Kevin George knows all about the pitfalls of professional football. A promising young talent at West Ham and Charlton, George never quite made the grade at the top and dropped down the leagues before retiring altogether, still in his 20s. Motivated by his belief that football does not do enough on mental health, George became a trained human performance consultant, studying Counselling, Psychotherapy and Neuro-Linguistic Programming in the process. His 2018 book, Soccology, can be seen as a manifesto of psychology (including mental health) at the top level of professional football.
George dedicates a chapter of Soccology specifically to mental health, and contributions from several ex-professionals mean it carries an excellent insight into the game and its inherent challenges. Former Arsenal and Manchester City defender Gael Clichy talks about the external pressures that come from playing in front of a large crowd, admitting it can be ‘intense’ at times. A key moment in helping him deal with this was the birth of his first daughter, which gave him a sense of perspective and helped him appreciate that football was not everything if he lost a game or didn’t play at his best in any given week. In my opinion, however, the interview from which football clubs can learn the most is that of Anthony Gardner. The former England international claims that clubs set out to develop footballers, and not the people behind them. He feels the environment in a dressing room is often brutal, where ‘banter’ rules over anyone’s feelings, and that players can be stifled as a result. Gardner uses the example of Jermaine Johnson, a prodigious talent who never quite reached his full potential, to highlight how clubs harm themselves as well as their players by not taking the person behind a footballer into account. So many players are prevented from flourishing as a result of having their emotional needs neglected by the club they play for, argues Gardner.
Whilst the main theme that runs throughout Soccology is performance maximisation, lessons in mental health do regularly crop up. I found George’s analysis of footballing culture in different nations particularly interesting. He argues that the culture in the UK favours a show of passion – defenders flying into tackles are naturally preferred to tricky wingers who take risks and lose the ball from time to time. This can make players who are more naturally skilful feel like they don’t fit in and can force them out of the game, or mean that they are moved to other less effective roles. George is also keen to emphasise how allowances should be made for players from different backgrounds, and that not every player should be treated exactly the same way. Young players who grew up in deprived areas without the stability a father figure provides can have a tendency to seek to defend their honour when challenged, explains George. Rather than see them as troublemakers, it is important to try and understand things from their perspective to get the best out of them and stop them becoming isolated instead.
George’s position as an expert in psychology, as well as his time as a professional footballer, means he is uniquely placed to write about the football from a mental health angle. The result is a book that provides the reader with an education, each chapter shining a light on as aspect of football you might not have otherwise thought about. In particular, it should provide a lesson to football clubs and the authorities on the importance of prioritising the mental health of its participants.
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.