As part of the EFL’s ongoing Team Talk campaign to encourage the conversation around mental health, former England international and current Watford FC goalkeeper Ben Foster joined EFL, club staff and pundits from the game for the virtual session to discuss the importance on raising awareness around mental health.
Almost 500 career appearances to his name, including eight England caps, 37-year-old Foster opened up on a range of important issues, sharing his own personal experiences, including his best and worst days in football, how being a goalkeeper is the loneliest position on a football pitch and his advice to anyone who may be struggling.
How have you found the last few months and how have you been coping?
“I’m a bubbly, glass-half-full kind of guy, and even I have had to remind myself at times that I’m one of the lucky ones because I’ve still been able to do what I love, I still get to go to work every day.
But I think one thing even I have realised is how important it is to keep a structure to your day, stick to a routine if you can and then just add little snippets to it here and there where you can, find a hobby and maybe build on it if you can.
A really random one for me is, I used to collect trainers; I had a ridiculous collection but fell out of love with it. I’ve picked that up again now during lockdown, I’m looking into stuff on the internet and finding out all sorts, I’m doing a lot of reading, I’m keeping myself motived and it’s those little things.
A lot of people might be feeling lonely at the moment, or miss going out to work or being in contact with other people, sometimes similar to when a player is injured or out of the team in football, are there useful things we can learn from you about how to manage those feelings psychologically?
“Definitely, I’m injured at the moment and there are still a lot of things I can still do to keep fit, but I can’t go out on a Saturday afternoon at the moment at 3pm, which is what I’m used to doing and that’s what I live for.
“But I’ve found other things to help me with that motivation. I’ve dived into cycling, I’ve written my own training plan, I’ve written up the data… you have to make the most of everything. And I think once you accept that it may not be the way you want or it may not be the most ideal situation, you work around it and make the most of it.”
In terms of setting your own goals and targets, how much of that comes from you and how much comes from the club and the coaches?
“As an older goalkeeper, I’m almost left to my own devices a bit. I know my body and know what I should and shouldn’t be doing, so I’m left to keep myself fit to an extent. I love learning about why we do difference exercises and how it benefits you. When I do train with the lads, and I’ll happily get involved, I’ll stay as far away from the running as possible! It’s important to have someone there that’s chatty and that can glue people together, and I’m definitely that guy. I’ll happily chat to anyone!”
And is what people say about a goalkeeper being a lonely position a cliche or does that ring true for you?
“It’s the loneliest position, without a doubt. I’ve only learned to really enjoy it over the last six or seven years; if I make a mistake, everyone will be talking about it and it’ll be a meme within minutes. That’s the life of a goalkeeper. But I have mechanisms to fall back on, I was very lucky when I was a bit younger to be introduced to a sports psychologist who set in motion for me a number of mechanisms to fall back on, learn from and understand.
“I realise now why things happen the way they do, and you can’t go into a game thinking ‘don’t make a mistake’. Instead, I now think ‘I’m going to save these boys today’. I’d recommend looking into sports psychology because it’s really interesting.”
Is being positive a trait that you were born with or is that something that you’ve had to work on over time?
“My dad is a really upbeat person and I’ve sort of followed in his footsteps. My wife is brilliant to bounce off, too. She studied psychology at university and she knows when I’m down and will ask me what’s up; before it comes to a head, it’s best to talk about things. It’s the best way of doing it, without a doubt.”
When you feel such pressures or have those down moments, how important is it to unload and talk about it to get it off your chest?
“You need to think of what your team is, it might be your family or friends, but you need to find your team and you then need to progress that team by being honest with each other. If I’ve had a bad day, I don’t want to come home and impress that on my wife and kids, everyone has to help each other to make it a happier household or workplace, whatever it may be.”
As such an experienced goalkeeper in football, you’ve experienced lots of ups and some downs as well. What was your worst period in football and how did you get through that?
“My worst period as a player was my last year at [Manchester] United. I was thrust into the team and it didn’t work out for me, I couldn’t handle the pressure of playing for a team like Manchester United because I wasn’t equipped with that ability.
“No-one had ever taught me how to deal with everything that came with playing football, I just wasn’t equipped for it and it ruined me. Not just as a footballer but as a person, I was a shell of the person I am now. It was the worst part of my career but also the biggest learning going forward. I got to witness the Fergie hairdryer first-hand, it was horrific but the best thing for me. I was probably 25 or 26 and still wasn’t a man, I didn’t understand how it worked. If I saw it today, I’d be over to that player putting my arm around him and saying ‘this is why it happened’, hoping that they’d learn from it.”
What would the 37-year-old Ben Foster say to the 25-year-old Ben Foster to get through that difficult time for you?
“The biggest advice I’d give to anyone in life is to be comfortable in your own skin. I’ve embraced the way I am now, and that’s all there is to it. I know I’m a nice guy and not an idiot, and if someone can’t take me for who I am, that’s probably their problem and not mine. At the training ground, I put my cycling kit on and I’m walking around in lycra and no-one bats an eyelid because I don’t care. Just be comfortable with who you are as a person.”
There’s still a stigma around mens mental health, what would you say to encourage men to speak out about their feelings and mental health?
“It’s getting better. Even at our place, the initial lockdown was tough but this one has taken its toll on people I think. Senior players that are 29 or 30 will say to me in the changing room that they’re struggling, and so it is getting better because 10 or 15 years ago that wasn’t happening.
“All I can say is that hopefully the senior members, those in positions of power, they’re the ones trying to start that conversation now. We all feel it, you can’t not, it’s a really hard time at the moment, but just start the conversation, it’s okay to do that, it’s the norm.
“I’m lucky I get to go to work every day, but my wife is home-schooling every day and to me that would be the hardest job of all. As long as those in positions of power are talking freely, it will become the norm I think.”
All 72 EFL Clubs are supporting the campaign, with many holding similar events in recent weeks in a bid to urge supporters to talk and stay connected during what is a difficult time.
Mind's full 10-year report can be found here.