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Soccer's Long-Ignored Depression Problem

Though it has been taboo to discuss, the top ranks of soccer are rife with players who suffer from depression during and after their careers.

A new study shows that one in three soccer players suffers from depression or anxiety.
A new study shows that one in three soccer players suffers from depression or anxiety.
Johannes Knuth

MUNICHJonny Walker basically loves life. Between 1996 and 2006, the American was a goalkeeper who played three times for the U.S. National Team. "During my career, I never had psychological problems," Walker says. But that changed when he injured his back severely, and soccer player Jonny Walker became a former soccer player.

He began suffering from depression, and it took him three years to recover. "One day you're playing in front of 80,000 people," the 39-year-old says, "and the next day you're a nobody. And there's no support system."

He is one of about 300 current and former soccer pros who recently took part in a (non-representative) study conducted by the FIFPro World Players' Union. What emerged from the study is the fact that every third active player suffers from depression or anxiety, and the figure is around 40% overall for former professional players. The sport is "littered with psychological cases," says study leader Vincent Gouttebarge.

Players from Germany were not included in the study, but a glance at the situation in Germany reveals that — four and a half years after the suicide of goalkeeper Robert Enke — precious little has actually been done despite the fact that German soccer periodically pays lip service to the subject of depression.

"With regard to pro soccer, a tedious task lies ahead of us," says Ulf Baranowsky, managing director of the VdV players' union.

Baranowsky's union advises some 1,300 pro soccer players in Germany across all the leagues. The director knows many players affected by psychological illnesses. "We’re presently assuming that statistically distribution is normal," he says. But Baranowsky also believes that pro soccer can exacerbate tendencies towards depression. "If players have a predisposition for illnesses like depression, and then for example they get some negative press, then the chances that they get sick increase."

Baranowsky has also identified the period right after a career ends, as was the case with Jonny Walker, as being particularly difficult. "There, you often get a rude awakening." At the end of their careers, approximately one in four German pros have financial difficulties, perhaps because they didn’t make it out of the third league as they expected to, or because they didn’t save enough. One in three players has no job qualifications, says Baranowsky, which is only compounded by the reality that they cease being of interest to people.

Not just the has-beens

But even during their careers, the pressure on players is significant. There may be weeks on end when they are heavily criticized by the press or public. They may get injured, see their market value fall, or find that the coach prefers other players. "Then they get into a vicious circle that makes it difficult for them to open up and talk about what's going on," Baranowsky says.

Many depressed players fear that they won't get any more job offers if they speak openly about their illness. That's when doctors issue what are known as "cover diagnoses" — back problems, mononucleosis, etc. But pros such as Martin Amedick and Markus Miller did find work after they went public about their depression.

Then there's the story of former pro Andreas Biermann of FC St. Pauli. Biermann tried twice to commit suicide, publicly discussed his illness, then lost his job. He was never able to get another pro contract. That was about a year after the death of Robert Enke. Biermann later said that it had been a mistake to talk publicly about his illness.

Two years ago, Baranowsky's union polled leading players from the first to third leagues. Nearly all of them said it would be beneficial for their teams to have at least one sports psychologist who could be consulted on a confidential basis. At the time, only about 10% of the clubs offered that, and little has changed to this day. Baranowsky says that when a good sports psychologist is suddenly no longer working with a club, it's usually because of a new coach.

Times may be changing

But with the coming season, every youth soccer training center in Germany is required to offer the services of a sports psychologist. This was initiated by the VdV and Andreas Rettig, managing director of the German Football League known as the DFL. The pro clubs are still under no obligation to provide such services. "We can encourage it, but we can't force anybody," Baranowsky says.

And there continue to be very few reliable safety nets. For example, the initiative launched in 2011 and supported by the union that trains sports psychologists works with players and will connect professional players with specialists with whom they can work confidentially. "We're not exactly seeing 10 people walk through the door every week, but there are some people," says Marion Sulprizio, who runs the initiative. Some of them are seriously ill, while others are just momentarily down. Depending on the situation, players are then referred to relevant clinics or practices.

Sulprizio hopes that future generations of pros will have a greater level of awareness about the problem, and that trainers and coaches will address their psychological wellbeing as well as their fitness and game play. "A coach is responsible to a high degree for his players' psyches," Sulprizio says.

Ulf Baranowsky believes that there's been some progress. "The first milestones have been reached," he says, citing the fact that the National Team has a sports psychologist. "But we’re just at the beginning."

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Future

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This focus on biological sex differences turned out to be woefully inadequate, as a group of Harvard-affiliated researchers pointed out earlier this year. By analyzing more than a year of sex-disaggregated COVID-19 data, they showed that the gender gap was more fully explained by social factors like mask-wearing and distancing behaviors (less common among men) and testing rates (higher among pregnant women and health workers, who were largely female).

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