Kim Barlow-Miles Counselling

From Hero to Zero….?

Last Monday, 7th January 2013, I joined former Notts County footballer, currently Birmingham coach, Michael (Johnno) Johnson, on Mark Dennison’s Morning Show (BBC Radio Nottingham); the topic for discussion was the impact on non-Premier League footballers, of coming to the end of their ‘shelf-life’, which is approximately 10years from the age of 20ish-30ish. This followed a report in a magazine about high levels of depression amongst men in this situation. Michael had also observed this phenomenon amongst his peers, and explained that, contrary to popular belief, footballers (apart from Premier League), mostly earn good money for a short time, mainly in that 10year window, after which the contracts dry up, and they find themselves replaced by younger men, and searching for new careers. Those wanting to stay in the world of football have to chase the very few posts available in coaching, managing etc…and there are many more ‘surplus’ footballers each year than there are vacancies in those areas.

Suddenly, men who have heard their names cheered by thousands of fans, been in demand for public appearances, autographs etc, are effectively on the Scrapheap!

Unsurprisingly, there can be an impact on confidence, self-worth and consequently personal/family relationships, as income dries up and status changes, from hero to…what now, exactly ? As the former star comes to terms with this, there can be a period of what might be called grieving for a lost identity, which like any bereavement process, will have elements of denial, numbness, anger, fear and sadness; the person may be moody, distant, irritable, lethargic, seeming depressed…..

This is a time of uncertainty. As humans, we have a response to this somewhere on a continuum, ranging from being excited by possible opportunities ahead, to feeling acutely threatened by the unknown. Most of us seem to be towards the threatened end….So it is not really surprising, in this situation, if the ‘ageing’ footballer, starts to show signs of anxiety and tension. 

This time of adjustment could be predicted and planned for – it is after all a fact of footballing life – but all too often, players are so immersed in their familiar lifestyle, in denial about the future, that it comes as a shock.

As a therapist, I have had the opportunity to work with people in the public eye, performers in different fields, sports, film and stage, and the art world. (I have sometimes also worked with partners and other close relatives of sportsmen). The common shared experience is that the ‘star’ has a sense of being only as good as the last performance/output. We live in a competitive, judgemental culture. Those in the spotlight are particularly vulnerable to external evaluation. In therapy, of course, we seek to develop a strong internal sense of evaluation, self-acceptance and autonomy/self-agency, an attunement to what feels right for the person, by  the person, so how other people judge us has less power over us.

We can do this by learning to develop and listen to an internal ‘other’ voice; this one is compassionate, warm, wise, strong and encouraging. It does not ‘whitewash’ as in ‘Don’t worry something will turn up’ (eg without you doing anything), nor does it pretend that there is no reason for concerned attention to this reality. But neither is it bullying or negatively critical, putting you down. This is the voice of someone who loves you whilst understanding your strengths, and ‘weaknesses’ – which are aspects of your way of being which may slow your progress in life or limit your happiness.

As always when someones is grieving a loss, it takes time to adjust. This is a natural process, and we cannot force the pace. However, we can come to an understanding about what is happening, experience the feedback that this is normal, and start to come to terms with our new NOW. I find that people benefit from reading a short book ‘Who Moved My Cheese?‘ by Dr Spencer Johnson. The ‘cheese’ represents whatever you hold dear in life – and identity is very precious indeed, especially when it has been hard won, that is be becoming successful despite all the odds in a very competitive field.

It helps to learn to challenge the negative thoughts that people faced with this experience typically have eg  ‘I’ll never be able to survive outside the world I know best’…..’I’m no good at anything else’….’nobody will rate me if I’m not a footballer/actor/sportsman/successful artist, business person etc’.  This is about recognising that we are all more than what we simply do. We are after all, human beings, not human doings. But all too often, shortly after meeting someone new, we go on to ask or tell what we do…This, of course is cultural, societal, and will not change overnight. However, perhaps we might all start the process of a shift in behaviour by our own new, different choice of words to introduce/describe ourselves…a challenge indeed!

As with all our fears, we do best to face them; like the monster under the bed in a child’s nightmare, they tend to look less threatening and more manageable when we do this. Sometimes they even turn out to be non-existent threats! This is not to encourage worrying in advance over something that might go wrong, or never happen; we need to take sensible steps to protect ourselves  – like insurance, a sort of life seat-belt – but not avoid driving through life, nor focus only on the rear-view mirror, otherwise we surely will crash!

There are lots of strategies clients learn in therapy, and elsewhere, to counter anxiety; from breathing regulation, mindfulness meditation/yoga, guided visualisations of a calm, safe place….to more vigorous forms of exercise. The important thing is not to self-distract from the problem or compensate for the anxiety by blanking it out with alcohol, drugs, food, spending or any other soother. That pathway leads to another type of difficulty, addiction.

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