Mind over matter

How playing football helps improve male mental health, writes David O’Driscoll

Coppermill Swifts FC

Coppermill Swifts FC play at Douglas Eyre Sports Centre

Gary Lineker tweeted after England’s dramatic World Cup penalty shoot-out win over Colombia: “Football. There is nothing like it. Nothing.”

The Coppermill area of Walthamstow has a number of significant connections to football; the Douglas Eyre Sports Centre is a national centre for FA football coaching. Legend has it that

Tottenham Hotspur bought some houses in the local area for their players in the 1960s.

It is claimed that Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Smith, both England internationals, lived there and would often walk to the ground. It has been well documented that after retiring both players suffered with their mental health in middle age. And yet for many men football plays a vital role in their mental health.

Professionally, I work in the National Health Service (NHS), where there is a lot of concern, not only about male mental health but how to engage men in psychological services. There are many reasons why NHS bosses are worried; depression in men is often hidden, while women are diagnosed with depression twice as often.

The problem is for many men their emotions are buried deep, cut off, and often their ‘depressive symptoms’ are misinterpreted as callous or emotionless. The biggest killer of men under 45 is suicide, three times higher than for women. Is it because men feel that seeking help is seen as a weakness?

I have been one of the organisers for Coppermill Swifts FC. We got together to start a Friday night eight-a-side football team, and it quickly developed to such an extent that we now have a group of around 40 regulars and have even obtained sponsorship from the craft beer company Verdant to help purchase kit. We’ve now played our first 11-a-side game at Douglas Eyre, had a summer social awards event, and organised a tour game in Vienna, no less!

While the benefits of playing football – the sheer joy of it, the physicality and exercise – are clear, I was interested to find that the players reacted enthusiastically to the link with improved mental health. They spoke of having an outlet, space away from family and work.

Another aspect is the importance of ‘play’; as adults, we do not think about play and its role in our mental health. We know that it is important for children’s learning, working out their anxieties, fears, humour, even their darker feelings and rivalries. Does this suddenly stop when we become adults?

While football has changed considerably since Jimmy Greaves lived here, it can still be a helpful aid in male mental health.