The pressures of being a footballer and the unremitting fear of getting it wrong

by Tony Attwood

Had Per Mertesacker been English I doubt very much whether he would have done the interview that he recently gave concerning the pressure he felt during career.  Indeed he said he was glad that his playing days were coming to an end.  Exactly the sort of thing that people who have never felt pressure simply cannot understand.

The article was published in Der Spiegel news magazine and reveals a man who was not always enamoured by his job – which is extraordinary when you consider the honours that the man has won.   But it does explain fully why he is retiring now, at an age earlier than that of most players who have the choice.  Staying in football but away from the limelight.

What Per said in his interview was that he was so nervous before every game that he feels like vomiting as each game started and struggled with diarrhea and other nervous afflictions.

I suspect only those who have had to perform in public (and here the level doesn’t matter) have any idea what these symptoms are like, nor the strange ways it can take people.   In considering this I would of course not in a million years nor in any way compare myself to someone as magnificent at his chosen craft as Per, but in my own small way I know both sides.   I started out at a young age as a classical musician, but pulled out of it completely because although competent as a performer I could not take the nerves of performing in public.

But what I could do was play in a rock band in front of much bigger audiences, and play in the more intimate settings of folk clubs.   Totally odd and irrational.   I can’t perform on stage in the theatre, but I can stand up and give a talk to a room of 500.  During my early career in the theatre before I settled down to being a writer I met many actors and musicians who really suffered as Per has described.  He’s not unusual – and the level of your ability has nothing to do with it.

Very understandably he kept these nerve problems secret, and actually felt ashamed of them.  “I’d rather sit on the bench, or even better, in the stands,” he said.   “The pressure ate me up. There was this constant horror scenario of making a mistake that could lead to a goal.”

Of course Mertesacker said he was conscious of the fact that as a footballer, he has had a privileged life, and that he appreciated all that football had given him but he has also said that in his next job, he plans to “attack the system,” and I suspect he means by that, work with the psychologists that the big clubs now have to ensure players who do have such difficulties are given the fullest support.  And maybe attack parents and agents who see talent and remorselessly push it forward for their own selfish ends.

And certainly Mert can speak out on this for he has seen the lowest side of football when he was at Hannover when Robert Enke decided to take his own life after battling with mental illness.  He had won eight full international caps with Germany and at his death in 2009 was considered to be a leading contender to be keeper for Germany in the 2010 world cup.

But of course already the criticisms have started.   Lothar Matthäus said, “After these statements how does he expect to continue to be active in professional football? How is he going to teach a young player about professionalism when he says the pressure is too much? This can’t work.”

Of course Matthäus knows infinitely more about football than I could ever know, but I have no doubt that what he is  saying he is wrong.  Let’s put it another way and ask, how can players learn to cope with pressure if those who have suffered from it can’t express what they have felt to help those who have the same problems?   Or put it yet another way, how many suicides does Matthäus need to see before he realises the importance of a highly successful player coming out and saying how he experienced the problem?

Christoph Metzelder didn’t help either by saying, “I didn’t experience the 2006 World Cup as being anything like that.  At a certain point, we were riding a wave.”

And this is the issue with anything related to mental well-being.  It is nothing to do with the world, it is all to do with how the individual perceives the world.

I thought we had got pass the time of idiot managers, coaches and players telling people to “man up” and “stand up for yourself” and all that stuff.   People can be brilliant footballers but have difficulty in coping with various elements in the game.   This is true for people in all spheres of performance in front of an audience.  Some can do it without any nerves, some suffer very seriously.   That is how it goes.   Some (very very minor performers) like me are even more quirky and can operate with full-on bravado in some settings and not others.  Indeed I’ve known a few actors from my time in the theatre who could work readily on the stage but not for a TV camera – and vice versa.

In my view we should applaud Mert 1000%.  Applaud his dignity and his honesty, and the fact that he wants to help any young players who suffer as he has to understand exactly what these issues are all about.

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28 Replies to “The pressures of being a footballer and the unremitting fear of getting it wrong”

  1. Thanks Tony, I think Per is a top bloke and will be great as youth coach.. Not as good as Tony Adams, Sol or Thierry obviously.

    News has come through that Sky have bottled it over Carragher they have suspended him for the rest if the season… so have a couple of months gardening and we will sneak you in the back door next season.

  2. Thanks for writing about this. I wish more people will speak out as you have done in support of Mert. I am sure it will be of great help to next generation.

