Wednesday 29 September 2021, 07:58

Martinez: Mental health is an issue we all face

  • Roberto Martinez coaches Belgium, the world’s No-1 ranked team

  • He is well aware that mental illness can afflict even elite footballers

  • The Spaniard speaks about creating a supportive environment and urges people to #ReachOut

Roberto Martinez coaches players who, on the surface, look to have it all. They play football for a living, represent the world’s top-ranked national team and gain fame, wealth and adulation from competing in the game’s most illustrious competitions.

But the old assumption that such trappings keep individuals insulated, even immune, from mental health crises has long since been debunked. When Teresa Enke describes depression as an illness that “can happen to anyone”, she speaks from the harrowing experience of the struggles and eventual suicide of her husband, Robert, a much-admired Germany international.

Martinez, who is helping lead FIFA’s #ReachOut mental health campaign, played in an era in which “it wasn't seen as being right to speak up and show a ‘weakness’”. “The feeling,” he recalled, “was that everyone should be superheroes.”

Fortunately, perceptions have been slowly changing, with Martinez representative of an ever-increasing awareness and empathy around mental illness in football and the wider world.

Addressing the subject, he said: “It’s a good moment to understand that, behind the footballer, behind the businessman, behind the worker, is a human being. And that human being will have the same issues any human being has.

“Whoever you are, it becomes harder when you’re hiding that something is wrong. It's almost a snowball effect, and the problem becomes bigger. It ends up affecting not just your performance, which is probably the first thing you can see, but more importantly the happiness of yourself and the people you love.

“I do feel that mental health is an issue that we all face. We all need to be aware and brave enough to speak up and look for help, so that we’re able to work under pressure, but still enjoy what we do.”

Belgium s Kevin De Bruyne and Belgium s head coach Roberto Martinez pictured at the start of a training session of Belgian national soccer team.

Martinez knows that, in this respect, his job comes with a delicate balance to strike. He hopes, after all, to lead his team to next year’s FIFA World Cup™, where Belgium are tipped to be strong contenders for a prize that would be career-defining even for the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.

With stakes and expectations so high, and scrutiny so intense, managing the emotional and psychological burden on his players is a key concern.

“It’s that thin line of being able to perform under pressure, enjoying that challenge because it's what we’ve done all our lives, but being very aware that there are individuals who take it into a mindset that is not natural and not healthy,” he said. “That means they cannot perform at their best but, more importantly, that they are really suffering inside.

“As sports institutions, we have a responsibility to create environments where every player, every staff member, everyone who is associated with the sport, can feel free and supported to speak up and share when they don't feel well. The same way that we would see a doctor when we have broken a leg, we should seek help when we don't feel fine [mentally].

“You cannot enjoy what you do when your mind is not in the right spot; you need some professional help. And as institutions we want to create a place that is safe, where everyone can speak up to share their experiences and become happy in what they’re doing.”

The spotlight cannot only be shone on under-pressure players either, as Martinez knows only too well. He took charge of Everton shortly after Wales manager Gary Speed, a colleague and club legend, took his own life, and spoke at the time of the devastation he felt.

That example, and others like it, provide enduring reminders that coaches, while caring for their players, must also look after themselves.

“The coach is more of an individual position, and it is a lonely position at times,” he acknowledged. “So it becomes even more important that you have people you can speak with and open up and share how you feel. One thing that’s clear is that you need to be able to switch off, and the best way to switch off in any career is to share time with the people you love.

“It is something that you can translate into any walk of life, in any profession. Having that happy balance between your professional and family life, and being able to be happy in what you do, is essential.”

Eden Hazard of Belgium and Roberto Martinez, Head Coach of Belgium interact during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group B match between Belgium and Russia on June 12, 2021 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

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