Mind over matter
Johnny Phillips catches up with Brentford's goalkeeper Richard Lee, who has overcome mental anxiety.
Last Updated: 25/01/12 11:40am
The mental wellbeing of professional footballers has never been the first concern of many supporters. But is something we are being made increasingly aware of. Since the suicide of German international goalkeeper Robert Enke little over two years ago, more cases of depression in sport have come to our attention, and are being treated with far more empathy than would have been in years gone by.
Unhappiness can manifest itself in many different ways and on a number of levels. You don't have to be depressed to find yourself struggling to cope with the demands of professional football.
Eighteen months ago Brentford signed Richard Lee from Watford, with manager Andy Scott luring the goalkeeper from Vicarage Road with the promise of first-team football. But a disastrous debut in a 5-0 pre-season friendly defeat to Fulham saw him sidelined for the start of the campaign. Lee took it badly. Throughout his 10 years in the game, he has suffered from acute mental anxiety. It is a common affliction amongst his peers.
"For a goalkeeper the highs and lows are more obvious", he explained. "Everyone likes to be praised and criticism can be hard to take. I found myself going out onto the pitch worried about what could go wrong and I wasn't enjoying the game. For me to be a professional footballer, having the job that so many thousands of fans wanted and not enjoying it was ridiculous."
So, Lee took a bold and unusual step. He went and sought a hypnotherapist to help conquer his fears. "I'd kind of dabbled in it before" he continued. "The powers of the mind have always interested me. I simply googled 'hypnotherapist' in my area and found a man called Dave Sabat. He was brilliant and it got me back on track.
"If you keep doing what you are doing then nothing will change, I suppose that's what made me do it. It's about finding what works for each individual. Hypnotherapy certainly won't work for everyone but I needed to change and it helped me to do that."
From being cast into the reserves at the start of last season, Lee's confidence and form returned. It began with a heroic performance against Everton in the Carling Cup where he made a string of fine saves before keeping out Jermaine Beckford in a penalty shoot-out to send the Bees through. Penalties were something of his speciality. In a Johnstone's Paints Trophy match he saved three in a shoot-out against Charlton.
By the end of the campaign he had won everyone over. First choice again, Lee was also voted the club's player of the season. Travelling into training with him now it's clear to see how much the 29-year-old has refocused his career. Lee has a qualification in neuro-linguistic programming and believes the mental wellbeing of sportsmen is paramount if they are to achieve their goals.
He has written a book, Graduation, chronicling his experiences of last season, and his team-mates at Brentford have embraced it. "I've read it three times," revealed Simon Moore, the promising young understudy to Lee. "I've found it so helpful because it details all the feelings that you can go through and I never realised why I suffered nerves before. It has made me stronger and more able to deal with what the game can throw at you."
Lee and Moore's goalkeeping coach Simon Royce joked that he didn't suffer any lows when I asked him how he dealt with bad performances. But in a way that's the point. It's about finding what works for each individual. Royce said: "I used to go away and spend time with the family after a game. That was my way of dealing with things. Then come Monday morning I was ready to work on what needed to be done after the last game."
Lee had another test of his mental strength at the weekend, when he was bundled into the net by his namesake Alan, the Huddersfield Town striker, for a goal that should not have stood. It turned the game. Brentford were leading 2-0 at the time and ultimately lost 3-2. So incensed was manager Uwe Rosler that he refused to discuss the matter in the post-match interviews for fear of incurring the wrath of the authorities.
I spoke with his goalkeeper after the game and he was pragmatic about what happened. Whilst there was a lingering sense of injustice, the moment had past and it was about dealing with what can be affected in the next game.
Richard Lee's outlook is as refreshing as it is insightful. He isn't afraid to confront the issues which hampered him for so long in his career and has found a solution to his own mental anxieties. 'Graduation' is a great read but, more than that, it is a lesson for us all about what is often an unspoken issue in professional sport. For Lee, it really has been a case of mind over matter.
You can see the feature of our day with Richard Lee on Soccer Saturday this weekend.