Sources of stress in elite football players.
In this piece we shall look at stress, its definition, and its potential occurrence in the world of the professional football player. We will examine the possible sources and use current literature sources to support our assertions.
Having done that we shall examine in detail the case of Mr Vasey, a youngster who embarked on a professional football career but did not make it onto the elite circuit. We shall examine his personal account for evidence to support or refute our assessment.
If you read some of the tabloid newspapers, you could be forgiven for thinking that an elite footballer’s life is little more than huge amounts of money, fast cars, a succession of pretty women and endless adulation from mindlessly adoring fans when performing on the football pitch. Some of the more disreputable papers may also dwell on a slightly different (but generally equally false) aspect of their life, the drink, drugs, sordid sex romps in hotel rooms and gambling.
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The truth of the matter, in the vast majority of cases, is that the elite footballer is a finely honed athlete at the peak of his training. He is required to perform daily in training routines and in the gym, less frequently on the pitch, and put himself at risk of career threatening injuries on a regular basis. All this is done in the full knowledge that he has worked his way up a professional ladder to a comparatively short window of elite performance and that there are always many more hopefuls who are climbing up behind him either waiting to push him off or to watch him as he falls.
You may regard the introduction as rather melodramatic, but it is intended to illustrate the very different perceptions that are commonly held about the lifestyles of the elite footballer. In this piece we are going to review the stresses and pressures that are commonly experienced by this elite group and also how they (generally) manage to cope with them.
We also intend to illustrate the theoretical problems faced by the elite footballer with a real case study of a young man, Mr Peter Vasey who has gone a long way to becoming one of the elite group and then, for various reasons, which we shall discuss, decided not to pursue it further.
Stress and Stress management
We all think that we know what stress is and that we can easily recognise it. It actually proves to be a very hard item to define as firstly, it is important to distinguish between physical (biological) stress and psychological stress. The two are clearly related but fundamentally different. Secondly, stress is a multitude of different responses to a multitude of different potential causes.
In this piece we are going to consider the various causes of psychological stress on elite footballers. In this context we can look for a definition of stress in a particularly informative article by Crampton et al. (1995) . She reviews the various definitions of stress.
“Hans Selye (1956), a pioneer in stress research, has defined stress as "the non-specific response of the body to any demands made upon it" (Kreitner & Kinicki, 1992, p. 597). It is considered to be an internal state or reaction to anything we consciously or unconsciously perceive as a threat, either real or imagined (Clarke, 1988). Stress can evoke feelings of frustration, fear, conflict, pressure, hurt, anger, sadness, inadequacy, guilt, loneliness, or confusion (Cavanagh, 1988). Individuals feel stressed when they are fired or lose a loved one (negative stress) as well as when they are promoted or go on a vacation (positive stress). While many individuals believe they must avoid stress to live longer, Freese (1976) argues that it is the salt and spice of life and that to have no stress we would have to be dead.”
Selve defines the basic “biological” interpretation of stress while the Kreitner definition starts to incorporate the possible psychological elements that generate the biological responses. Clarke adds to our understanding by considering the psychological responses that can be produced by various stresses and Cavanagh modifies the definition further by introducing the concept of positive and negative stress. Freese makes the very perceptive comment that stress is an integral and inevitable feature of life itself. This particular insight can be taken rather further insofar as there are some individuals who find stress hard to cope with (non-copers) and others who appear to positively thrive in stressful situations (copers)
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
In terms of our footballers under consideration, we must accept that stress can, and does affect performance as we shall discuss (see on). Basic psychological theory shows us that individuals who are less than optimally stressed may not make enough effort to achieve their designated goal whereas those who are overstressed may not be able to concentrate on the task in hand and perform to their maximum capacity. In either eventuality it is clear that optimal performance is impaired. Equally it follows that there is an optimal amount of stress to achieve optimum performance. In practical terms, that “optimal amount” is only really possible to quantify in retrospect, and that is why many would describe the work of the team manager, coach and trainer as an art rather than a science.
Haspels (2004) looked specifically at the levels of stress in pre- and post-match footballers. Unsurprisingly, he found that the highest levels of stress were found pre-match in an International game. One of the standard measures of stress in the resting subject is the cortisol level. Unfortunately physical activity also puts up cortisol levels so one of the major predictors of stress was rendered useless in this study. Haspels also found that the players performed best when their stress levels were controlled before the game
Work by Anshel (2001) looked at the causes of acute stress on the playing field and came to the rather surprising conclusion that the major causes of stress in that particular situation was consistently found to be receiving what was perceived to be a bad call from the referee and making a major physical error (missed kick etc.) When these eventualities occurred, the athletes concerned tended to make negative cognitive appraisals followed by an avoidance coping strategy. The same study also found that approach coping was most commonly seen after positive appraisals. These observations clearly support the transactional coping model. The use of appraisals and coping strategy was directly dependent on the perceived nature of the stressful event.
Stress is an inherent part of football. It may, in part, be added to by the unrealistic expectations of the coaches, managers and the fans. Every team in the league is told that “this year the cup will be ours” at the beginning of the season and all the training, playing and motivation will be directed towards winning it. The reality, of course, is that only one team will win it.
Continued stress has been cited as the main reason for many of the younger players (including our study subject) for their lack of enjoyment and subsequently leaving the game. It is interesting to note that many sources cite youth as one of the causes of acute stress on the grounds that the youngster may not yet have developed the physical sports skills and coping strategies that the older, more experienced players have. We will not consider this element further as our concern in this piece is primarily the elite footballer who, by definition, has already mastered his game.
