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  • Anita Abayomi

My Interview with Marvin Sordell.

Teenage kicks: Are the kids all right?

The mental health of footballers, once a taboo topic, is now at the forefront of discussions. We now place great emphasis on protecting the mental state of those playing at the highest level, which is a fantastic shift in the football society, however, the topic surrounding young children and their wellbeing in the sport remains a grey area.

From the build-up to success to the downfall of being released, between these opposite ends of the spectrum how are parents conditioning their children to keep a positive mindset? Especially in light of the fact that less than 1% of children who enter academies at the age of nine will make it as a professional footballer?

Former Watford and Burnley striker Marvin Sordell began his football journey in childhood. The London-born ex-footballer played at the highest level in the Premier League and proudly represented team GB in the 2012 London Olympics. However, Sordell retired at the age of just 28 when he decided to put his mental health first. While sharing his insight into the sport, he highlights the not-so-glamorous pressures he faced from a young age.

“I actually did feel pressure. There was pressure to succeed in trials, to get through and be signed,” says the 30-year-old. “As a young player, you know that time is limited. You see young players and every year the selection is getting younger and younger when they’re signing for clubs. “It almost feels like it’s too late when you get to a certain age. I didn’t get scouted until I was 13. There was a lot of pressure on myself internally, and after I got signed at 14, there was also pressure externally.”

At the age of 13, Marvin was picked up and offered a six-week trial at Chelsea Football Club. What felt like a breakthrough for Sordell was soon cut short as he was told that he was not “quite good enough” at the end of his trial. The desire to become a professional footballer formed into a cry of desperation. The battle for confidence became harder and the feeling of self-doubt started to creep in. “I felt a lot of pressure was placed on myself internally because I was so desperate to become a football player. I had seen a lot of friends around me get scouted from the age of eight, nine, 10. You get to the age of 12 and it kind of slows down and you don’t really see scouts at the game any more. So, then you start to think, is it a possibility? It felt like time was running out.”

In September 2020 over 464 members of the Professional Footballers’ Association sought out mental health and wellbeing services. The statistics show that 42% of these members were current footballers, while 55% were former players. Low mood and anxiety were revealed to be the most common issues. Children that aspire to make it as professional footballers are generally not fixated on these statistics. Their aim is to become successful and this can lead to an unhealthy mental state.

Deputy head teacher Becky Day explains to The Athletic how she uses her position in education to help children with their mental health. “We’ve done a lot at school in recognising when someone is just not themselves. When we came back from lock down, you could definitely tell that there were children who were a little more insular, struggling with friendship groups. Getting them as active as possible with sports, such as football, can remedy this.”

Day recognises the advantages of keeping children active through team sports but also emphasises the importance of helping her pupils to build resilience. “They definitely have the resilience now that they (know they) can’t win all the time. There are times when they are not successful and they’ve learnt that that’s part of the game. You’re not going to be the best at everything.“

The key to building a healthier mindset is building this resilience. The minimum age to join a football academy is currently nine years old. Starting at such a tender age increases the possibility of facing constant rejection after trials.

Sordell acknowledges the need for resilience from a young age and expressed to The Athletic his desire at such an age to always want to prove his critics wrong. “This was something that was a part of my DNA. I expected people to write me off and I’d want that challenge to prove people wrong.

“Unfortunately, you need to build resilience from a young age in football. It is something that is inevitable. For a start, you’re going to get told a lot of the time ‘no’. You’re going to get told a lot of the time that you are not good enough. You’re going to face a lot of rejection. “So, you have to be strong enough to be able to bounce back from that and still believe in yourself enough to go out and perform again. The mentality to brush off negativity and rise from adversity is something that you need playing football. There will be times where you go through bad spells in your career or even bad moments in games and you need to be able to brush that off.”

As the topic of mental health becomes more universal, parents seek to do more in managing their children’s lifestyle to avoid the possibility of such pressure being self-inflicted. Hypnotherapist Cezanne Tobin co-founded the organisation My Football Mind. Having watched her son play for district, county, local and now a Category One team, Tobin highlights the need for greater awareness of mental health for young players in the game.

