Pre season has been underway for around 4 weeks now for most part time clubs in Scotland however I have missed the last 10 days due to being on holiday. Due to my occupation (teacher), this is the only time I can get away without missing any competitive games. Fortunately for me, my gaffer is extremely understanding – as long as I behave myself.
Perched on my lounger I scroll through twitter and find myself tutting out loud at the latest tweets from the many young spice boys breaking onto the lower league scene in Scotland. There is the usual “Buzzing to sign for (insert any team name), can’t wait to get started”, pictures of them in pre season games (carefully chosen so that they have a stand with some fans in the background) with the caption “Buzzing to get my first assist for ….” And even “thanks to @proagent11 for sorting out my deal at (league one club)”. Every single one of them is fishing for likes without a single ounce of irony. These tweets are almost always from younger players and it is something I have seen wind up older professionals regularly.
Then it swept over me. Who am I to judge? As soon as I have posted this blog, I will be refreshing my feed for the first hour or so hoping for more retweets, favourites and comments than my last. These blogs are really just a more elaborate version of the spice boy fishing for likes. And really, apart from winding up a sad 27 year old lad who spends too much time on twitter himself, what damage are they really doing? Pretty much nada.
Now I’ve watched a lot of interviews and read bits and pieces recently from older professionals or retired professionals having a real go at these young lads breaking through. The “it wasn’t like that in my day” brigade and the “black boots only” lads decrying the social media generation and the lack of discipline they are encountering as they try to make their way into the professional game. It is often cited to be the reason for the lack of top quality players we produce (heck of a jump). I have mixed thoughts when I hear these.
This may be true in certain cases and players coming through may be slightly mollycoddled at some clubs, which doesn’t help when there is a need to produce players with an edge and a winning mentality. However this certainly wasn’t the case at Livingston when I was there. The young lads’ cleaned boots, cleaned the stadium and were worked hard in a tough but caring environment. A lot of this was to do with the kitman (and pretty much every other job at the club), “Cheb”, who certainly engrained discipline and respect into the young lads albeit in a considerate manner.
The “back in my day” generation will go onto detailed stories where they were pretty much bullied, but it was all just washed off as a bit of “banter”. You had to be tough, brave and hard to survive and it didn’t do them any harm – in fact it taught them valuable life lessons. In their case this is probably true, I do not doubt that for a second. However, what about all the young players at that time who were just as good as these guys but couldn’t cope with this approach and dropped out the game altogether. In maximising potential, there shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach as people are all different. A no nonsense approach to treating young players might work for some but others may need an arm round the shoulder.
Despite the opinions of some individuals in the game toxic masculinity still exists. The player that shows emotion or requires an arm round the shoulder from time to time is still considered weak. This is echoed by what feels like a significant proportion of fans, who expect players to show no emotion when being pelted with insults – genuinely baffles me why they think this is acceptable behaviour.
This toxic masculinity does worry me from time to time. I’ve seen how it can negatively affect an individual’s mental health and may be a contributing factor to why several players I have crossed paths with are suffering or have suffered from depression. In football, we are still expected to be brave, tough men’s men. We have to stop whining and get on with things. I can see how a footballer can feel trapped but despite this I feel we are starting to turn a corner.
Although this toxic masculinity is most prevalent in sport, it still features in society as a whole and as a teacher I see this stereotype in young boys I work with. With these guys, it is usually the case that their parents have told them they need to be big, tough and hard. They have a swagger and act the big man on the surface but deep down they are just bottling up their emotions and it has had a negative impact on their mental health and behaviour.
Recently, several players have bravely come out and publicised their ongoing battles with depression. Neil Lennon, Tam McManus, Iain Russell and David Cox (who I played with at Forfar) have detailed their personal experiences which have raised awareness of mental health and will hopefully help educate those displaying ignorance towards this issue. Furthermore, the Scottish Players Football Association has placed a lot of emphasis on this area and released various videos and directives highlighting the cause. The sterling work of the Chris Mitchell Foundation has also had a profound impact within football and beyond.
I know alpha male comments made from retired professionals are not intended to be malicious in any sense but I feel it is difficult to not draw parallels from the “traditional” masculine approach and the high rate of depression in men under 40. Of course, there is a need to ingrain hard work, respect, discipline and hunger into those coming through the ranks but this should not be at the expense of the individual’s mental health. Toxic masculinity still exists, but attitudes are slowly starting to change for the better.
Useful links if anyone is interested in looking further into it:
https://cmfoundation.org.uk/ – Chris Mitchell Foundation
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTzLoOPx3W8 – David Cox interview
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LjCKzgQ2aI – Neil Lennon interview