Mental Health Awareness Week: On Being a Football Fan
Football is one of the few things in life that has the power to consistently affect my state of mind for better or worse, so when I started to think about how I might go about exploring its relationship with mental health to kick off a mini-series of posts on this website to mark Mental Health Awareness Week I couldn’t resist looking inwards.
Although such a focus might appear more than a tad indulgent in light of the past week’s headlines, I feel like I’ve got something to offer on the subject. I’ve never received a formal diagnosis, but I regard myself as belonging to the one in four, six or whichever statistic is being cited to highlight mental health as a public health concern.
But what of the link to football? Well, playing it has generally been a positive in my experience, not least due to the escape and camaraderie that it has been able to offer, but what I am really fascinated by is what supporting a football team can do for your mental health. Is life better when your club is doing well, and worse when it’s performing badly? What benefits, if any, does the ritual of watching your team provide?
To begin to attempt an answer to such questions, it’s worth reflecting first on what football clubs are. On the one hand, they’re a source of entertainment. The game is beautiful in its simplicity and the clubs that play it provide a vehicle for both supporters and neutrals to enjoy the ebb and flow of any given contest.
When it comes to nailing your colours to a particular mast, however, a club’s contribution to one’s sense of identity and belonging kicks in. Whether a team is chosen for geographic, family or other reasons, supporting a club can come to define – to some extent – who you are and your own sense of self. In my case, I inherited my team from my Dad and continue to take meaning from it through the enduring connection that it gives me to him, my home town and my fellow supporters. Although I now live 200 miles away from where I grew up, my team provides a unique link between my past, present and future, an anchor and sense of continuity in an often chaotic world. When people ask me where I’m from, I agonise over how I should respond but I know which football team I support.
Given this relationship, I can’t help but be moved by our results. Win and life just seems that little bit better, even if I’ve been feeling low; I relish catching up with my Dad about the game and I can’t wait for the goals to be put online so I can savour the highlights. Lose and even a good mood can be tainted, regardless of the level my team is playing at or the importance of the match. As my fellow Unfortunate once put it shortly after we first met, ‘it’s the way you feel at 5 o’clock on a Saturday that matters’.
The pleasure (and pain) that’s derived from following a team isn’t restricted to dyed-in-the-wool fans. Like going to the cinema, anyone can take something from the shared experience of watching a game or contributing to the debate. I’m no fan of Man Utd, for example, but knowing as I did that millions of others were as captivated as I was by such a comeback, their Champions League Final victory in 1999 has long been one of my most cherished football memories.
But in other respects supporting a team has its own unique powers and transcends the boundaries of a specific match or story. While Saturday afternoons and the odd Tuesday evening are the key lightning-rods, fandom can and does bleed into every nook and cranny of everyday life. This transfusion can take a multitude of forms – from subconsciously pondering team selection and transfer news to engaging passionately in such discussion on messageboards and putting out your opinions on obscure football blogs – but the key unifying feature is that a fan’s mindcycle is potentially never-ending.
In respect to mental health, this can be a force for both good and bad. In my own experience, the football season and its 46 matchdays – which, as the Mental Health Foundation puts it, combine the comfort of the familiar with the thrill of the unknown – help to give my life a certain structure and rhythm for 9 months of the year and provide a release from the things I want to escape from. On the other hand, at points I’ve allowed myself to become too reliant upon my club, using it as a psychological crutch or scapegoat when I might have focused instead on those aspects of my life that I actually have some control over.
Indeed, given the record of football’s governing bodies when it comes to undertaking due diligence on prospective shareholders as well as holding badly-performing owners to account, I’ve found it increasingly important to place my club in some kind of perspective. Having had to suffer the turmoil of a long period in administration in recent years (besides the sheer skulduggery that comes with it), I’ve since tried to pursue other leisure activities as much as possible so that I’m not too dependent on football for my kicks.
However, try as I might my club will always be there, hovering in the background of my life. While the importance of having family and friends to open up to or coping strategies (I’ve found this series of books to be very helpful and there are plenty of other websites and apps, such as Headspace, which give further guidance in this area) for when times are hard cannot be underestimated, I am convinced that my club – and all that it represents – does good things for my mental health. As with anything, though, I’ve found that maintaining a healthy distance from it at times, not least the summer months, is essential; even if that does make me that lowest of specimens, the part-time supporter…