  3. A very sobering post
    Only those who have suffered with nerves can appreciate the appalling effect it can have on their lives.
    From a schoolboy reading the lesson in front of 400 at morning assembly, to the Prime Minister at Question Time in the Commons.
    The toll is purely relative. 😉

  4. I always loved Per as a great defender and one of the best in his job. But if you followed him and I did follow him a bit before he came to Arsenal he always showed a very human side of himself. Down to earth, humble…. a big friendly giant who to his own astonishment became one of the best defenders in the world (for me he was).
    Per daring to speak about things nobody else dares shows what a great person he is.
    I always believed in Per at Arsenal and have never questioned his ability. In fact when I look back at last seasons PL match and the cup final that I both had the luck to attend, I felt very, very happy for Per. First of all he managed to play his first match in well… almost a season and beat Everton despite being down to 10 man after the red card from Koscielny. And then his display in the cup final that I also watched from the stands.
    His reading of the game, how he was leading the side and his players…. I only have great memories of Per.
    And I think because he is willing to speak about things nobody else does he will be a great person to have in our youth setup. I think young players will be able to come to him with any problem they have and he will do his best to help them out. Not the ‘hard man’ but the human being approach. Something that is so missed in this world today….
    As he probably will never play again I will use this moment to sign: We’ve got a Big F*cking German…. !

  5. Funny how the media been banging on about AW should go because he can’t motivate his players, but somehow it’s not Moaninho fault that he can’t get the best out of Alexis, it is the fault of playing the ‘Arsenal way’. What’s next maybe it’s because he’s still think he’s wearing Puma kit instead of Adidas kit.

    ‘Alexis Sanchez is struggling at United because he is still trying to play the Arsenal way, pundit Danny Higginbotham reckons.

    The former United midfielder said: “I think the problem that Sanchez has is that he is still trying to play the Arsenal way.

    “Manchester United and Arsenal are two completely different ways of playing football.

    “Sanchez is still playing that Arsenal way and he needs to evolve and play the way Mourinho wants to play.’

  6. I put this on a previous post, but I will mention it again.
    Last night Mourinho only played three of his own signings from the start. That’s £300 million spent to improve the squad and the majority of the players were Fergies.
    Would Wenger get away with that?

    Playing a midfield of Matic and Felanni with Sanchez as a number 10 is ridiculous.

    I had high hopes for Per to work his way through the ranks and become a possible Arsenal manager, he started in a humble position and seem to want to learn unlike the Giggs type who want a top job straight off.
    I hope he finds the level he thinks best suits him, he would have made a great assistant to Arsene.

  7. Interesting post. As for what Lothar Matthaus says, he has been spouting nonsense since he retired and a lively proportion of Germans think he is a laughing stock.

  8. knobby

    14/03/2018 at 11:49 pm

    “Last night Mourinho only played three of his own signings from the start. That’s £300 million spent to improve the squad and the majority of the players were Fergies. Would Wenger get away with that?”

    We already know. We all know the story of Graham’s back five and how Arsene would do nothing without them.

  9. Well. In as honest as Per Mertesacker may sound to be when he was reported in a magazine interview to have said his mind on the negative emotion he has been suffering from in his professional football career. More so, at the top end of the game, the big games. But when did it all starts to manifest in him? And why hadn’t he consults a psychologist early, on what look to be a mental illness in him to see if he’ll overcome it?

    I think Mertesacker has not been fair to Arsenal by continuing to mann a critical position, the centre half at the heart of Arsenal defense-line for years knowing very well he is suffering from emotional mental disorders which might had been responsible for the many goals Arsenal had shipped-in in many many important games overtime which they wouldn’t have shipped-in had Mert is well.

    Despite that I am not in a position to issue any query to the Arsenal medical center staff for failing to detect Mert’s illness and advice Le Boss appropriately on the matter. But as an ardent Arsenal supporter that I am, this is a very serious case of delerration of duty by the Arsenal medical personnel warranting an overhaul in the department.

    Lastly, going by his statements on his emotional mental disorders, while he was at Germany receiving treatment when he was sidelined with injury, he agitated from there for another one year contract extention to his contact that expired last season. And Le Boss obliged him and even made him the Arsenal academy coach in advance. And Mert has been pulling wages from the Arsenal treasury as a first team squad player since he has returned to the club from injury and had his contract extended. But now that he has openly declared that his body has completely given up the ghost as far as playing football is concerned and he will henceforth, prefer to watch Arsenal from the bench but better still from the stands. Should Arsenal then continue to pay him his weekly wages as a footballer for the club? Or bring his appointment as the academy coach forward to allow him go there?

  10. Sorry do we have official attendance figures for last Sunday.
    What the hell is nicholas talking about?

    Are we really playing up to the tune of the 1000 or 2000 mugs who feel betrayed by Arsenal and not attend even though theyve paid?

  11. Polo just read the Alan Smith article you posted and agree totally , l played above me level for a season in the old Athenian League was sick before and after games .
    Being a new boy wasn’t getting paid but learnt a lot
    When I returned to a level I was comfortable with the enjoyment returned

  12. 4/5 EPL clubs look to crash out at first knockout stage, and Wenger should go at the end of the season and Pep would make Utd lol real City.

    I mean you what!

  13. Hey guys it’s terrible writing a comment and having the page freeze or die, but when you send it and it just doesnt even show as being moderated. It’s a real bummer!

