For those taking part regularly in sport, the team environment is crucial.
In most cases, whether elite or amateur level, sportsmen and women will train at least three times a week and then play competitively at the weekends.
However, since the Covid-19 outbreak, Northern Ireland, like much of the rest of the world, has introduced a range of ‘lockdown’ measures that has essentially shut down all contact sport.
Already, studies including one in the Lancet Journal, have concluded that the Coronavirus Pandemic has had a profound mental health effect on the lives of individuals.
Other research shows that sports team training boosts mental health performance.
According to the Mental Health Association, for example, “physical activity has a huge potential to enhance our well-being … it also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.”
However, after speaking to some local football stars, any shift away from any major disruption in training and the weekly routine, is proving extremely frustrating and, indeed, putting a significant strain on their mental well-being.
“Isolation is pretty tough to be honest,” said one of NI Premier Intermediate League’s young stars who did not want to be named.
He described not being able to play at this time like being out with a long-term injury and not knowing when, if at all, normality would return.
“People like me are used to training regularly every week with the team and then playing together at the weekend – the fact I can’t do this right now is taking a huge chunk out of my life and mentally, it’s not been great.
“I have tried training on my own but it is just not the same – and, to be honest, I have stopped doing it because being a footballer, for me, is all about the team and training on my own is a completely different experience which I don’t enjoy.”
In Northern Ireland, such a shift is compounded by an already high rate of mental ill health and suicide rates particularly among young men. Research from the Prince’s Trust (2018) showed that 44% of young people in Northern Ireland had experienced a mental health problem while 68% revealed they always or often felt stressed.
And Aware NI – the depression charity – Northern Ireland’s rate of mental ill-health was already 25% higher than England’s for example. Karen Collins, from the charity said: “One in nine people in Northern Ireland are living with a diagnosis of depression.”
In terms of suicide, statistics from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, show a higher level of suicide among young men than anywhere else in the UK.
Indeed, according to Action Mental Health, incidents of death by suicide
(4,600) have surpassed the number of deaths during the Troubles (3,600). Local football player, Gareth Rees says while he was initially “glad of the break” the longer lockdown goes on the harder it gets.
“The toughest thing for me is that I am not able to see all the lads,” he said.
“Football for me is a release – going away at the weekend – having a bit of craic and playing the game you love the most.
“For me I am definitely missing this way of life at the moment. I am finding it tough not to be able to go out on a Saturday as normal.” Gareth feels that, ultimately, lockdown will take its toll on team players’ mental health.
“Being in isolation is not easy particularly when you are so used to being
among your team members for much of the week,” he said. However, for players like Gareth, there is some light at the end of this long tunnel.
Decision makers in Northern Ireland have recognised the need to help sports stars who may be struggling mentally at this time.
To this end, the Province’s first Sport Wellbeing Hub has been set up by Sport NI.
According to chief executive, Antoinette McKeown, the launch was fast tracked because of the potential mental health and well-being issues for local sportspeople during the Covid-19 lockdown.
She explained that the organisation wanted to make the Hub “a first line of
information and support to people who aren’t able to engage in sport at the
The Hub has been initiated in partnership with the Public Health Agency, and has been endorsed by high-profile stars from the sporting world including ex-Arsenal and England football captain Tony Adams and legendary Irish League player and manager David Jeffrey.
Ms McKeown told the Belfast Telegraph: “We recognised that as people
continue on lockdown, mental health was going to be severely impacted,” said McKeown.
“We wanted to make sure that we had help going across sports. The Wellbeing Hub gives instant access to a range of information and guidance that is tailored specifically to care for an individual’s wellbeing.”
She also acknowledged mental health was already a “huge issue” in Northern Ireland, adding . “We have been working on this for some time and knew it was needed but didn’t realise that Covid-19 would push us to get it out earlier but I’m glad we have.
“We know sport was amongst the first hit and hardest hit because major
events and training, especially for team sports, have been postponed.
“If you live for your sport and organise your life around it and suddenly that is removed, all of the structure in your daily activity is also removed.
“For many young men and women, sport is a really positive aspect of their lives for their identity, self-esteem and confidence so it is only natural if you take that away from them without any warning that it will have a huge mental impact.”
In addition, Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health, Robin Swann, announced the appointment of a mental health champion amid concern of the “potentially catastrophic” toll caused by the pandemic.
Speaking in the daily Executive briefings, Mr Swann said: “The Covid-19
pandemic has taken a massive physical toll on us all.
“We must not, however, lose sight of the potentially catastrophic impact it will have on emotional well-being and mental health.
“If we do not take action now to address this, it will impact on our community both in the short and the medium term.”
Elsewhere, specifically, football clubs have been urged to support their players’ mental health and some national governing bodies including the Irish FA have created videos to help coaches and players to deal with self-isolation.
Legendary Linfield player and manager, David Jeffrey, said it was an anxious time for everyone. In an interview with BBC NI, he said: “Given the way things are at the moment as big a part as football plays in many people’s lives it has maybe put football and sport into perspective.
“With people separated from families and friends and limited in what they can do and where they can go it’s vitally important that people take care of their mental health and emotional wellbeing.”
In addition, the IFA Foundation has compiled a bespoke Covid-19 lockdown
document to help players cope with potential mental health problems.
Called ‘Ahead of the Game …mental health awareness for clubs’, the document includes a specific guide on coping mechanisms for players who may be anxious at this time plus details of a number of support groups who can help.
Well-known local football player Ryan Moffatt, who has had a long and
distinguished career in the Irish League and is currently captain of Banbridge Town, says it really does not matter what level you are playing at, the impact mentally is similar.
Like many other regularly playing footballers he is finding it challenging to deal with isolation at his County Down home.
From there, he told me that the sense of belonging you get from team sports cannot be replicated and not knowing when lockdown will end, is having a severe impact on minds at the moment.
“I am missing the football deeply – playing football is just something I’ve been used to my whole life,” he said.
“Playing football every Saturday and training every Tuesday and Thursday has been my routine for some time and not being able to do this at this time, is really hard. I am finding it really difficult during lockdown.”
He added that even simple things which you would take for granted in normal circumstances such as “having a laugh” with your team-mates at training or on match day, are not possible at the moment.
“We do have the WhatsApp groups so we can at least keep in touch but really that is no substitute.”
Gareth also urged anyone who was struggling badly to “reach out” to other
team-mates so that they did not suffer in silence.
“Your team-mates are there for you – do not think you’re on your own.”