Wednesday 14 February 2024, 17:00

FIFA Legend Wanchope Watson encourages players to speak out about mental health

  • Costa Rica icon Paulo Wanchope Watson benefited from sports psychology as a player at Derby County

  • The FIFA World Cup goal scorer encourages players to seek help when needed

  • Wanchope Watson’s methods support the philosophy of FIFA’s #ReachOut campaign

FIFA Legend Paulo Wanchope Watson has highlighted the need for more dialogue about mental health for professional players by encouraging players to #ReachOut when they need help. The Costa Rica native was on hand at FIFA headquarters to assist with the Concacaf Preliminary Draw for the FIFA World Cup 2026™, and he took the opportunity to speak about mental health – a priority for FIFA – and a subject that he has experience in as both a player and a coach. In 2021, FIFA joined forces with the World Health Organization (WHO) to launch #ReachOut, a campaign designed to raise awareness of the symptoms of mental health conditions, encourage people to seek help when they need it and to take actions every day for better mental health.

A fan-favourite wherever he went, Wanchope Watson had a rich career as a player, highlighted by over a decade in English football with Derby County, West Ham United and Manchester City. It was as a 21-year-old with Derby County that the striker first saw the benefits of a strong support system. “Fortunately, the first Premier League club I played for in England, Derby County, were one of the first clubs to have a professional sports psychologist,” said Wanchope Watson. “They helped me a great deal in having an outlet to speak my mind and express how I felt. That’s how I was able to overcome moments of pressure, with the support of my family, teammates, and the psychologist.”

Paulo Wanchope of Costa Rica celebrates with Leonardo Gonzalez after scoring his country's first goal against Germany in Munich in June 2006

Having experienced first-hand the benefits of sports psychology, Wanchope Watson is a vocal advocate for mental well-being for players, and is a big believer in professionals speaking up and seeking help when they need it. Now a coach, including a stint as head coach of the Costa Rica national team, Wanchope Watson has been able to use his position to spread the importance of mental well-being in life balance. “I make my players aware that this is a game, and that there are things beyond football. Footballers need to understand that, firstly, they’re a human being – the rest follows that,” said Wanchope Watson. “I always express the need for, and importance of, not just being focused on football, but also to learn and develop in other domains, so that they’ve got the chance to relax and understand that life should be enjoyed. It’s a game, and yes, it’s our profession, but there’s more to life than just football.”

Depression affects more than 260 million people in the world, including professional footballers, while around half of all mental health conditions start by age 14. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in young people aged 15-29. Among active football players, 9% have reported depression and a further 7% suffer from anxiety. Among retired players, these figures increase, with 28% struggling to sleep, and depression and anxiety affecting 13% and 11% respectively, according to a FIFPRO study published in 2019.

FIFPRO also launched its own mental health awareness campaign, "Are you ready to talk?" in 2021, a further sign of how far the public discussion on mental health in football has come since Wanchope Watson’s time as a player in the 90s and 2000s. He says that it is important to continue to speak about mental well-being in the open to further remove any associated stigma. “It’s good to raise awareness amongst footballers and athletes so that they have the confidence to express how they feel: we’re not used to speaking about all the feelings of the pressure that’s on us in football,” said Wanchope Watson. “It’s important because, sometimes, footballers isolate themselves because of all the pressure on them. They don’t chat, they don’t speak to people regarding how they’re feeling. The key here is speaking up and looking for help.”

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