In broad terms, according to Lazarus (1999), coping with stress consists of a person’s conscious attempt at managing the demands and intensity of events perceived as stressful or improving one's personal resources (e.g., positive affect, confidence, self-control) in attempting to reduce or manage one's perceived stress intensity. He also observes that one of the critical factors in an athlete’s adoption of a particular coping strategy is their cognitive appraisal of the stressful event or situation. Lazarus sums up his appreciation of the coping response as an athlete’s ability to accurately appraise the situation and the subsequent use of an appropriate coping strategy as the critical factor in explaining an athlete’s physiological and psychological adaptation to stress in sport.
Our method of investigation falls into two parts. In terms of the stresses faced by elite footballers and their coping mechanisms, we have consulted, appraised and quoted authoritative literature on the subject. In terms of the real problems faced by Mr. Vasey, we have interviewed him and the results of the interview are appended to this piece as appendix I
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Sources of potential stress
Clearly there are a great many sources of potential stress that our hypothetical elite footballer may face. Broadly speaking they can be categorised into:-
Sport related stress.
- Performance anxiety
- Alpha male problems in a team game
- Competition stress
- Constant motivation
- Exercise dependence
- Constant levels of fitness
- Injury concerns
- Dietary concerns
- Drug monitoring concerns
- Premature retirement
- Living up to a perceived lifestyle
- Transient nature of income
- Income dependent on continued performance
- Media attention
- Family intrusion
- Privacy intrusion
Direct stress-related problems
- Relationship problems
- Cognitive functioning
Let us consider each one of these potential stresses in turn
Sports related stresses
In a well written and comprehensive article, Poczwardowski and Conroy (2002) discuss the stresses and coping mechanisms of elite performers. They categorise the various coping mechanisms into 36 sub-categories on the basis of direct interviews. The standard categorisations of problem-focused, emotion-focused, appraisal-focused, and avoidance-focused etc. were amplified and extended to cover a greater rang of detected strategies. For example "greater motivational changes after failure" was reported by one athlete as a stimulus to train harder so as not to fail a second time.
Stress can affect different sportsmen in different ways. Some appear to thrive and perform well, others find that it is a bar to optimum performance. Those elite footballers in the first category do not need any intervention as far as their performance in the game is concerned but an interesting study by Solberg et al. (2000) looked at the use of different relaxation techniques pre- and post performance in elite athletes. They found that athletes who practised meditation-related relaxation techniques had their blood lactate levels returning to normal quicker than their non-relaxed counterparts. Contrary to expectation however, they found no significant difference in their levels of pre-exercise anxiety.
Alpha-male problems in a team game
This is an anecdotally reported phenomenon which does not appear to have been investigated from a scientific perspective. The typical alpha-male personality type is over represented in the elite footballer community. Aggression, speed, firmness of decision making, independence and rapid responses are all prized attributes of the elite footballer. These are seldom attributes that are seen in the personality types that are happy playing as an integral part of a team. Football, by its very nature, is played by a team of eleven on the pitch and off the pitch, a very much larger team is involved. Prima Donna behaviour, typical of the alpha-male, cannot be easily accommodated in such circumstances. It may be tolerated as long as the player concerned is delivering the results, but it can be an enormous cause of stress when the results stop being delivered.
Footballers get older. In terms of their professional use, they age perhaps faster than professionals in other fields. There is a very narrow “window of opportunity” for them to be at the top of their chosen field. To play at elite level for more than a decade is considered to be quite unusual. Part of the reason for this is the natural ageing process which is present in every other individual, but also there is the ever-present problem of both career threatening injury and also the huge wear and tear on the joints (see on) which can give rise to significant health impairment in later life.
Turner et al. (2000) examined this problem in some detail and their results make impressive reading. Their cohort were all professional footballers. 32% of whom reported having surgery on at least one occasion. Of those, over half had knee surgery and a quarter of those had complete joint replacements. 15% reported
having hip surgery with another 9% awaiting surgery.
Others in the group were having non-invasive treatments. Nearly half had physiotherapy in one form or another for injuries sustained during their career and over a quarter were having some form of analgesia or anti-inflammatory drugs for pain associated with football injuries.
Osteoarthritis (OA) was diagnosed in at least one site in nearly half of the respondents and the vast majority of those were hips and knees. Significantly nearly 10% were registered as disabled due to OA and, very significantly, 72% of all respondents agreed with the statement "I am concerned with how OA may affect my body in the future", clearly a major source of potential stress.(Barlow et al. 2000)
Although joint problems were, predictably, seen as the most common pathology, other morbidity was found. Neuropsychological problems were not uncommon, presumably related to episodes of concussion or repeated trauma such as heading the football. 10 of the group reported problems such as memory complaints, dizziness and headaches.
Sport related problems included early retirement, enforced reduction in working hours or even a change to a sedentary occupation. Not only can all of this be viewed as a major source of stress to those who are suffering because of it, but also it must be stressful for the still-active player who may know what may be in store for him.
This is an area that has been extensively studied. Competition stress can be an enhancer for some players but equally it can be an inhibitor for others. There is a distinction to be made between the trait of anxiety and the state of anxiety which is quite significant and, to a large extent, is a reflection of the ability of the individual to cope with and handle the stress levels.
Sanderson and Reilly (1983) did the classic study in this field. Their target group were elite athletes. They found that the group of athletes who had the anxiety trait correlated highly with those who had high pre-race anxiety states and this correlated highly with the actual race performance. Very significantly, the greatest reduction in post-race anxiety levels was seen in those runners who performed well in their races.
In order to maintain elite footballer status a player must find a source of constant motivation. Initially, in his adolescent training days, the motivation may be personal glory and the goal orientated drive that comes with wishing to achieve professional status.
