The importance of talking about mental health in local football clubs

words by Tackle Your Feelings, Thursday 29 June 2023

Last Saturday I was invited down to Old Ivanhoe Football Club’s game day luncheon ahead of its clash with PEGS to talk about Tackle Your Feelings. The club has participated in the program over the past two years, putting its coaches/committee members and players through the 90-minute workshop delivered by a local psychologist.

I spoke about how community football clubs, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic have a greater understanding of their responsibility to create an environment that supports the mental health of their people. Not only are clubs prioritising mental health literacy programs like Tackle Your Feelings, but they are also establishing wellbeing committees; appointing a wellbeing coordinator; building a relationship with a psychologist or local health service; and participating in mental health promotion activity, like Tackle Your Feelings round this weekend. For many years amateur clubs have invested in physical health infrastructure through personnel and resources, but they are now investing in their own mental health game plans too.

Before I go on, it’s worth acknowledging this outstanding leadership, especially when considering all the other things that community footy clubs and its volunteers deal with just to get teams onto the park.

In explaining this it led some in the audience to reflect on how mental health was considered when they were playing or coaching, whether that be 10, 20 or even 30 years earlier. Clearly, the awareness of mental health was not what it is today, but the common thread amongst the conversations I had post lunch, and often do in various settings, was that ‘We just didn’t talk about it’.

It is not the first time I’ve heard this reflection and I’ve been thinking about it for some time, specifically, whether conversations about mental health were previously not had or is it that people didn’t know what to listen for or how to interpret them?

As a 36-year-old, my recollections only go back so far. But what led me to ask this question is hearing language used by generations older than me in historical media, whether it be through documentaries on streaming services or in yesteryear footy content. Hearing some of these common phrases through the context of the understanding and awareness of mental health we now have, it’s apparent that mental health may not have been such an overlooked topic we believe it was. Particularly, when you overlay the modern theory of the mental health continuum where everyone sits somewhere between ‘struggling’, ‘coping’ and ‘thriving’, compared with a binary way of thinking.

Common phrases that we all heard growing up that could be used to articulate the mental health continuum include.

Struggling: “down in the dumps”, “had a rough trot”, “in a rut”, “bit off”,

Coping: “it is what it is’, ‘coming good’, “hanging in there”,

Thriving: “up and about”.

As a young person playing in the VAFA each weekend, my mates and I didn’t talk directly about “mental health”. However, I distinctly remember then-North Melbourne player Nathan Thompson revealing his depression battle and the reference point this gave us to develop a shared language about the topic.

Stigma is clearly an important part of this equation and sometimes people may hear the message, but they don’t act because they aren’t comfortable or they fear offending someone or making them feel worse. There are definitely other common sayings from years gone by used in relation to mental health which served to drive the topic underground.

One of the learning outcomes Tackle Your Feelings seeks to achieve is to give people the tools to have a conversation about mental health. However, it also provides participants an understanding about what to listen out for and how the other person might be reacting. The beauty of completing the program in the club setting, is that it also leaves behind a shared language for mental health that helps to initiate conversations, as well as assisting to interpret what the other party is saying.

What is the point of all of this? Firstly, you don’t have to be a therapist to be therapeutic when it comes to supporting someone’s mental health. Simply having a conversation is an action to take if you think that someone might be stuck on the continuum or shifting. In fact, 93.7 per cent of people say that a conversation with a friend or family member is helpful. Having the conversation is not just about firing in a few questions, it’s equally important to listen to what the other person has to say because the language they are using may not be from the textbook. In the week leading into my visit to Old Ivanhoe, I heard a 21-year-old footballer talk about mental health as his “mentals”, which reinforces that progress has been made, but also that everyone has their own way, or words, of articulating how they are feeling.

Tune into what they are saying and doing and don’t be afraid to follow up to clarify, because this check in could be the first step to connecting someone with professional support if they need it.


Adam Baldwin

Program Manager, Tackle Your Feelings