Pioneering mental health training changing ways in Scottish football

Attitudes are changing within the game. Gareth Southgate, most notably, earned plaudits for the way he handled left-back Danny Rose's revelation before the World Cup that he had suffered from depression.

Tottenham Hotspur's English defender Danny Rose   -  Getty Images

Football managers often have a fearsome reputation with tales of fiery dressing room confrontations almost as legendary as the games on the park. But a change is underway in Scotland where bosses have historically had a particularly infamous reputation, from the boot throwing “hairdryer” tirades of Alex Ferguson to the menacing growl of Jock Stein.

The Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) is offering its managers unique mental health awareness courses, sparked by the suicide of a promising player whose career was cut short by injury.

Chris Mitchell struggled to adapt to life without football and took his own life in 2016 at the age of 27. Choking back tears, Mitchell's dad Philip told AFP: “He looked at me, and he said, 'I'm done dad, I'm done.'”

The family were aware that Chris was contemplating suicide, but there was no structure in place to support players. “We came to the conclusion that there was very little in place to help people with mental health issues in Scottish professional football,” added Philip.

As a result, the Chris Mitchell Foundation was founded to raise awareness of mental health issues in the sport.

Mark Fleming, the SPFL chaplain who runs the course, has already been asked to do bespoke training at top flight clubs like Celtic and Rangers and further afield in Liverpool. He's also giving mental health training to Scottish Rugby and would like to see it expanded to other sports - particularly after the apparent suicide of young British snowboarder Ellie Soutter in July.

Fleming told AFP: “Football is, by nature, ruthless and brutal -- but most of the managers I know are not. Historically, some managers thought that by denigrating their players, by shouting at them, verbally abusing them, they might motivate them to a better performance.”

Southgate a 'great example'

Attitudes are changing within the game. Most notably England manager Gareth Southgate earned plaudits for the way he handled left-back Danny Rose's revelation before the World Cup he had suffered from depression.

“Nowadays managers recognise that most people flourish under encouragement and affirmation, and I think Gareth Southgate is a great example of that,” added Fleming.

Eddie Wolecki Black, 53, was one of many managers who were impressed by Southgate's congenial style, which motivated England towards its greatest World Cup performance in almost 30 years.

“It's good when somebody works like that and is successful, because it shows you don't have to be kicking boots at people, throwing things at the wall or smashing teacups,” Black told AFP.

Black saw the impact of aggressive management as a trainee coach under Dundee United's fearsome Jim McLean, whose management career ended when he punched a BBC journalist.

“Jim McLean was known for his ferocious temper. I don't think you could get away with it these days. I think that style of management is gone,” said Black.

Black also knows about the mental anguish of a career threatening disability. A stroke suffered at half time during a game in 2016 left him paralysed down his left hand side. He was told he would never walk or talk again, but after over £15,000 of treatment in the US he went back to work as manager of Motherwell Ladies and has just signed on to manage Celtic Women.

Black said he didn't know how do deal with mental illness, in his players or in himself, until he attended the SPFL Trust course.

“I'm now convinced I suffered from depression when I got back to work, but I was in total denial. I was reading through the flip chart and I was putting names of players that I know against some of the conditions, so I've got a few issues to deal with when I go back to the clubs,” he said.

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