Having achieved that goal however, the player must then find other motivational drives to maintain his progress. For some, it drive comes from considerations of status and wealth, for others it could be the need for adulation and fame, others may have personal goals of achieving the pinnacle of their chosen profession, these are the achievement-junkies that are seen in any professional walk of life. Whatever the motivation, success invariable comes at a cost. Decisions, and therefore usually sacrifices, have to be made along the route of attainment and achievement.
In this piece we are considering specifically the elite footballer who, by definition, has managed to achieve the peak of his career. We should perhaps also consider the other athletes who by virtue of circumstance, situation, lack of motivation or perhaps even random differences in pre-natal myelination patterns, do not actually achieve the top of their profession. We shall discuss one such case in the case-study at the end of this piece. For every elite footballer, there are many who do not make the top echelon of players. There are arguably even more stress factors in this group who what to achieve but for one reason or another, cannot.
As far as motivation is concerned, this is a major concern of every coach and manager in the country for reasons that we have set out above. Most premier teams will have psychologists who are motivational specialists. Motivational theory is evolving at a rapid rate and reversal theory is the current “idea of the moment”. A particularly good book on the subject is edited by Apter (2001) . It deals with not only the current thinking on the subject but also the actual evolution of the reversal theory from its conception in the 70’s through to the applications of the present day. Significantly it also deals with the specific subject of stress engendered by the motivational process. It is a highly technical book and therefore we do not propose to enter into detail about its contents, but it highlights the psychological issues of burn-out, apathy and depression that are commonly seen in constantly ( and inappropriately) motivated players.
In the context of elite footballers, there is a fascinating and short article by McNair (1996) which looked at the effect of verbal encouragement on maximal effort output. The game of football is anecdotally renowned for the aggressive verbal abuse beloved by many trainers, coaches and managers. One may argue that it is only a manifestation of their own frustrations and stresses that causes them to behave in this way and it is certainly a cause of stress to the players (clearly it is intended to be). McNair’s paper produces a cast-iron rationale for this “encouragement” as he found, by means of a very simply designed study, that verbal encouragement does increase the maximal output of skeletal muscle. Interestingly, while measuring the actual power output, he also measured the EMG tracings of the afferent nerves supplying the relevant muscles and found that verbal encouragement did not change the EMG readings, so the actual cause of the improvement was not ascertained but it was nonetheless real.
Constant levels of fitness
Constant levels of fitness are clearly a pre-requisite for an elite footballer. There may well be periods of injury where the fitness levels fall, but they must be quickly re-established in order to achieve optimum performance levels. Fitness, in general terms equates with earning power and job security for a elite footballer, so the overriding goal must be to achieve peak fitness at all times. This, in certain circumstances, can become an obsession (See on – exercise dependence)
Many studies have shown the exercise can give rise to demonstrable health benefits – both chronic and acute. There are some people for whom exercise actually becomes an obsession (Hurst et al. 2000). This is a real disease entity resulting in behaviour patterns that compel an individual to exercise despite the presence of obstacles. It also can produce both psychological and physical symptoms of withdrawal, if exercise cannot be taken (Pierce, 1994) ( Veale, 1995) (Thaxton 1982). These patterns are commoner in women and often associated with eating disorders but they are also seen in male athletes. Bamber et al. (2000) has authored a paper which produced a qualitative analysis of the whole issue. She found that elements of an eating disorder were always present to a greater or lesser degree, but that this was hard to quantify as many athletes will pursue closely monitored dietary regimes in any event.
This syndrome is commonest in women, but does occur in men, particularly it seems in those who have low self-esteem or a poor self-image. It may be thought that such traits are unusual in the context of elite footballers but perceived body image does not always reflect the true physique. Any experienced healthcare professional will tell you about the anorexic or muscle dysmorphic who perceives something quite different when they look in the mirror. It is commonly believed that such conditions are a result of compensation syndromes. People may have a need to try to excel in one area if they feel that they are in some way failing in another.(Bamber 2003)
Injury is the footballer’s constant fear. Football is a fast and occasionally violent game with frequent body contact being an intrinsic part of the game plan. Injury can vary from trivial to catastrophic or even life-threatening. Most injuries will have an impact on the elite footballer either at the time of the injury or, as we have seen above, at a later stage in his life. We have referred earlier to the comparatively short earning window of the elite footballer and clearly there will be considerable stresses involved if that window is cut short for any reason.
Because of the huge investment that the average elite footballer represents to any club, a huge amount of energy and resources are employed to get an injured player back onto the field of play. It has to be said that the vast majority of professional clubs act responsibly in allowing injuries to heal properly before returning the player to training, but there will be the inevitable pressure on the less-than-scrupulous coach to get the player back on the field before full recovery has taken place. This has costs to the player in terms of impaired performance and also in terms of long term problems arising from an incompletely healed injury.
Ekstrand et al. (2004) looked at the problem as a result of the 2002 World Cup. They cite one of the major reasons for injury as being the frequency of the matches in a packed calendar for the top players. Injuries which would normally be regarded as comparatively minor did not get the usual chance to heal completely before the next game was due to be played. This resulted in a rising accumulative total of injuries above what might otherwise be expected over a comparatively short period.
The study found that, over the ten months of the World Cup games the average player played 36 matches. The top players form each team played, on average, 46 matches over the same period. The survey showed that the players who played in the World Cup matches sustained 29% more injuries than players from the same teams who did not play. 32% underperformed when compared to their normal standard. These players had played statistically more matches than those who were felt to have played better than expected. One major finding was that 60% of the players who had played more than one match in the week before a World Cup match were either injured or underperformed during the World Cup game. The clear inference from this study is that tiredness and physical burnout affects performance in elite footballers. At the highest levels, players, clubs and coaches should be aware that this is a real phenomenon. And, at the very least, is a considerable cause of stress to the players.
