In August 2016, former Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday striker Dalian Atkinson died at the hands of two police officers. Atkinson had been in the middle of a mental breakdown when he was tasered, having endured a continuous struggle with his mental health throughout his life. Sadly, Atkinson never did receive the support he needed at any stage, eventually culminating in his premature passing. Author Dominic Stevenson, a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, grew up watching Atkinson at Hillsborough and wrote Get Your Head in the Game with the intention of spreading mental health awareness and preventing others from meeting the same tragic fate as Atkinson.
Throughout Get Your Head in the Game, Stevenson provides a voice to those who are often overlooked in football’s mainstream. Stevenson’s chapter on women’s football contains one particularly fascinating interview with the former manager of the Afghanistan Women’s team, Kelly Lindsey. Going into coaching was Lindsey’s way of dealing with her enforced early retirement from the playing side of the game due to a serious blood clot at the age of just 23. Motivated by the desire to bring a sense of purpose into her role, she took on the Afghanistan job with the aim of using football to help eliminate sexism and promote equality. In an unstable region of the world, the mental health challenges faced by both Lindsey and her players were complex, to say the least. Lindsey spoke of the language barrier presenting a challenge in the pastoral care aspect of her job, with it being tough to really convey emotion in a conversation in which you are relying on a translator. This was particularly tough given the scandal ongoing at the time, as FIFA launched an investigation in 2018 into allegations of sexual and physical abuse against members of the team by high-ranking officials. Lindsey says it made her understand better why victims of abuse often don’t come forward, as they are trying to protect their mental health.
Stevenson also examines the pressures of the bright lights of the Premier League, and all the external turbulence that comes with it. To do this, he focuses on an interview with a top-level men’s professional who goes by the name The Secret Footballer (or TSF for short). The Secret Footballer rose to prominence with a series of anonymously written books and newspaper columns detailing what life is like at the top. Mental health is a theme TSF deals with plenty of times, but Stevenson asking him some specific questions on the topic brings about some very direct answers. A key takeaway is that TSF believes the biggest barrier to players getting support these days is themselves, as many might feel guilty seeing their friends living harder lives but asking for support themselves. This was an issue that also arose when I spoke to Marvin Sordell as part of my research for Match Fit. Sordell has been very open about his mental health struggles and provided plenty of insight into how he thinks the game can improve in how it deals with mental health. Stevenson has his own thoughts on this in his concluding chapter. He argues, for example, that football should look to normalise support mechanisms such as counselling for players in the same way it has normalised the importance of a good diet.
Get Your Head in the Game is (as far as I’m aware) the first book that directly addresses the relationship between mental health and football. I’m sure it will be the first of many as mental health awareness in society grows, and as stories relating to footballers and their mental health issues currently appear in the news on a regular basis. Get Your Head in the Game was released whilst I was in the early stages of working on Match Fit, which emphasises how football can be used as a vehicle to drive mental health awareness. Reading Stevenson’s excellent work as I was writing my own project allowed me to ensure there was minimal overlap in the specifics of the content, meaning our respective books are able to complement each other and take the cause of mental health awareness to as many people as possible. I hope there will be many more books on this vital topic to follow in years to come.
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.