The Duke of Cambridge has held a mental health summit with some of football’s biggest names to uncover the pressures on players at all levels of the game.
As part of his long standing campaign to change the way mental fitness is perceived from grassroots to the Premier League and beyond, Prince William spoke about the need to revolutionise attitudes of everyone involved.
The Duke, who is President of the Football Association, welcomed former England captain David Beckham, England and Manchester City Women’s captain Steph Houghton, Aston Villa and England defender Tyrone Mings, Crystal Palace and England midfielder Andros Townsend and managerial legend Carlo Ancelotti, currently in charge of Everton Football Club.
The conversation follows the breakthrough announcement today that all levels of the English game have signed a joint declaration, committing to make mental health a key priority as a legacy of William’s Heads Up programme.
Former England captain Beckham, who earned 115 England caps and scored 17 goals during a stellar international career, joked how talking about his career makes him “feel pretty old”, but told how he believed the pressures on athletes today are far greater than in his day.
The former Manchester United legend said: “When we talk about when I was playing, it makes me feel pretty old.
“Of course you know, things were a lot different when I started my career.
“I think that when I was playing, stakes were high, but I don’t think they were as high as they are now in the game and I feel there are so many more distractions and obstacles now that can affect players from a very young age – and that’s why I feel that what you’ve done, what you’ve created and what is happening here with this movement is so important.
“It’s okay to not be okay – and I think back in the day it wasn’t – it wasn’t okay to have a problem.”
The Duke, who recently released an hour long documentary on the BBC titled ‘Prince William, Football and our Mental Health’, spoke of his pride of convincing the FA to change this year’s Cup Final to the ‘Heads Up FA Cup Final’ to continue his crusade for improving the stigma around mental wellbeing.
He said: “We’ve managed to get the entire football community to sign up to promoting and showing how important mental health is in football and therefore hopefully in society through fans and things like that.
“And I think that’s shown real leadership that we’ve got the HeadsUp FA Cup Final renamed.
“And I think this season, bearing in mind with the pandemic it’s obviously been a football season like no other, it’s actually come at quite a timely moment to have this campaign and this kind of culture declaration going on at a time where I think the country – not just obviously football but the world – is probably going to have some quite serious repercussions with mental health going forwards.
“So, I think it’s quite a timely reminder and a pivotal moment in showing everyone that mental health really matters.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how football continues to lead the way and set that example.”
William pressed Beckham, who recently became the co-owner of a football franchise in Miami, on how his infamous sending off in the 1998 World Cup last 16 match affected his confidence at such a young age.
Beckham, 45, saw red for kicking out opposing player Diego Simeone, weakening his side’s chances with England eventually crashing out of the competition on penalties.
Years of abuse would follow the incident, with Beckham vilified and his effigies were burnt outside London pubs.
He said: “I think I went through that at a very young age.
“I made a mistake you know, I made a mistake in ‘98 and the reaction at the time was pretty brutal.
“I was constantly criticised on the pitch verbally.
“Like I said at the start of this, times have changed. If social media was around when I was going through that time in ‘98, it would have been a whole different story.
“But I was lucky. I had a support system in Manchester United and the manager and obviously family, but did I feel at the time it was okay to someone and say ‘I need help’? – I would say no, no, it was a different era and I just felt I had to keep it all in and deal with it myself.”
Tyrone Mings broke into the national side this season, capping off a remarkable turnaround from having his career almost ended from a horror injury in his fist Premier League game in 2015.
The defender, who has previously said he “didn’t want to do anything to get my knee better and didn’t want to talk to anyone” as he slumped into depression, revealed he changed his attitude by admitting his mental health was at risk and speaking to a sports psychologist.
“I spoke with a psychologist ever since I got injured at Bournemouth and we’ve spoken weekly every week since,” he said:
“I’ve found that when it comes to football and using a psychologist it just seemed a natural step.”
Mings told William he had also set up his own academy for youngsters, but with a different focus on how to approach the sport away from the pressures of being signed to top-flight clubs.
He revealed: “I just felt like it was a really unstable place for kids to be mentally. I’m not saying they should come to mine rather than be at football academies, they are great pathways, but if kids ever want to be away from that and have some extra training or be in an environment where they don’t feel pressurised to win games or impress people, then that’s the kind of environment that we set up and we’ve had really good feedback.”
As part of the successful ‘Lionesses’ England Women’s team, Steph Houghton has enjoyed the highs of being made national captain at the age of 27 and the heartbreak of missing a penalty in the 2-1 World Cup semi-final defeat to the United States last year.
The Duke asked her: “How do you think players, clubs can do more to help everyone understand and deal with some of the criticism and scrutiny that comes through social media on players?”
Houghton replied: “I think it’s important that we have that balance.
“In football that you have these unbelievable highs but you have the lows as well and you kind of get that feeling off social media as well – if you have an absolutely amazing game there’s so many tweets, instagrams, whatever it might be, people saying well done – but for example, I missed a penalty in the semi-final, I didn’t look at my phone for four or five days because I knew exactly what was coming in terms of the messages.
“It wasn’t intentional missing a penalty but at the same time people make you feel like that, so I think it’s important we have that kind of awareness and to have that kind of conversation within teams for the younger generation coming up, to go ‘right, okay, social media is a great thing for a lot of things, to promote campaigns, build people’s profiles, but at the same time it can be quite hurtful, and sometimes you don’t realise people do read a tweet or an instagram and actually it stays with you for a long time.”
In a more light hearted moment, William concluded by addressing legendary manager Ancelotti, saying: “And Carlo, last but not least to you…the wisest one of us all here, that’s for sure.”
The 61-year-old is one of only three managers to have won the UEFA Champions League three times – twice with Milan and once with Real Madrid – and one of only two to have managed teams in four finals.
Now in charge of Merseyside club Everton after previously winning the Premier League with Chelsea in 2010, Ancelotti said he was encouraged by changing attitudes to mental health within the game but admitted it was “really rare” for players to speak to the manager about any issues.
“In my experience it is really rare that the players come to you and say ‘mentally I am not good’ – really rare, it never happens,” he said.
“In the past few years something is changing.
The fact that the player comes to you and says ‘I’m having a panic attack’, ‘I feel a lot of pressure on my shoulders’, but before it never happened that they come to me and say ‘I have (a) mental problem’.
And I hope this is going to change because it’s (a) really important aspect.”