JONAS PLAYERS

Jonas Baer-Hoffmann: Mental health, football and me

08 October 2021
  • FIFPRO General Secretary says some clubs are failing to support players and even purposely putting them under psychological pressure
  • Baer-Hoffmann talks about his own struggles with mental health as a young athlete
  • He says football has to become an environment where players can talk about mental health comfortably

The following is an abridged version of an interview with Jonas Baer-Hoffmann about mental health in football, and his own experiences trying to find balance when he was a young athlete.

“We care a lot about the physical performance of footballers. We do all kinds of scientific exercises to get them better and better. But we don’t care enough about what’s happening in their minds. Mental health amongst professional athletes represents maybe the least considered component of their wellbeing.

It’s true the football industry has become more conscious about mental health, but I observe it is still being treated as a performance characteristic. The psychological support is focused on -- “Are you ready in the moment to perform?” -- instead of your overall wellbeing.

Clubs need to review how they organise psychological support. For example, you don’t necessarily want to open up to a club psychologist about challenges in your life. Lower down the game, support is not provided enough.

Some clubs put mental challenges on players quite on purpose. If you decide to not pay players or to let them train on their own because you ‘don’t like’ these players any longer, then that’s consciously putting somebody in a psychologically challenging situation.

It is really problematic that professional sports is neither very empathetic nor encouraging people to face weaknesses. It pushes you to be excellent all the time.

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You don’t train eight times a week and play a game or two without pain. You play through small injuries, but the next ones are probably a little bit bigger, so you play though them. Now translate that to mental health. You can’t ultimately play through it. Unless you accept that there is an injury, a mental injury, that needs healing, it will come back ten times stronger every time.

But the culture around the sport doesn’t embrace that. “You’ve got to deliver. Today is the game. The fans are there and they expect you to perform. The coach expects you to perform. Your contract maybe just runs for a few more months and you don’t know where the next stop is. So you’d better perform or that might be it.”

In that environment, it’s very difficult to say “Yeah, I’ve got something I want to talk about, something that I need to deal with and will take me a little bit of time”. It’s very hard.

Everybody in sport, whether it is me, whether it’s somebody running a club or a league, it’s ultimately your job to make it an environment where it’s okay to talk about mental health in the same way that you can talk about a pulled muscle. Where it’s okay to heal it and it doesn’t cost you your job. Where you are not going to be looked at as weak or unreliable, but as someone who is strong, who is dealing with it, and who is going to come out a stronger person then going in.

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I have my own history. I played basketball and was talented enough to probably make a professional career out of it. But I didn’t. To a large degree that was because of the mental balance that I didn’t have at that time.

I come from a family where a father figure didn’t really play his role. I tried to make up for that and portrayed a lot of pressure and negativity into sport, because I was always aiming for perfection, to validate myself being good enough.

I was never satisfied. I always remembered the pass I didn’t make or the ball that I lost, rather than the positive things I did.

It didn’t allow me to enjoy playing the game and be as good as I can be.

I am convinced that some of my injuries, which made me stop playing, are correlated to mental wellbeing. I have a strong feeling that many athletes get injured because their body isn’t able to take the pressure any longer. At some point your body tells you to stop. And if you don’t listen to it, it makes you stop.

The journey of talking about your mental health is different for everybody.

My journey was actually with myself, in the form of writing it down. It forces you to figure out words that express what you think. Once I was able to formulate it, some answers came to myself. That also gave me the strength to express it in a conversation with people who I trusted.

I have a lot of empathy and understanding for the football players in our mental health campaign “Are You Ready To Talk?” These are the kind of conversations we need to have more of in football.