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James Coppinger: My mental health story

As part of #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, the Doncaster legend opens up about his experiences...

18 May 2020

James Coppinger never wanted to be a professional footballer, yet somehow he has racked up more than 750 career appearances over the course of 21 seasons in the game.

Sixteen of those seasons have been spent at Doncaster Rovers, where the midfielder has shared a pitch with more than 240 different team-mates and, at 39 years old, continues to contribute on the pitch week in, week out. 
Earlier this season, Coppinger spoke exclusively to the EFL about his spectacular career, explaining how he went from Sunday League to Premier League, before dropping out of the Football League completely with, by his own admission, a ‘small town mentality’ preventing him from taking his chance at top level. 
However, not even he could have predicted what 16 seasons at Doncaster Rovers would bring. The Doncaster era is where the now 39-year-old’s life changed forever and not just because of the football. 
As we recognise Mental Health Awareness Week, Coppinger is a player who openly speaks about the importance of having the right support network around you, admitting that seeking help at the right time made a big difference to his life both on and off the pitch. 
Despite his clear potential, Coppinger was struggling on the pitch shortly after signing for Doncaster Rovers and he couldn’t understand why. 
“I’ll always thank Dave Penney for what he did for me,” Coppinger said. Penney was manager of the club at the time. 
"I was doing well in training, but come matchday I couldn’t replicate anything and I just didn’t know why. I was struggling off the pitch personally, though I didn’t really know it at the time.”

In a bid to help Coppinger reach his potential, Penney introduced him to behaviourist Terry Gormley.

“I remember Dave said to Terry ‘I’ve got someone who I want you to work with. If you can change the fortunes of this player and make him a better player, I’ll buy into what you’re doing’,” he explained. 

“So I met Terry and I remember just thinking ‘wow’ after our first session. It seems over the top to say it, but it was honestly life-changing for me. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I must have been in a really bad place psychologically for him to have that much of an influence on me. Mental health wasn’t really talked about back then, but every time I worked with him my mind-set got better and I started to see a massive improvement in my life off the pitch as well as on it, which coincided with both myself and the club being successful.”

Of course, with success off the pitch comes success on it, and Coppinger went on to play a major part in a golden period of Doncaster’s history. 

Some 16 years later and Coppinger is still going, his name already firmly etched in Doncaster Rovers’ history books. He has no plans to hang up his boots and recognises his mind-set as his strongest tool and the reason he’s still successful today. 

"My mindset is the strongest thing I’ve got," he continued. "It’s something I’ve worked really hard on over the years – it’s not just a coincidence. I think that’s why I’m still playing at the age that I am.”

Determined to pass his experience on, Coppinger set up a business called Pro Mindset, helping young footballers improve their mental approach to the game.

“I actually set up a business with Terry called Pro Mindset, to help young players who need it. Improving your mindset is something that’s attainable, people can work on it and improve it - they just don’t know how. 

"A lot of people aren’t open enough to admit that they need to work on something or don’t know how to. I’ve always wanted to become a better person, whether that be a better husband, a better father, a better friend or a better footballer and that’s the sort of help I want to give people. 

"We’re all conditioned in different ways; everyone is brought up in a different way, functions differently and behaves in a different way. Everyone needs to be treated slightly different, but it’s massively important that people understand the mental health side of the game and how it can affect you. 

“Football is not just about ability. It’s not just about turning up on a matchday. Players that are willing to open their minds to improve their mind-sets will go on to have the best careers."

Research has recently shown that just one in three football fans regularly talk about mental health with their friends.

Over the past two seasons, the EFL has joined forces with Mind, the mental health charity, to help improve football’s approach to mental health and raise awareness around the country.

As part of the League’s charity partnership with Mind, 10 representatives from across the League have discussed mental health experiences, time in lockdown and advice for fans.

The films released this week are the first opportunity for some of the representatives, known as 'On Your Side Champions', to directly support the vital work taking place at Clubs across the EFL to raise awareness of the partnership, improve the approach to mental health in football and raise important funds for Mind.

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