Understand the person before the performer – Marvin Sordell’s story

Today is World Mental Health Day. As part of UKAD’s Wellness Week, former Premier League footballer Marvin Sordell spoke with UKAD staff about his experience of dealing with mental health, and recognising the benefits of greater communication to support others in sport and elsewhere.

Below is a small snippet of his many thoughts on this important topic…

I started playing professional football at the young age of 13 years old.

Fast forward a few years and football had begun to take over my life and personality. At 16 years old I started to question whether I wanted to continue playing and chasing this dream, however I decided to give it one last shot and went to Watford. It started off great, but in the first year I noticed signs of my mental health struggling for the first time.

Going into a professional environment I understandably felt physical and mental pressure and it took me a long time to understand what that meant, and how I get a grasp on it. As most people do, I suppressed these thoughts and carried on - dig deep, ignore them and keep going was my way of dealing with it. Because things were so great on the pitch, it was easy for me to assume my life was going great as well.

When I moved to Bolton at age 20, all these feelings came rushing back – my mental health and my emotions that I hadn’t managed to discuss or overcome, or even really accept myself came flooding in all at once.

I was at a point in my football career where everything was going as good as it could possibly go. I was in the Premiere League and had just represented London at the 2012 Olympics. I had reached the pinnacle of my career.

But at this same time my mental health took a massive spiral, leading me to suffer from depression. I couldn’t separate what was happening emotionally, and I was dragging my career down because I couldn’t find a way to separate the two.

Your work and your life must be separate; they cannot be intertwined. You are not your job or your job title. You are a human being; you are your emotions and your feelings.

This realisation led me down many creative routes. I started to write poetry, learned to play the piano, I was cooking a lot and I was learning another language – which is a lot now I come to think of it!

Going down this journey of finding things I was passionate about brought a lot of other things to light in my career that I could look at and address. My poetry was an outlet to communicate my emotions. It was my way of saying to my family and friends ‘this is how I feel, but I don’t know how to bring it up any other way’.

What is great about the world we live in today is there are so many people sharing their stories and journeys around their emotions, which allow us to directly relate and share our own stories.

Mental health isn’t just about depression or dark moments in time, it’s a part of every single one of us, our stories and our journeys. We all have emotions and feelings, and yet for some reason we struggle to share them and talk about them.

When it comes to physical health, it’s clear - we all know what this looks like and what it means to be healthy. If we start to feel like we are getting unhealthy we stop for a second and say, ‘What do I need to do to fix this’.

However, when we discuss mental health, we don’t address these issues in the same way. We need to look at physical and mental health the same. If your physical health is deteriorating in any way you make changes – whether it’s eating healthier, exercising etc. You must treat your mental health the same in that sense, because it can always change.

Depression or anxiety isn’t something that just goes away, it’s something you manage and learn to live with because it’s a part of who you are. But there are ways to manage it - if you’re able to achieve even small things that you can look back and reflect on that’s an achievement, and reflection is very important to allow us to move forward.

Mental health support in sport

Mental health in sport is very different now to what it was ten or twenty years ago.

When we talk about mental toughness and mental health, they are two separate things. This is frustrating because people assume that because you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, it means you can’t perform. Performing and suffering from a mental health problem are two completely different things, and you can still be very mentally tough when you step on the pitch.

When it comes to coaching and managing, it’s all about understanding the person before the performer. You can coach someone to be tactically or technically good, but if you don’t understand that person you won’t be able to push them in the right way and get the maximum from them. Every person should be coached and managed differently. In team sports this can be time consuming but it’s important, because you can really push people to their limits when you have them on your side, while still protecting their wellbeing.