Orchard and Seward (2002) Took this concept a stage further and looked at the injuries sustained by the entire Australian Football League over seasons from 1997-2000. Their findings are a major source of concern to the elite footballer world.
In a season each team of 40 players would expect to receive 39 separate injuries. Clearly some players would be injured more than once (The major predisposing factor for injury is a pre-existing injury). The injury prevalence of players missing through injury in a week was 16% with a recurrence rate of 17%. They found that the commonest injury was to the hamstrings, followed by ACL strains and then groin injuries. For an elite footballer who depends upon his ability to play for his income, these figures represent a great cause of potential stress.
Before leaving this area, we should consider one other area of injury which we touched upon earlier, and that is the sequelae of concussion. Bloom et al (2004)
looked at this particular problem in great detail with particular reference to the psychological changes that were observed to occur after the injury. After suffering a concussive injury, the elite footballer was found to suffer from a greater incidence of symptoms of isolation, pain,anxiety, and disruption of daily life as a result of the injury. The investigators found that a source of added stress was, unexpectedly, from other team members who appeared to be giving support but were subliminally putting pressure on the injured athlete to return to play. The investigators found a worrying number of unexpected psychological symptoms including anger, denial, depression, distress, bargaining, and shock. Clearly this needs to be both recognised and addressed if the impact of the injury is not to be a further source of stress to the injured footballer
The elite footballer must always be at peak fitness and as a result his diet must always be under scrutiny. Fitness generally needs a BMI in the region of 20-23. Significant weight gains beyond this range not only reduce performance levels but also increase the wear and tear on the joints. We have already discussed the extent to which the knee joint is stressed during football training and playing. Adding weight to this joint is clearly only going to add to the degenerative changes that occur.
An elite footballer needs to be able to accelerate his body mass rapidly in a given direction. It follows that the greater the body weight, the greater effort is needed. He will know this both at a cerebral level and also at an instinctive level. He will know that if his weight goes up significantly then it becomes harder for him to run as fast and to turn as efficiently. The average elite footballer is therefore very careful with regard to his diet. The average man in the population can afford to go out for an occasional extravagant meal or the odd evening or two at the pub without worrying too much about the consequences. The consequences for the elite footballer are that, in doing such things he would have to reduce his calorie intake over the next few days in order to maintain the status quo. This again can become a major source of stress for many.
As the years go by, the average male tends to become slower and to put on weight as a natural process. This insidious reduction in the body’s efficiency is obviously a concern to a footballer who will often try to combat this trend with ever more aggressive training programmes and dietary regimes – again another source of stress.
Drug monitoring concerns
A number of elite footballers have hit the headlines lately as a result of random drug tests, either through failing or missing them. Doping and drug-enhanced training is a fact of professional football life in the current climate. It follows that the regulatory powers have to be ruthless in their quest for a drug-free sport. The fact that some players do gamble against the odds and take performance enhancing medications and drugs is a reflection of the stress and pressure that they feel under to constantly perform. It equally follows that they must feel that their performance is not good enough if they need to resort to such measures.
The problems do not stop at performance enhancing drugs. Stress and other factors may tempt a player to use drugs of a different sort. Recreational drugs are common in elite footballer circles. In support of this statement we would consider the paper by Turner (2003) In which he states that a recently retired elite footballer claimed that 80% of elite footballers in Australia had either been offered or used recreational drugs. This statement was extensively reported in the Press and other sources quoted the figure as being nearer 30%. The truth of the matter will clearly never be known but it can be contrasted with the figure from the UK which shows that over 18% of all the positive drugs screening tests done on athletes are currently for recreational drugs. This can be put in perspective against the 35% positive findings for stimulants and 25% for anabolic agents
Retirement is a fact of life for all workers. As we have discussed earlier, retirement from active playing – and therefore from a high earning capacity - tends to come at a much earlier age for a footballer. It is therefore a major incentive to keep playing at a high level for as long as possible.
Retirement through the natural ageing process is something that the elite footballer obviously has to come to terms with. It is comparatively unusual for a top rank footballer to be playing into his forties. He may have the experience to play well, but he is always judged on his results, and the fact of the matter is that there will always be younger players who will generally be faster and filled with raw enthusiasm ready to jump into any vacant slot at the top. The elite footballer therefore knows that his playing days are always numbered.
We have discussed earlier the problems faced by the elite footballer in respect of the ever-present danger of injury. Clearly a career-ending injury can come at any time. It can be career-ending because of a dramatic incident such as a major fracture of a major bone or it can be a more subtle process, a bad tackle gives rise to an ankle injury which, in turn gives rise to an unstable ankle that does not allow the pivoting action necessary for efficient play. It becomes obvious that the player is not performing as well as another player in the squad and therefore he is replaced with greater frequency and then he becomes dispirited and eventually dropped from the team. The end process is just the same in either eventuality – cessation of an active playing career and the concurrent loss of high earning capacity.
The result can be devastating for a man who, in order to achieve elite footballer status, may well have devoted a substantial proportion of his adolescent and adult life to improving and perfecting his football skills. He finds himself effectively out of a job at an age where most men are still looking forward to at least twenty more years of productive work. The immediate openings for him are limited to training, coaching or managing, all of which are highly competitive as they have been filled by his footballing predecessors and generally, they are not as well paid as his previous career. The stresses and psychological traumas are all too easy to see if the elite footballer has not been particularly level-headed in his approach to the profession.
