federations, and fans focusing just on the athlete and living aside the human being? Footballers are prepared physically, technically, and tactically for high performance, but are they mentally prepared to face the immense amount of pressure?
Argentinian sports psychologist, Marcelo Sachs, shared his responses to these questions. Along with his experience in different clinics and companies, Marcelo has been working in the sports field for the past 10 years. He works with players and teams in soccer clubs for the Association of Amateur Soccer Institutions and the Argentine Soccer Association.
Marcelo Sachs, Argentine sport psychologist (46 years old).
What was your experience regarding anxiety and depression in the Argentine soccer clubs you have been working in?
“In my particular case, in the clubs where I've worked, thank God, there were no suicides. Now, when it comes to depression, anxiety, and pressure, in both amateur and professional leagues, they are a pandemic.”
“Pressure starts in footballers since they are very young.”
Do you think this is an exclusive problem for soccer, or do other sports suffer the same?
“We need to mark a big difference between soccer, and most other sports. In the rest of the sports, the mental aspect is given the value it deserves. On the contrary, in soccer, the athletic side of the footballer is taken care of a lot, but what is least paid attention to is the mental area.”
“What we should understand is that everything can be improved: the physical, tactical, technical, and also the mental aspect of a player.”
“Besides, many times we look at performance without realizing that the good performance of an athlete comes from a state of mental harmony.”
What is the role of the sports psychologist and why is it so important to help prevent this?
“From this profession, I don't look at the character, the scorer, the figure; I look at the person, who has a certain profession, who has a certain role, and who has conflicts within his family as everyone has. My role is to work with the person, not with the character. Things happen to everyone and at all ages. It happens to the millionaire player, the manager of a company, anyone.”
“Our function is to do fieldwork at a mental level so that the athlete can entirely dedicate himself to being a sports professional. That way, he learns to handle frustrations, anxieties, negative emotions, etc. We make the person know himself, and we make him understand that if he could get out of such a situation, he will also be able to get out of another one. So, we give him, not a speech of hope, but we make him understand that there are other ways out and other ways to see the same situation. Above all, this situation must be analyzed without such emotional overflow.”
According to statistics elaborated on by sports psychologists, the two toughest emotional moments for a soccer player are overcoming the narrow filter of becoming a professional, and retirement.
In Spain, for example, only one in 1,800 federated children in youth categories reaches the 1st division. The pressure on kids who want to be successful in soccer is as immense as the disappointment when, in most cases, they don’t achieve it.
The former goalkeeper of the Argentine club, Boca Juniors, Navarro Montoya, has been working for many years as a formative coach in youth divisions. He explained his initial desire to make a switch to that area.
“Most of the time we just take care of the few players that make it to be professional, and not the huge 99% that don’t,” Montoya said.
Another critical moment for the soccer players is when they hang up the boots. In almost all the professions, the retirement age is about 60, while in soccer, the athlete stops playing at 35, with age 40 being the best-case scenario. Their professional life stops when most non-athletes are in the prime time of their careers.
“That’s another thing to work on,” Montoya said. “We [formative coaches] should take care of the after-soccer life of the footballer when he begins to play. We need to shape the footballer with the idea that this is a profession in which failing is the most probable option. Besides, we should show them that there are plenty of alternatives outside soccer.”
By Osvaldo Godoy