  14. I liked the interview that Per made, as it gives an insight that is not mentioned and people outside just think nothing of it and are ready to criticise. Its like Wenger when he said he almost bought so and so but because of this circumstances it was not possible. People jump on the band wagon of saying here he goes again with another of his almost purchased player, completely igboring the part how it is not as easy as in FM you see a player you oay and thats the end of the transaction.

  15. Over 100 caps for Germany, World Cup trophies but he played under enormous pressure.

    This is what drives me crazy from pundits and fans. They seem to think hurling insults and abuse at players is going to make them play better. The amount of abuse the Arsenal lads have had to contend with has contributed largely to loss of form. You need players to be confident. You don’t want them to stop making runs or calling for the ball but that’s what pressure causes.Fans booing or groaning at bad control or a wayward pass, as we hear at the Emirates too often will not make us play better. Cheering and clapping does.

    Per will be an asset our club and the young players. The fact he has been through so much means he can pass on good advice. Well said Per, very brave.

  16. Thanks, Tony, for this article.

    I think most of fans don’t see footballers as anything else than 2D characters without any depth, deep emotions, deep thoughts and, at the end of the day, problems that anyone can have.

    I’ve seen & heard many examples of footballers struggling in their post-football life which may or may not be a separate subject to this one.

    Let’s not forget that Bayern München pretty much saved Gerd Müller’s life.

    I’m glad Arsenal young players will have the warm presence of Per to guide them in their developing years.

  17. @Polo,

    just wait for the headline :

    Pool!!! and Manure lost the PL because of Wenger. He sold them players who have been brainwashed and did not know how to play football, this for a fortune. this along with stats showing their excellent form under the Arsenal shirt and their inability to play under their new shirt.

    The nes next headline will be : Everton deprived of CL places because of Wenger. Ifr Wenger had done a good job with Thea Walcott, he would have led the Toffees to overcome their neighbours.

  18. It is interesting to see that the guardian’s headline says : Spanish press lays into Manure.

    I mean…so the UK press does not…or maybe they aknowledge that Spain has a press which Britain has not. Which seems to be a fact when it comes to football (I won’t mention other topics…)

    You’d tell me they have an agreement with Manure to be nice and kind to them, you’d not write it any other way.
    And yep, VBoorinho, the specialist in BS says it : it has happened before….

    I hope Mr Wenger has a kind word for him at the next opportunity.

  19. It seems to me Per has a great combination of work ethic, loyalty to the club and fans, and consideration of individuals, their psychology and their future.

    He was a real leader on the field and not afraid to put things strongly. I remember when he got Mesut Ozil to go to the fans when obviously Mesut was so understandably cheesed off that he just wanted to leave the pitch.

    A great choice to lead our academy.

  20. Thanks for writing this Tony. I think Per is and was a fine player and person. I wish him much success in the future.

  21. When a person speaks candidly and honestly about his personal fears ,life experiences and his expectations , we should just try to listen and understand his words which are from the heart .

    We should not attempt to dissect his words , but rather view it all from his perspective . Each man’s journey is only his own and he walks in his own shoes.

    As an outsider watching it , we should be less critical of his alleged failings and more appreciate of his achievements that may have come at a great cost.

    Just like Per , Tony too has gave an example of his experience, and am sure where there are times when we too have felt overwhelmed and seemingly unable ‘to snap out of it ‘.

    As a houseman , there were times when I have had felt truly overwhelmed and felt incapable of coming up to the mark. But with the help of kind and caring senior doctors , I was guided along to be competent enough to be allowed to make my own informed decisions regarding patient care .

    I do admit that I did binge eat , and have had diarrhea when I become nervous and anxious. I have seen many a medical student ‘lose it ‘ and have lost a few friends who became depressed or manic and took their own lives.

    There have been many who have left the medical profession quite early and abruptly as they were unhappy and/or unable to cope with the pressure of work and expectations.

    And some were critised for wasting their parents hard earned money or being just plain stupid and immature . Especially by non doctors , who knew nothing of what truly goes on in a hospital .

    Many of them of course became experts watching those tv medical shows and dramas ! The idiot box wouldn’t lie to us of course !

  22. Very few of us even know what it’s like to be in the centre of the pitch (or on the lines for that matter) with 70-80,000 angry fans screaming at you…..and that is just the referee and his assistants! Imagine where every player’s mistake is scrutinized by the boo boys, magnified 1,000,000 times by the bias media, mocked by those who have never ever been near a professional football pitch and subjected to ridicule,derision and cruel barbs by so-called supporters! I have been there and done that as an official and I can assure you that being intimidated does not describe 1/100th of the angst and fear one feels in such circumstances. I was never sick before a game but if you suffer from constipation, doing the ref’s job before so many fans will quickly cure you! I know its the same for the players as I had occasion to speak to them many times over my professional career and they aren’t immune to similar stress and subsequent reactions. That is why so many turn to alcohol,drugs, fast living etc. to assuage that eternal nervousness and angst the Beautiful Game generates. We do our heroes a great disservice to abuse and denigrate them so often and so carelessly.

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