• Adam Stubbings

A Shining Light Through The Gloom: Football's Role In Our Mental Health

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, so here our editor Adam Stubbings discusses the role football plays in the national consciousness and how the current health crisis has amplified that role.

Holding On In Unprecedented Times

It has been a strange old couple of months. Not since the Second World War has anything caused a complete shutdown of football across the globe, and millions of people have found themselves without something they can usually count on at all times of the year. Whether you’re a casual follower of the beautiful game or a die-hard obsessive, almost overnight the ability to watch and play the game was taken away by the coronavirus.

To the credit of many, we have all found ways to try and make up for the lack of live sport: reliving classic matches and tournaments, playing video games like FIFA or Football Manager (or even watching others play them) or, in the rare event matches have been played somewhere in the world, starved fans have taken up supporting teams they hadn’t previously heard of in far-flung leagues like the Belarusian Premier League and the South Korean K-League.

Short of fashioning a Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors flag out of my partner’s old i10 insurance manual for her car (Go Warriors!), I have been content to analyse match footage from Rovers games over the course of the season for content purposes and chart the club’s route through a coronavirus-free 2019/20 season on Football Manager 2020 (Okenabirhie is a beast!) and think of what could have been. But such endeavours can only fill the void to a certain degree.

Benefits Beyond Recreation

On the surface, sport in general brings obvious boosts to people’s mental wellbeing. Exercising out in the fresh air is always something that helps to lift people whilst engaging in team-based activities can be a boon for the social side of our lives. Go deeper though and being part of the weird and wonderful world of football can completely transform a person’s outlook on their life.

I am obviously quite involved in the sport week-to-week, attending games to keep up my fandom as well as to provide impetus to write for this very website and help run our social media pages. As is the case for most of us, I haven’t gone longer than the length of a two-month off-season without attending live football since I was a small child, but it looks likely we may not meet at a stadium again until 2021 now.

When I consider that daunting prospect, my mind goes back a few years to a difficult time in my personal life. After suffering a breakdown of my mental health whilst studying at university in 2016, I spent the better part of six months recovering at home unable to carry out most standard daily activities. I only left the house for two things: doctor’s appointments and Doncaster Rovers.

Even though my crippling anxiety was preventing me from being around crowds of people in ordinary settings like the shops or on campus, there was something strangely calming about going to the football. A familiar setting, the safety of being around family, and the opportunity to get all sorts of emotions out in a healthy way through experiencing the course of a 90-minute rollercoaster of action on the pitch.

More Than Just A Game

Football played a big role in my recovery and I have always been able to count on Rovers and the wider world of this unpredictable sport when times are tough. Being shorn of the capability to attend matches or play the game out in the open air only reaffirms the importance of football in maintaining my mental health, so I have no doubt that when things return to normal and thousands of us gather at the Keepmoat once more, we will all feel better for it.

It is no coincidence that governments across the world are putting the return of football on their list of priorities for emerging from this dark period. Games began again this past weekend – with no fans present for the time being – in the German Bundesliga, one of the top leagues in the world, and England’s Premier League appears to be returning in the next few weeks as well.

We may not be able to attend, and indeed for Rovers fans we may not be able to even watch our own side on TV for some time yet, but being able to see some live football again even in compromised fashion will be a boost for the public and at least a modicum of normality in a time where almost everything feels alien. Certainly, we shouldn’t be taking such “ordinary” liberties as the freedom to attend live sport for granted again in future.

Life will eventually return to something resembling what it used to. The new normal will probably be slightly different in terms of how we interact with one another, but I have no doubt that the experience of being together cheering on the Rovers will be just as mesmerising as it always has been. Let’s look forward to that day and in the meantime remember to be kind to one another and appreciate the things we can hold onto, including our beloved football team.

The theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week is "kindness". If you feel you need help with your mental health, Samaritans can be called on 116 123 for free at any time of the day, whilst other organisations such as Mind can also offer support.