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Mental Health Awareness Week: Ian Holloway on the toughest experience of his career, attitudes in football and helping young players


Ian Holloway speaks candidly to The Sack Race about his own experiences of mental health in football, both as a player and a manager. Ian also reveals the toughest point in his career, football’s changing attitude towards mental health, and how it can learn from other sports...

On his own experiences of mental health in professional football...

When I was a young player growing up we were all bullied, not by coaches, but by our senior teammates.

We were forced to be disciplined, forced to clean the dressing rooms. It was the very nature of being an apprentice, you had to do mundane chores which you couldn’t moan about as that was part of learning.

If you look at football, which I’ve loved all my life, I was strong enough to take what I had to take from other players to keep believing and keep working hard to make the grade.

That’s part of it, if you weren’t mentally tough enough you wouldn’t make it. There were a lot of players that were a lot better than me who didn’t actually make the grade because they couldn’t mentally deal with it.

At the end of the day, I’m glad people are looking at that now. The attitude towards mental health is changing, and quite rightly so.

In a lot of workplaces people can have time off for stress, but life is about wanting things, getting better and believing in yourself.

I always found that the grounding I had when I was brought up did me the world of good because it can be very, very tough being a football player, and it’s also extremely tough being a football manager, particularly in this day and age when you’re given no time.

You were encouraged, but you were also hammered as well. You were placed in the fire. At Bristol Rovers, when I was younger, I played two years above my age group to see if I could cope with it.

So I was being forged and I felt they did a very good job, which helped me in my latter times when things go wrong. It helps you stand there and be strong, but not everybody’s that way. I’m very, very pleased that we’re looking at things now.

A lot of people would say that tough love and forging is bullying but others would say it’s a form of training. It’s elite training, where you try and make people ready for everything in combat.

Life isn’t easy and you have to be hurt to get stronger, that’s what life is. I was terrified most of my life that I wasn’t going to be good enough, but it wasn’t going to be through a lack of effort, it would be through lack of ability.

I was ready for all of these challenges. I loved the way I was brought up, but I saw it ruin one or two people and they couldn’t take it so they ended up in amateur football. They were very talented players.

On the toughest experience of his managerial career...

It was tough when I was sacked from QPR because I lost my mum a week and a half earlier.

When they told me I was leaving, I realised how important my mum was to me, because when I was feeling down I would go around her house to see her. She always made me feel great.

After I lost my job after losing my mum, I wasn’t very nice for a while.

So what I’m doing now, is I’m right back on track. I’m in the gym every day - smashing things everywhere - I’ve got my discipline back, and I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself. Stopped making excuses.

It’s absolutely vital now that the lads playing today get a balanced upbringing because now they’re famous before they’ve even done anything. They get paid like a superstar before they’ve even done anything.

The best of the best are the ones who are as physically fit as they are mentally fit. They are always at the top of their game. That’s what makes the difference.

On whether players would discuss their problems with him when he made the transition from player to manager...

The first thing I said to my players was that if you have a problem off the field, then you can bring it to me so I can help you deal with it so you can concentrate on the field.

I’d been teammates with people at Bristol Rovers but when I became a manager I could no longer be their mate.

The biggest issues footballers have is that their home life interferes with their concentration and it stops them improving and getting better. I tried to make them better people before I made them better players.

What I mean by that is if they were going out and neglecting their girlfriend/partner, or being horrible or not spending time with their children, I would tell them.

If they had any issues or some things they couldn’t deal with, I would try to take that responsibility away from them and tell them that the club cared about them.

I wanted to get across to my players that they could trust me, so that was the first thing I said.

That was the only way I could carry my biggest strength, which was building a team and being part of a team. I knew I was never the best player but I would never give in, that’s the only way I found that I could get across to my players that they could trust me.

When I was a player there were times when I’d be screaming and shouting at myself inside. I’ve since read up about it all and tried to help other people, because how can you help other people if you can’t help yourself?

I’ve had a plethora of players who I knew needed some help, but when I used to tell them that they needed help, they thought that they were weak. So I actually didn’t help some of them when I noticed that I felt they had a problem. I actually made them weaker. So I had to find different ways to do it. It’s a whole new ball game but I’m glad everyone is looking into it. I really am.

On football’s attitude towards mental health...

Football has taught me to be a person, and a human being, and I love it to bits.

But in football, we are often told we aren’t good enough half the time. They expect you to deal with it and get on with it. Now however, we are getting more education on it which is the most important thing.

In a previous column, I spoke about Roy Keane being a contender for the Millwall job. He is one of the mentally toughest men I’ve ever met in my life, he never gives up, he expects everybody else to be as mentally tough as him, but not everybody is. 

That’s why he’s revered these days, and looked at like he is because he led people, but I don’t think we can expect everybody to be like that.

Football used to look at it as a weakness, ‘ah you need help do you, you need to talk to someone’, whereas now people can come forward and you can talk about how they’re feeling, and you can learn to deal with these emotions. Because life is about dealing with that.

There’s two ways to be fit: physically fit and mentally fit. Football should be taking the responsibility to train you in those elements of being a football player.

I’m delighted that they are just starting to change things, and that it’s no longer affected by whether someone hasn’t got enough character.

On whether the LMA have ever offered him support...

No one has ever contacted me after I’ve left a post. Us managers know that we can ring them if we want, but they don’t ring us.

I’ve been trained to deal with it. Losing my job at QPR hurt me immensely. I should never have lost my job there, they should never have been able to get rid of me, not after the job I did.

I was actually doing a very good job there under the circumstances I was working under. I improved the budget immensely, I got young lads in the team, but they got rid of me.

I didn’t take the last sacking very well at all, I also didn’t when I lost the Millwall job either. I believed I could turn the crowd around there but at the end of the day the clubs make the choices, that’s life.

The facilities are there these days, but I didn’t ring them (LMA) because I didn’t need them. I have my family who keep me sane and it’s a good job I have. I’ve got my grandchildren, daughters and son, my sister and my wife’s family.

But they have now put systems in place, and are there to help.

On how football can learn from other sports...

I love all sports. I’m fascinated by different aspects, like the mind games. Boxing especially. If you look at how Muhammad Ali came back again, and again. It was amazing.

Andy Murray is a hero of mine.

Mentally he has made the biggest steps that I’ve ever seen any top sportsperson ever do. He used to argue with himself on the court all the time, but how he changed mentally was amazing. He got help to do it, through coaches, and he then controlled himself in a brilliant way. I take my hat off to him.

Andy trained himself to be not as emotional as he was before, and stay in the moment. He then won Wimbledon. That’s what football needs, we need to teach young footballers about the mind and how it works.

It will get there eventually, but at the moment we are lightyears away from where we should be.

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