The Psychology of a Diabetic Footballer

Having been involved in a number of conversations regarding the psychological support, and the need for more of it, I wanted to put my own spin on it around Football.

It’s never an easy conversation to have, within an extremely masculine setting of the changing room or a football club, but times have changed and the emphasis on mental health has never been more important.

Well where do you start with Diabetes?

I don’t think I’ll be able to cover or adequately portray the full effects of the condition on my mental well being and approach to my life and sport, but I’ll try and deliver a snapshot which I feel is most poignant to Football.

I wasn’t born with type 1 Diabetes.

You’re probably wondering why I’ve made that statement stand alone? The significance of it is because I remember life without having the condition. Until the age of 8 I wandered through life without a care in the world, blissfully unaware of what was to come. My only focus at that age was how quickly could I get home from school and get a football out!

Then in the September of 1999, I was catapulted into a world of worry and anxiety. That care free life that I lived prior to my diagnosis was a distant memory. Diabetes teaches you to worry very quickly. What if I forget my injection? What if my glucose levels go too low? What if they go too high? What happens if I play football? What happens if I eat this meal?

That extra worry is definitely a burden I’ve had to carry growing up.  I’m not sure you can properly shake it; you just learn to deal with it and adapt.

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 Just imagine what it’s like when you’ve “learnt” to worry more than usual and you’re greeted with a situation where you’re different to every other child in the changing room as you pull out your blood glucose monitor and insulin. When all you want to do as a child is “fit in”, this immediate difference can make it quite difficult. Most kids try to avoid situations like this where they feel alone or slightly outcast, but when you’re a diabetic in mainstream sport you have to just embrace it, otherwise you won’t do it. It takes guts.

Throw into that, those difficult teenage years and the “banter” of 16 boys at the age of 15 and you can only imagine how uncomfortable you can feel. Not to forget that if you’re trialling for a new team, or trying to make a step up or play for a representative side and you don’t know anyone in the dressing room. The levels of anxiety go through the roof! It’s an added stress trying to fit in, so hopefully with some of the work I’m doing with TDFC we can encourage diabetics to embrace their condition in this environment, and give those people who don’t have the condition some guidance on how to support children who may find this a barrier.

All of this worry and I haven’t even referred to trying to get glucose levels in range to be able to get out there and play.  Without them in a good place you immediately know you’re on the back foot. I don’t hide from the fact that during the warm up and team talk prior to a game I’m very rarely concerned with the tactics of the team (as I really should know them already!), as I concentrate all of my efforts on making sure the body is loose and the glucose levels are in a good place to play! Again it adds more pressure and anxiety to your preparation but when you’ve learnt to deal with that the playing part is a breeze!

This anxiety about getting levels right leads me very nicely into the frustration and anger it generates when it does go wrong.  I will not be the only one that has experienced their glucose levels going wrong in the moments when you need them to be stable the most.  I remember vividly my levels “playing up” when I had trials at pro clubs and in cup finals. Emotions always run high and invariably cause you a problem which no planning can foresee! However it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow when you’re out there struggling to perform when you know what you’re capable of. My parents and coach of my junior team felt this frustration for a long time, as they watched my ability succumb to the diabetes and it often left me infuriated.  Sometimes it’s out of your control and the best way to respond is to chalk it off and go again next week. You’ll learn from what happened and try and put it right next time. It never makes the anger and frustration easier to accept, it just means you don’t give up because of it.

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But what about the fear of Hypos? A topic often referred to when Diabetics refer to exercise. Anyone who’s experienced a mild Hypo (when you’ve been able to treat yourself) knows that it can be a pretty nasty feeling and pretty scary, but what about the people who have experienced one which they couldn’t treat themselves? The courage and bravery it can take to then put yourself in a situation with exercise, where they’re more likely to occur, is huge. I’ve only suffered one severe hypo like this in my lifetime and can only describe it as one of the most frightening things I’ve been put through. I think the fact I was only 13 at the time helped me respond to it. As a child you’re pretty fearless so I didn’t build up too much of a mental barrier to hypos despite experiencing that. Regardless of how I dealt with that I know situations where others have really struggled to come back from it and it can be a significant barrier I want TDFC to address. I want to ensure that no diabetic feels unable to participate in Football as a result of fearing hypos. The organisation will be campaigning hard to improve the support in Football for diabetic participants as well as the people who deliver the game that need greater awareness of the condition.

With all of the negatives it CAN have….. There is one really really big psychological benefit that I believe it’s given me. I carry Diabetes around as the “chip on my shoulder” and the one thing that makes me work harder, more determined and more passionate about defying the odds of living with a chronic medical condition. I’ve been let down by it from time to time but for the most part I honestly believe Diabetes helped me find my strength. I used it to power my motivation and to achieve my goals. It made me who I am as a person and my achievements can be attributed to the resilience it added to my character. I’ve never let it stop me and nor will I let it in the future.

I have a favourite quote which I often refer to which I think reflects the way I feel about its affect on me and my sport.

“The best view comes after the hardest climb”

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When you achieve the goals you’ve set yourself, knowing all of the difficulties and setbacks you’ve gone through to get there as a result of your Diabetes, the appreciation of that peak is that much greater.

As much as I believe Diabetes has had its negative impact on my psychological welfare, there’s no doubt I’ve used it positively to power my motivation and strength. Diabetes drives my determination to defy all of the physiological effects it can have, to compete and surpass my peers who don’t have the condition.

I firmly believe that “we cannot change the cards we’re dealt, just how we play the hand.” I’ve learnt to play mine the best way I can.

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2 thoughts on “The Psychology of a Diabetic Footballer

  1. Thank you, That was such a great read. My son is 13, been diagnosed 18 months. Just now has he really got back properly into his football as we really struggled with his levels . I’m going to show him the article , it make me feel more happy and confident about the future. I just want him to enjoy his football and play to the best of his ability

    Like

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