The unlikely body of Windsor Insurance Brokers Ltd. published a study of an investigation into the career-ending incidents of professional footballers in the UK (1997) which makes interesting reading. They did not analyse the actual levels of stress that we are concerned about in this piece, but their findings make sobering reading to the current generation of elite footballers. It would appear that few elite footballers actually reach retirement age without a significant injury. That injury is responsible (either directly or indirectly) for the eventual decision to retire in over 80% of cases.
Roos (1998) looked at the same problem but also considered the psychological sequelae as well as the physical problems that led to eventual retirement. Both papers are well written and provide a great deal of information on the subject.
Living up to a perceived lifestyle
Financial causes of stress are difficult to either quantify or generalise as every elite footballer will experience them to a greater or lesser degree. On the one hand there are stresses involved with the comparatively poor pay and conditions of the player as he climbs up the ladder of experience and status. At the elite footballer level, where pay is obviously at a much higher rate there are the stresses that accompany high incomes to contend with. Many elite footballers will tend to live up to their income levels and, as we have discussed earlier, these levels tend to be transient and can drop dramatically as the result of a chance injury. For many players, high income levels will often be matched by high levels of expenditure on status related items. Expensive houses and cars have to be paid for and the upkeep costs have to be met after the high incomes that allowed for them have evaporated. Clearly this will represent a major cause of stress to the injudicious or unprepared player.
The media constantly bombard us with images of the very elite few of the super-rich players. Their stresses will, presumably be atypical when compared to the majority of the elite players and therefore, to a large extent, will not concern us as their particular stresses are peculiar to their situation.
Transient nature of income
The transient nature of the elite footballer income has been discussed in other areas of this piece. Few players manage to maintain elite levels of salary significantly beyond their thirties. The other element of this argument is, of course, the number of hopefuls who are constantly working their way up the ladder to try to obtain this level of income but who will never attain it. There are no reliable figures for the number of trainee players who are lost to the system through natural wastage or the early realisation that they just will not make the grade. For these players, the stresses must be arguably greater. The hope of attaining the goal of elite levels of salary must, inevitably, be a major motivational factor in the aspiring player’s life. To have once achieved it and then lost it is clearly a source of stress. One could argue that to try for it and then not achieve it may be a greater source of stress still.
Income dependent on continued performance
This is the natural progression of the last argument. It is an often quoted anecdote that a player is only as good as his last goal. Fame, income and success are ultimately dependent on performance on the football field. Personal success, and by inference the success of the club that pays you, is totally dependent on your ability to play better than anyone else who the team could potentially get to replace you. All the potential stresses that we have examined so far are all as a result of the need to constantly perform at an elite level. The constant levels of fitness, the motivation, the constant need to perform are all reflections of the fact that an elite footballers income is dependent on his performance on each and every appearance. Clearly this is a great source of stress.
The areas of publicity are all related and interdependent. Many up-and-coming players will actively court publicity in order to increase their profile and thereby increase their appeal to a high profile club. The downside to this approach is clearly that when they have achieved their desired objective, the media have an overwhelming obligation to sell their newspapers and will often exploit and indiscretion or misdemeanour on the part of the player in a sensationalistic way. This can be extremely stressful both on a personal level and also on a family level as, almost inevitably the player’s family will be affected as well.
The top-flight of elite footballers will have the additional problem that they are likely to be shadowed by the paparazzi and cameras will be pointing in their direction whenever they go out in public. Occasionally the cameras will also be there when they are in private as well and this can be extremely stressful. Certainly more than one celebrity marriage has ended because of indiscretions caught on camera.
A simple illustration of this point shows that a web search of today’s Sun newspaper under the search term “football scandal” reveals 18 articles in one paper alone.
Direct stress-related problems
Overindulgence in alcohol has always been a traditional way for the stressed person to alleviate some of the more obvious symptoms of stress. Quite apart from the obvious difficulties of overindulgence of alcohol there are also some sport-specific problems as well. Whyte et al. (2004) reported a case of unprecipitated atrial fibrillation as a direct result of alcohol excess and Cascarni et al. (2004) also reported the effects of postural hypotension after strenuous exercise as a direct result of alcohol take several hours before exercise.
We have examined the problems relating to drugs in sport under the heading of drug monitoring concerns. There is an interesting article by Clisby (2004) provocatively entitled “Dying to win” in which the whole issue of drug taking in sport is examined in some detail. It is unknown just how many of the elite footballer’s in the sport today take drugs, equally it is a matter of conjecture just how many take drugs as a palliative to stress. What is beyond doubt is that both factors are issues in the life of some of today’s elite footballers.
Relationship problems appear to be endemic in our society today and it is reasonable to conclude that the elite footballers of today are no exception. One of the major factors in relationship break-ups is often cited as lack of time together. The demands on the time of an elite footballer in today’s society are huge. Although many footballers undoubtedly manage to control these demands satisfactorily, there are equally some who cannot. Data on this issue is hard to come by in any authoritative format, so we will have to leave it as a matter of conjecture.
Earlier on in this piece we discussed the effects of concussive injuries on the overall cognitive functioning of the individual. To put the correct balance on the discussion we would like to present a counter argument. This is summed up in a study by Young (1979) . He looked at the effect of constant exercise on the cognitive functions. The paper is complex so it will not be discussed in detail other than to observe that one of the major findings was that exercise reduces stress levels. In the light of the fact that all the elements that we have discussed so far have been about factors that cause stress, we should bear in mind that the elite footballer also therefore has a number of positive factors which mitigate against stress.
