While football can get a bad press for how it deals with mental health difficulties, Thomas Markham-Uden says immersing himself in the Carrow Road crowd has played a big part in dealing with his own anxiety issues
Attending football: it’s all shouting and swearing and pent-up emotions, isn’t it? Unbridled joy and deep despair, a few hours with your mates getting behind the lads. Or maybe you’re one of those pensive observers of the action: nails bitten, muttering to no one in particular about the failure of yet another shot to hit the target.
It’s definitely not about feelings though, is it?
Feeling depressed? Show a bit of resolve and stop talking about it. You’re making everyone feel awkward and, anyway, winners don’t let those sort of feelings show.
Away from the glare of the media microscope, though, with its “we go again!” rallying cries, the macho posturing and the still widely held belief that “displaying emotions equals weakness”, football can actually be positive in aiding the mental wellbeing of many, many people. I am one of those people.
Growing up and having feelings of disaffection, depression and anxiety is not unique. Nor is being fairly rubbish at sport, living in what could at best be described as a provincial village, or acquiring an anxiety disorder that still persists as I approach my 30th birthday.
Anyone who has endured any form of mental health difficulty will have identified outlets that do or don’t work for them as a means to manage their individual situation: there is no universal means to coping with these difficulties. For me, attending live football – and specifically going to watch Norwich – has been an enduring source of comfort throughout the past decade and a half.
Ironically for someone who is generally averse to finding oneself in large groups of people, there is much to be said for the relative anonymity a football crowd can bring. The sense of a shared identity; a feeling of collective ownership of one’s team, is something that captivated me from the infancy of my engagement with football and continues to appeal and grow with each passing year.
For many years in my mid-to-late teens and in to my early twenties, few places offered the sense of kinship and of being at home that taking up a position within the massed ranks of a football crowd could. The escapism, both literal and metaphorical, offered by being a part of crowd became so important to me and, to this day, it retains much of the same sense of belonging.
Judgment is a big part of my anxiety. Comparing myself to others, feeling scrutinised; I’ve spent years trying to learn how to separate these feelings into rational and irrational thought processes. I rarely experience these feelings while at football matches, though I’m not actually sure why. Maybe it’s that sense of anonymity: blending in to the background is fairly easy when surround by over 20,000 people, although I know this isn’t the case for everyone.
Football has a rightfully bad reputation for accommodating people of colour and those from within the LGBTQ community and this needs urgently addressing. But I can only speak from personal experience and, for me, football was and is a haven from day-to-day worries and travails.
Becoming a Norwich fan was an outlet that made me feel part of something. I joined sports clubs or other activities when I was younger, but nothing struck a chord with me as much as going to watch Norwich did. This was something that was mine, something I could devote time to and make an emotional investment in. I didn’t – I don’t – need to worry about external issues that affect me when I can immerse myself in being at a football match. That may sound trite or clichéd, but it’s the same immersion and escapism that others feel through creative outlets such as sporting activity or music.
I’m fully aware of the apparent contradiction that a social situation loaded with various sensory stimulants can prove beneficial in managing anxiety. Although feelings of anxiety can persist en route to the ground, they do generally fade considerably once inside. Maybe it’s because mine – and everyone else’s – attention is focussed on the same spectacle in front of us.
It could also owe much to being situated in the same area of Carrow Road for over a decade. I’ve been lucky over the years that those around me have generally been amiable and welcoming; those that aren’t I’ve learned to generally ignore – a case of familiarity and routine breeding comfort. On the occasions when I’ve had cause to challenge the behaviour of others for whatever reason, I feel a greater sense of assurance when doing so than I perhaps would when on the street.
I’m not alone in using football as a means by which to assist my wellbeing. Aside from the hundreds of thousands of other people who turn up every week to watch live matches, there are countless examples of football clubs and organisations using the sport as a way to improve the personal circumstances of others. Be it our own Community Sports Foundation, or groups such as Football Beyond Borders who provide training and support for disadvantaged children in this country and abroad, football can be a powerful means by which to assist those presented with challenging life experiences.
As a sport, football can get a lot of things wrong. For many people, though, it’s a part of their lives that’s important for maintaining a degree of wellbeing and relief from difficulties that may be affecting them. As I’ve grown up, I’ve found other positive ways to manage the difficulties I can sometimes experience, but for 17 years football has been a reliable constant that continues to endure. A port in the storm and an outlet to escape to, even if it’s only for 90 minutes.
Life can be scary sometimes. As our famous song so eloquently puts it, though, football can help to never mind that danger, even if just for a short while.
Thomas Markham-Uden tweets at @_thomasej