“My son was scouted when he was at primary school. Myself and his father both felt that he was too young, we didn’t want him going to a pro club until he was older. He was happy playing with his school friends, happy with his district team and he was enjoying football and that’s what he needed to keep doing. Personally, I think when you put them into a professional environment from so young, it’s too much pressure for them.

“I’ve seen young boys that were at pro clubs from a very young age, go all the way through to 15 and are then released. How do they deal with that? They’re still kids at the end of the day and clubs should have more help in place to support the rejection the kids are going to be forced to deal with if they don’t get into another team.”

As well as the high probability of not being able to develop a professional career, some children may face the ugly challenges of fighting discrimination, something that Sordell has faced first-hand. Young black players are often questioned on their attitude and have to battle to prove that they are worth the risk.

“There’s always the discussion around attitude, the discussion around whether they have the right mentality or intelligence and things like that.” Sordell explains. “It’s difficult because in an environment where you’re so desperate and so keen to learn, you ask a lot of questions and asking questions within football is seen as almost questioning authority, as opposed to wanting to learn. It’s seen differently for a young black man and that’s something that I struggled to navigate properly as well.”

Facing discrimination from a young age does not only apply to the race of the player. It also concerns those who have grown up in a more challenging environment. Working closely with parents of young footballers, Tobin has noticed a trend in the type of players who are being released.

“A lot of kids come from underprivileged backgrounds,” Tobin tells The Athletic. “They’re coming from broken homes and environments that are challenging. Football to them is their way out of that life. Some kids come into academies and are being released because of their ‘attitude’. This is the way they are because of the environment they have lived in. If you think a kid is talented, it’s harsh to release them based on their attitude. If you think a kid has potential, give them a chance. Find out what’s going on with them and their life outside of football.”

Mentors within football are proving to be a key resource. Tobin believes that children need them in order to create a trusting environment; to have people they can open up to and who can help them in their difficult situations. It is important to try to help them understand instead of just saying they’re “too much trouble”.

While clubs have invested in using sports psychologists, for Tobin this is not enough. She condemns the use of strict adherence to using “old-school methodologies” of psychology and calls for further discussions around the use of mindset therapy, such as hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic programming, etc.

“I hope that institutions like the FA are looking to fund and implement improved processes within the clubs. A retain/release process is vital if we are going to reduce the significant rise in mental health issues in young players.”

Despite having success in the sport, Marvin decided to take a brave leap of faith, put his mental wellbeing first and hang up his boots before he hit 30. “I had a period where I was injured for a little bit. During that time, I started to explore other things that I was interested in such as filmmaking, writing and I spent a lot more time with friends and family.

“I realised that I was missing out a lot on life and the things that were making me happy wasn’t football any more. In fact, it was contributing to me not being happy. It was having a detrimental effect on my wellbeing, so I essentially got to a point where I decided that I needed to remove this from the equation. I still loved football but if I continued down that path, I was just going to be miserable and that would not just have an effect on me but everyone else around me.”

Sordell’s transition from football to entrepreneurship was not the easiest, but it was a decision he made because he was “emotionally ready”. He used his experiences to establish his company Transition FC. Despite being ready to leave football and explore other options, it was difficult for him as he did not have a concrete path to what he wanted to do. He felt that this was a problem within football and now uses his business to help bridge the gap between football and transitioning into a separate career path.

“Transition FC is creating a kind of funnel system that allows players to go from playing to not playing. It almost creates that safety net where they can understand that there are so many different paths for them to explore and it can happen simultaneously with football. It doesn’t have to happen when you stop playing”.

The future looks to be bright for young prospects yearning to find space within the football industry. The love for the beautiful game need not be tainted by the dark side of one’s mental wellbeing. Looking after a child’s mental state while they are going through trials at professional football clubs could make the difference and contribute towards creating a safer, loving environment within the space.

Tobin stands as an example of a parent who put her child’s mental wellbeing first. Her son has been fortunate enough to sign his first professional contract with a top Premier League club. She is testament to what she preaches and uses her platform to highlight the positivity in looking after your child’s mental health in a sporting environment.

When asked if he has any advice to give to parents who have children that are as eager as he was to make it as a professional footballer, Sordell replies: “Make sure that they are happy. This should always be the priority in football. Making sure that you are enjoying it because, if all else fails, if all is not going great, you still have something that you love.”

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