We will now consider the case of Mr Peter Vasey who had made it his goal in life to join the ranks of the elite footballers. He has been interviewed (Appendices I & II ). The background to his story is that he is now 22yrs. old. At the age of 9 he joined Your City Football Club eventually completing a full YTS course there. By the age of 16yrs. he was being hailed by the media as a major up-and-coming talent in the club and played a full season with the York City reserves where he gained a great deal of experience by playing against some of the game’s elite. He was once picked to be a reserve for the first team and travelled with the team all the way to Plymouth. This proved to be a traumatic experience for him as he recalls that the staff didn’t speak to him at all that day and therefore he had no idea of his actual role or status and he felt positively excluded by the first team players. He was released from the YTS at the age of 19 yrs. He subsequently went on to do a university course in Sports Science at the age of 20 yrs. and hopes to subsequently do a PGCE course prior to a career in teaching.
The mechanism of the interviews was that they were conducted in the researcher’s flat within three days of each other, each interview lasting about two hours. The atmosphere was as relaxed as practical, with refreshments and relaxation breaks available on request. Mr Vasey was aware that he did not have to answer any question that he did not feel comfortable with. The interviews were recorded on tape and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts of the full interviews are attached as Appendices I & II.
Discussion of the interviews
The first impression that can be drawn from Mr Vasey’s interview is the seemingly constant references to stress in one form or another. He volunteers stressful experiences on nearly every reply. Uses term such as “really nervous”, “constantly stressed out” with a degree of frequency. Although he clearly tries to give an overall impression of coping and competence, there is undoubtedly an underlying trend of self-doubt and lack of self-belief. This is belied by his references to his feelings of missing out at school and his references to having more downs than ups. There are more subtle references to these feeling in his observations that “they were always playing head games”, a possible reference to the fact that he is not secure in his own self-confidence. He appears to often be examining his own motivations, abilities, and at times, even his desire to continue. This certainly becomes more apparent as the interview progresses.
The stresses that he explicitly identifies are amongst those that we have identified above. Clearly top of his list is the stress of uncertainty of employment. The uncertainty of being picked for the team, the uncertainty of whether he was considered to have been working hard enough as a teenager, the uncertainty of being taken on as a YTS and then the obvious worries about the security of tenure of his YTS status as his contemporaries are asked to leave.
In respect to his health he rather glosses over his difficulties with his kidney. It would appear that he does not wish to tell us a great deal about it. It was clearly a potentially serious problem as he refers to a scar, so presumably there was an operation. We could surmise that his apparent bravado over a possibly career threatening illness may actually be a reflection of his worry that if he makes too much of it them he will not be picked for promotion because the managers may have concerns about his fitness.
Other stresses that we have identified above also appear to have affected Mr Vasey. He refers to his girlfriend of two years as making him nervous when he was playing and being “stressed out” when her family would come and watch him play. He volunteers that he regarded football as more important to him than she was. It would appear that she was not a source of support at this time and he perceives her as something of a hindrance to his career prospects.
We have also identified difficulty in maintaining motivation as a potent cause of stress. Mr Vasey identifies this himself quite explicitly – “as I got older, the motivation got less and less”. He equates this with the realisation that he didn’t have what it took to make it as a professional player. It is difficult to assess whether this is a true considered judgement or whether it was a subjective decision and a reflection of his general lack of confidence in this direction.
There are also more subtle stresses. His relating of the episode of having to clean up the stadium and be responsible for the first team’s kit, has an air of resigned stoicism about it. It is presented almost as a “rite of passage” that youngsters have to endure without complaint, in order to stand a chance of being allowed to “emerge” into the status of a team player. He remarks that it was tough having to be responsible for the kit at the age of 16 – which it no doubt was.
Mr Vasey was obviously a talented footballer. He was picked out of the crowd at 9 yrs., playing for York as a young teenager and signed up as a YTS trainee at 16. Clearly, his fate was much the same as a number of aspiring hopefuls. Even at this age he probably knew (or should have known) that the pyramid of promotion to the professional game is very steep and the competition for places is tough.
Although it is accepted that the interviews are primarily structured to elicit information about Mr Vasey’s footballing life, it may be significant that there is virtually no mention of any other aspect of his life. We hear of a girl friend in a purely peripheral capacity (as someone used in a derogatory remark). This may, of course, be seen as a reflection of single-mindedness about his pursuit of the game. It is also possible that his life outside football was indeed severely curtailed by this activity which, for a developing teenager, must be a considerable source of stress. It is interesting the Mr Vasey relates a response to a friend who asks if he had any regrets about not going out while at York City, and he replies:
“No…. I would always have been wondering if I had have looked after myself properly would I have been made a Pro?”
In fairness to Mr Vasey, in his own assessment, he does appear to have been single minded about his approach to the game. There are frequent references to hardships and self-denial in order to stay fit and focused although, paradoxically he makes several references – about his latter experiences – to the fact that he appreciates that
“It was not meant to be a footballer because I haven’t got the head to handle it, I get too stressed out”
In the interviews there are a number of “Tells” or explicit remarks which belie underlying emotions and feelings. Mr Vasey consistently underplays his abilities and justifies his comments by saying that he was aware (and disliked) arrogance in some players and this definitely was not “his style”. In an unguarded comment he informs us that “he was so motivated to become a footballer”. In his early years at school he recalls telling his peers that all he wanted to be was a professional footballer. So it is fairly clear from these comments – an his actions – that Mr Vasey was particularly single minded about trying to achieve his goal even though his outward comments may be interpreted as being unduly influenced either by modesty or lack of confidence. We are not really in a position to make a judgement as to which of the two character traits was operative. Mr Vasey is clearly an outwardly modest man but one has to observe that there are plenty of other incidences in the interview responses where a lack of confidence is apparent. He admits – in response to a direct question – that he questioned his own ability “all the time”.
