Last Saturday’s FA Cup was unique in so many ways because of coronavirus restrictions and the absence of supporters – but it was also the first FA Cup final to support a charitable campaign.
The idea behind the Heads Up FA Cup Final was to use the influence of football to encourage open conversations around mental health.
It was born out of the Heads Together campaign, fronted by the Duke of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex and, in his role as President of the FA, the Duke of Cambridge was perfectly placed to lead the messaging on Cup final day.
He spoke eloquently before the match about mental health and the fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.
He also appeared on the Peter Crouch podcast too where he reflected on lockdown and his own experiences with it, saying how much he missed watching sport and getting involved with supporting his team. “I need to go and be amongst other guys and let out some steam, shout a bit,” he said.
“It has become a lot more relevant to me and I need it. Talking about football helps a lot.”
The key message of Heads Up is very simple: talking to somebody about mental health – or anything sometimes – can save lives.
Using football as a vehicle to support this message is hugely appropriate not only because of its popularity but also because of the great benefits team sports can have on mental health.
A survey of 1.2 million adults for the Lancet Psychiatry in the US across age, gender, education, status and income from 2011-2015 found that people who exercised reported fewer days of bad mental health than those who didn’t – and those who played team sports reported the fewest.
The fact that team sports involve a lot of communication and companionship with team mates relying on each other to come through for them leads to a much better sense of well-being, win or lose!
Of course professional sport – like any other job – has its own mental health risks which is why it was so good to see the likes of former England defender Rio Ferdinand and rugby international Owen Farrell join the Heads Up campaign to speak to each other on camera about their experiences.
In one of the films released in the build-up to the FA Cup final Ferdinand tells Farrell about how, in ‘his day’, players were reluctant to talk about how nervous they would feel before a big match for fear of being seen as a weak link. He says he has been impressed by today’s sports stars – like Farrell – who speak openly as a team about their hopes and fears ahead of the big occasion.
In another film Alex Scott, the former Arsenal Ladies footballer, tells Watford striker Troy Deeney about the racist abuse she would get on social media and how it affected her mental state. She adds, though, that speaking about it to her family and friends, was the only way to make it better.
Then, on Sunday night on the BBC, was a sports documentary that shone another light on mental health. The Edge, which as well as being a brilliant insight into the machinations of the England cricket team as it rose and fell from 2009 to 2014, was also a delicate examination of how top sportsmen can suffer with mental health.
The story of batsman Jonathan Trott who went from being a brilliant – but fussy and superstitious player – to one who had to quit an Ashes series in Australia because of pressure was brilliantly done and leaves you in no doubt as to the psychological trauma that top sportsmen can go through.
But the fact that Trott and members of the England cricket set-up past and present felt ready to speak about his ordeal – and the lessons learned from it – spoke volumes about how far sport, and society, has come even in the past decade.
At Sportside we advocate sport as a mental health aid. Yes, it is there to be taken seriously (otherwise what is the point?) but we want to help Sportsiders join in sport, become part of a team and enjoy all the good things that come with that.
Sport and mental health are inextricably intertwined and, as we referenced at the start of this column, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, did brilliantly to raise the profile of Heads Up at the Cup final.
But it is his brother, the Duke of Sussex, who was led the way when it comes to sport and mental well-being.
As founder of the Invictus Games, Prince Harry’s mission was to use the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate wider understanding for wounded, injured and sick Servicemen and women.
The Invictus Games started in 2014 and – while this year’s event in The Hague has had to be postponed (it will not take place from May 29 2021) – the impact of the Games is seen and felt in daily life in Britain.
Just last week saw a wonderful story in Scotland of Matt Neve, a former RAF driver whose career was cut short when he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
He was supported by the Help for Heroes charity, and as part of his recovery took up archery – in which he won a gold at the 2017 Invictus Games – and he is now taking part in another Help for Heroes campaign, to raise money for injured veterans and encouraging people to get active.
The challenge encourages participants to walk 10,000 steps each day for 30 days, supported by sponsors.
Hannah Lawton, sports recovery manager at Help for Heroes, said: “Sport and exercise are massively important for many of the sick and wounded veterans that we support, not just to help their physical wellbeing but to improve mental health.”
Just like the Heads Up campaign, the message is simple: talking to somebody about mental health can help – and sport can be the vehicle to start those conservations.