Leave it Off the Pitch
As soccer players we have heard many times that our performance on the field is 90% mental. Many of us have seen sports psychologists that tell us how to deal with mistakes during competition, how to stay motivated, how to deal with defeat, and things to help us perform our best on the field both in training and in matches. Mentality is something we are constantly coached and talked to about when it comes to sports, so why is that when I started to feel a decline in my mental health I had no idea how to handle it?
We are often told by coaches and trainers that whatever we have going on off the pitch should just magically disappear once we step onto the pitch. We are supposed to give 100% focus to the task at hand. We should leave any drama or hardships that we have out of bounds and not bring it with us across the white line to training or to matches. It was no wonder that when I started noticing symptoms of depression and anxiety in myself, I felt like I couldn’t discuss it with my teammates or my coaches. I just thought to myself, “This is not the time. Focus on the drills. Don’t ruin the training by being emotional. Bottle it all up. Be strong. Don’t ruin the team morale.” I thought that was what it meant to be a mentally strong athlete, to be a true professional.
Last season I was playing in the Norwegian Toppserien and the UEFA Women’s Champions League. I was on cloud nine. I was playing with very talented players in a competitive league and I was excited and up for the challenge. As the season went on however, I started to feel empty. It was incredibly hard to get out of bed, I had no motivation or willingness to go to training, and even though I was surrounded by my amazing teammates in this beautiful place I constantly felt alone, empty, and simply put, sad. I am always preaching positivity so I felt guilty about feeling this way and not being able to find positivity when everything in my life seemed to be as I wanted it and how I’d always hoped it would be. This guilt was then triggering anxiety episodes in me. So not only was I constantly sad, but I was panicking constantly because I couldn’t understand what was happening to me and why I wasn’t able to find my normal. But still every day I managed to drag myself out of bed, put on a fake smile, swallow my feelings, and I left my “problems” off the pitch.
Around the three-quarter mark of the season was when things began to spiral out of control. Our team had our biggest match of the season coming up against the best women’s team in Europe, Olympique Lyon. We weren’t getting the results we wanted in the league and we were actually at risk of being relegated. There were only two goalkeepers on our team, so I felt this pressure to push through what I was feeling. I didn’t want to let the entire team down during such a critical part of the season. It was getting harder and harder to get out of bed every day and drag myself to team events. I was spending all of my free time in my bed alone in the dark. I could no longer fake a smile or enthusiasm in training. I was having more and more anxiety episodes because I always felt like I was hiding something, which I was. I wanted to talk to my coaches about how I was feeling but, how could I explain to them that I didn’t feel like I could train, compete, or even more than that function because I’m sad? How lame did that excuse sound? I’m a professional! I’m supposed to be mentally tougher than this. I am supposed be in control of my effort, motivation, and attitude! What was wrong with me? How am I going to continue like this for the rest of the season? Why can’t I fix this? These questions were flying through my head on a loop every single day. I needed a break, but how do I tell my coaches that I can’t compete because I’m unhappy? I didn’t think I could. Not now. I felt this self-inflicted pressure to push through everything I was feeling.
I was getting dressed in the locker room for our first leg in the Champions League round of 32 against Lyon, and on one of the biggest days of my professional career I felt nothing but sadness. The roar of the crowd as we walked out at FK Haugesund stadium ignited nothing within me. This moment was why I wanted to play professional soccer and all I felt was sadness, guilt for not being able to appreciate the moment, and anxiety due to my own confusion about my all of the things I was feeling. That was the last straw. I knew there had to be something more going on with me. After the match I made an appointment with the team doctor and the next day I explained, through sobs, how I was feeling. He immediately referred me to a psychologist and after explaining myself again to her, I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder. Oddly enough, upon hear that I immediately felt relief. It wasn’t that I wasn’t mentally tough or that I couldn’t practice the positivity I was preaching. Something was wrong with me. I was not well. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I accepted the one-month sick leave that my doctor suggested, talked to my coaches and teammates, flew to Iceland to stay with my fiancé, followed my doctor’s plan, and committed myself to working on my mental health.
It was difficult watching my team play the second leg in France without me. It was hard watching my teammates’ instagram stories wishing I was there training and laughing alongside them. But after a couple weeks, I was starting to feel better and I was looking forward to going back to Norway again after my sick leave was over to finish the season with my friends. When I got back however, everything that I had been feeling came rushing back to me. It turned out that putting myself back into the same environment that broke me was something I couldn’t handle. I showed up to our first training and found myself yet again faking a smile over sadness and anxiety and told myself I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. So I went back to my doctor, discussed what I was feeling and was advised to exit my trigger environment. Even though I felt as though I was disappointing my coaches, club, and teammates, I had to do what was best for me. So I once again flew to Iceland to be with my fiancé, and took care of myself for the rest of the season.
I think there are a lot of stories like mine in the soccer community. Stories of athletes struggling with their mental health but feeling like they have to push through. Players feeling pressure to stifle their feelings for the good of the team. My advice to anyone feeling the way I was, to anyone struggling with mental health issues, is it is ok to take care of yourself. Yes, being a part of a team is important and we are taught to put the team above anything else. But if you don’t take care of yourself you can’t be a functioning member of a team. I also found that my teammates were way more understanding than I thought they would be. Don’t try to hide your feelings be honest and open. You don’t have to go through these things alone. Find someone you trust and talk to them about how you’re feeling. The more we talk about declining mental health the less taboo it will become and the more respected it will become in soccer and all sports as an illness or injury that needs attention. I hope that my story can help anyone else who is struggling feel like they aren't alone, and to know that even though it may not feel like it, taking time to take care of your mental health is the best not worst thing that you can do for your team.