In another incident where he is relating the episode at the end of his second year YTS he was unexpectedly invited into the Manager’s office. His initial instinctive reaction was
“Oh no, what have we done wrong like now? I thought that we were in trouble….I remember thinking Oh no, that’s it for me I suppose……I thought here we go I’ve got no chance”
It is an interesting comment on Mr Vasey’s appreciation of the hierarchy of the game that he perceives a dichotomy in his feelings for other professional football players. He speaks of them in some instances as his role models – for example his manager at York – and he speaks in almost reverential tones of other professional football players who always manage to “bounce back” after going through a bad spell. After being asked to compare himself to another professional football player ( Mark Sattori) he would defer to his perceived superiority because he played for the first team and therefore – almost by definition – was to be considered better than he was.
On the other hand he speaks of their arrogance, which is almost considered to be essential if you are going to make it as a professional football player, and the demeaning way that he was treated by them when he was responsible for their kit and during his ill-fated trip to Plymouth.
If we consider this episode of the Plymouth trip, it actually tells us a great deal about the situation. Mr Vasey clearly considers it to be the defining moment when he decided that he didn’t want to be a professional football player. On the face of it he appears to have indeed been treated discourteously and badly, but one is forced to ask just to what extent had the decision been fermenting and forming in his mind beforehand? Throughout nearly all of the first interview Mr Vasey is telling us of his stress, his lack of confidence and his adverse experiences – situations which he clearly was not enjoying but was prepared to tolerate because he perceived them as necessary to endure in order to achieve his stated goal. It is therefore curious that he uses a situation were his footballing skills were not questioned or even required to be demonstrated to be the reason for his decision to quit the professional football trail. The excuse that he gives is “that throughout the whole trip I was waiting for someone to talk to me. I had obviously done something right to be there , but all I needed was for the managerial staff to tell me so. Doubtless a Psychotherapist would pass comment on the fact that this requirement for approval may stem from a previous comment made by his father who berated him for not trying hard enough and if he didn’t try harder he was going to get released by the club. There is simply not enough information in the interviews to make such a judgement, so it will have to be flagged up as an open-ended statement of possibility.
It would appear from the information that we have that Mr Vasey had been questioning his abilities (both in terms of mental strength and physical ability) for some time. He seems to imply that he realised that he didn’t have the arrogance and mental resilience that he thought were necessary to make it to the top of his game some time before this episode and it would appear that he has used the unpleasant experiences of the Plymouth trip to catalyse the final decision.
It would appear that he also has come to terms with this state of affairs by justifying the situation to himself by commenting that if he were asked to sign a two year professional contract at the club, he would say no, that he was in a better position now than if he had stayed at the club and most significantly he concludes this section with the words “because I know I’m not meant to be a footballer, because I have not got the head to handle it, I get too stressed out. We are left with the thoughts that is this comment a true reflection of the state of his ability or is it a reflection of his lack of confidence or even his modesty?
The second interview is noticeably different from the first both in terms of content and more importantly, style. The content is clearly different because it deals with another episode in Mr Vasey’s life – his transition from failing football hopeful to successful and fulfilled university student. The change in style reflects his change of perception and attitude. Stressful episodes are noticeably fewer in the second interview and when they are related, they have an air of healthy challenge about them. Mr Vasey clearly is aware of the academic stresses that he faced but instead of a fearful outlook he refers to the stress of his psychology course as hard but “enjoyable”
In the second interview he is able to refer to the episode at York in the past tense, looking back from a position of fulfilment and comparative security to a time when he obviously felt that he had neither.
In contrast to his first interview where he appears to be at pains to justify his situation at York, his second interview is now more dismissive of the time there. He uses phrases such as “I just wanted out – I’d had enough to be honest – I just wanted to go – I knew that I wasn’t going to be signed on – I wasn’t bothered about football in the slightest”. He has clearly come to terms that he is not going to make the grade as a professional footballer . He has supplanted that goal in his mind with the new goal of getting a degree.
It is interesting that he feels embarrassed and awkward about telling his friends and peers about his leaving the club, even though he is making a step that he should be proud of as it represents a great deal of hard work on his part. He perceived the transition as if “he had let everyone down”. All his contemporaries were expecting him to become a professional footballer and he clearly found telling them that he was not going to be, quite difficult.
His relating to football during the last six months at York is also at odds with his presentation during the first interview. When he has made the actual decision (although he appears not to have actually confronted it at the time) he then speaks of enjoying his football as the stress and pressure has been removed. The need for constant performance and inability to relax from the training schedule has gone and enjoyment then replaces stress.
In common with other people in his situation, Mr Vasey also articulates the fact that, at university he does not have the continual stress of living up to an image. His teenage friends all expected him to be a footballer and he obviously felt pressure to fulfil their expectations. He comments that, at university he became aware that people accepted him for who he was – rather than as a failed professional footballer. He relates this to a reduction in stress levels.
It is very significant, and possibly a sign of his impending maturity, that he looks back, in the second interview at his time at York as a learning curve. He says:
“It set me up for who I am now. It made me a much stronger person. Because it was harsh and strict it made me a lot of what I am today” .
Very significantly he follows this up with the comment:
“It made me think of all the positives now, as I used to look at all the negatives then”
He relates the fundamental differences between stress at York and stress at university as:
“At university I don’t have to impress anybody. You can only let yourself down at university, but when I was at York you got the potential to let everybody down on the team” .
Another very significant insight comes later on in the second interview where he is relating the differences in his attitudes between playing in the semi-pro side at university and playing at York:
“For this team (the semi-pro side) the win was the most important thing and my performance was second whereas it was the other way around at York”.
Mr Vasey then tells us that he will be continuing to play football but he will be doing it because:
“it is football that I enjoy as I don’t feel stressed while I am playing”.
The reason the we have laboured this point to a degree, is that the thrust of this piece is about the stresses of professional football. Mr Vasey clearly exemplifies the situation where the stresses are largely resolved when he plays football for enjoyment rather than a profession.
This second interview catalogues the transition of Mr Vasey the frustrated, stressed and ultimately thwarted professional footballer, to Mr Vasey the fulfilled, less stressed and happier student on the brink of a teaching career
The overall thrust of this piece is about the stresses that elite footballers can experience and an examination of how one such aspiring young footballer did actually experience and cope with the stresses that he found and faced.
The stresses that we have outlined and discussed are clearly not all relevant to all players. As Mr Vasey suggests himself, one way of measuring success is by assessing just how well you actually manage to cope with the stresses involved (Lazarus 1999). He even gives us a few hints of his own interpretation of a coping mechanism. He tells us that he just puts his head down and gets on with the job in hand. He refers to arrogance of the majority of successful players. We suspect that he is also obliquely referring to this arrogance when he relates his perception of the way that he was treated by the first team players on his ill-fated trip to Plymouth.
Mr Vasey is clearly not an arrogant man. We can deduce this not only from his own words but from his tone, his demeanour and his references to others (Clarke 1998). He seems content to make a considered judgement of other people and does not find it necessary (in the main) to constantly denigrate or refer to them in derogatory terms – which is one of the hallmarks of arrogance. (Lazarus 1999)
Equally, we might make the deduction that Mr Vasey ultimately did not make the transition to elite footballer status primarily because of his inability to invoke coping mechanisms (Freese 1976). He refers to himself in victim status when he relates the episode of the Plymouth trip. In specific terms he uses phrases of passivity and submission rather than dominance and aggression. (Cavanagh 1998) The trip “killed my confidence” and “all I wanted was for someone to talk to me”, “I was treated awfully” and “ they put me out of the way on the top floor” have all the hallmarks of phrases used by a person who is questioning their self worth.
The arrogant or positive “coping” type of footballer would almost certainly have approached the whole episode with the attitude of “I shall talk to them if I choose to” and “ if they don’t like me then it’s my misfortune but it’s their problem” thereby changing the victim status for that of dominance and keeping the locus of control with himself. (Anshel et al 2001)
This type of mechanism is seen throughout the interviews. It has actually evolved to a stage further by the time that it gets to the second interview and we are discussing events later on in life. Mr Vasey looks back and attempts to justify the course of events as “it just was not meant to be” and “ I realised that I didn’t have what it took” ( both comments demonstrating passivity). In the first interview, when he is relating events before the catalytic Plymouth trip, he refers to expectation of succeeding and being prepared to suffer indignity and hardship in order to achieve his professed goal (still in the passive mode but with a different emphasis). (Anshel et al 2001)
We have refered to the constant references to being stressed, especially noticeable during the first interview. In a way this is quite paradoxical. Admittedly, he is relating to a time when he was clearly stressed, but he is doing so from a time in his life when he professes to be much less stressed. Although he refers to these stresses in the past tense on most occasions, he occasionally slips back into the present tense almost as if he is reliving an unpleasant experience. His frequent allusions to being “really nervous” and “constantly stressed out” are indicative of the feelings discussed by Crampton (1995). There is hardly a paragraph of an answer to a question about his time playing football where he does not refer to stress in one form or another. This should be contrasted to his time at university where he continues to play football, but his tone and demeanour after the watershed of his leaving York changes quite dramatically – but we shall comment on this in more detail a little later
Anshel (et al.2001), in his excellent article about coping mechanisms in athletes, outlines the many sources of stress that Mr Vasey clearly identifies with. Apart from the concerns that we have already outlined, one of the overriding causes of his stress is basic insecurity. Insecurity about his tenure of the YTS scheme, insecurity about various aspects of his life – was he working hard enough? – was he going to prove himself good enough to become a footballer? – what was he going to do if he didn’t make it? All of these insecurities (and many others) are potent causes of stress for him.
The major part of successfully coping with these stresses is correctly identifying then first (Lazarus 1999). Stress becomes much easier to deal with on a clinical and a personal basis, if you are able to identify the triggers. You can recognise it for what it is and, in many cases, you can deal with it yourself instinctively, or even be taught how to deal with it, if you have not already discovered some of the ways of doing it.
This brings us to the next point. Did Mr Vasey handle the situation in the most appropriate way? If he had adopted other coping mechanisms, other that acceptance and denial as he seems to have done, would the outcome have been in any way different? Clearly that is conjecture but we can make an educated guess.
Firstly, we could take the view that, in his own words he “realised that he didn’t have the raw talent”. We have no way of assessing the truth of that comment. He clearly did have considerable talent which he boosted by hard work and dedication. If he really believed that he didn’t have the talent, then it is questionable as to just why he survived in such a competitive environment for so long. It could simply be a rationalisation of the situation that he found himself in together with an element of denial. “I’m been dropped from the YTS or booted out, therefore I shall rationalise this in a more acceptable way by saying to myself that I wasn’t really good enough and this is for the best, as I can now go on and do something else better”. (Barlow 2000)
If we assume that he was correct and simply didn’t have the raw talent to eventually make it into professional football, then he did make the right decision. One may therefore postulate about - was all the stress an anxiety worth the eventual result?
Taking this line of argument on further, Freese(1976 quoted in Selye), states his belief that stress is basically an endogenous biological function that has evolved over the millennia and that our bodies actually need a degree of stress to function properly. “You need stress for life”. If you follow the arguments and reasoning in his book, then you would say that this experience, giving shape and purpose to Mr Vasey’s life through his formative years, was actually a good learning experience which motivated, drove him and inspired him to try and succeed. It w