Mind over matter: the female footballers battling themselves to play the “beautiful game”

Emmie Penkett follows Bradford City Women’s Under 23’s squad in their last few matches of the season and discovers if the sport helps or hinders their mental health.

Emmie Penkett

The beautiful game -or o jogo bonito– was a phrase popularised by the famous Brazilian footballer Pele. There is no other passion quite like the passion a footballer has for their sport. Players dedicate days of their lives perfecting their craft. 

However, there is a dark side rarely talked about in the sport: mental health.

Physical health is the main part of the sport. You need to have the stamina to play up to 90 minutes, the strength to fend off other players, and you need to have a balanced diet to fuel yourself.

You also need to be strong mentally. 

It’s not uncommon in the sport for players to give up on their dreams and quit. In some unfortunate cases, players have even taken their lives.

The Bradford city women's U23's wrap their arms around each other in silence. They are wearing their claret and amber kits
Bradford City Women’s U23’s squad observing a minutes silence for anniversary of the Valley Parade fire

Last March, a young American goalkeeper, Katie Meyer committed suicide. The reason why she did is unknown. The Stanford women’s soccer player was described by teammates and coaches as passionate and larger-than-life.

England forward Fran Kirby dropped out of football at age 14 after her mother died from a brain haemorrhage. Last April, she left the sport again and her club Chelsea. Her manager Emma Heyes told the press she was suffering from fatigue. 

During mental health awareness week, I wanted to uncover how these players deal with the pressure of the sport. I had the opportunity to follow Bradford City Women’s Under 23’s squad in their remaining games of the season in the Reserve Northern Division. I spoke with two players who have either overcome mental health issues, or are currently battling them.

Bradford City’s Under 23’s squad supports the first team. They are the players who are not quite ready for first team football but have the opportunity to develop their skills. Whilst the first team play in North Division One -the fourth division of professional football-, the U23’s play in the Reserve Northern Division.

The team was recently created this season and comprises of new players, young players who have worked their way through Bradfords junior set up, and a couple of returning faces.

Valeria Martin -also known as Val- is one of those returning players. She started at Bradford City in the Under 15’s and progressed through the ranks to the Under 23’s. “I remember winning top goal scorer one season. I think I scored about 38 goals, that’s more than one goal a game.” She reminisced.

Val stands alone on the pitch with her head turning right. She is wearing her claret and amber football kit. She has short hair which is washed out blue colour. she also has a tattoo on her arm of an anime character
Val observing the game during the Bradford vs Leeds match

Val was at the top of her career when she was 18, her coaches used to say she would go far and were planning to give her game time with the first team. Her whole world came crashing down in summer 2019. She realised a member of her family had been emotionally manipulating her since she was a child. She snapped one day whilst visiting family in Spain and suddenly started developing symptoms of anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

She was unable to leave the house due to her anxiety and she could barely eat, making her extremely weak. “When it hit me, my mind and my body just shut down. I stopped doing the things I loved. I stopped seeing friends and I stopped playing football.” She told me, her voice stuttering slightly as she spoke.

Val (right) talks to her coach Stephen (right
Val and her coach Stephen talking during a break in the game

It took her a year to recover and feel ready mentally and physically to get back into the sport. She started with light exercise at home during the second lockdown. “It was hard, every time I exercised I thought I was going to die because that’s what my anxiety was telling me.”

When the league resumed after Covid, Val decided to re-trial at her former club. Despite not being fully ready, she was selected for the U23’s squad and started training regularly for the team. “I realised how much I had missed playing football. I had to push myself so hard, but it was a lot easier as I have a lot of friends at Bradford who encouraged me to get back into it.

“Sometimes I would go to training and see how much better other people were physically and think I couldn’t do it. Once I got past that doubt, I got the adrenalin and the momentum back and I just flew.”

Val on the right side of the frame take a shot. The ball is travelling towards the goalkeeper who tries to save. Three players are running in the background whilst spectators watch
Val smashing the ball past the goalkeeper

Despite starting as a substitute at the start of the season, she quickly became a vital piece of the system. Whilst both the teams captains -Vicky and Katie- were away due to illness and injury, she took the captains armband and lead her team to victory on multiple occasions, including a cup battle that went to penalties.

Knowing the mental obstacles Val had overcome, it was a pleasure watching her in action in a league derby against Leeds United Reserves. Bradford and Leeds are known rivals and both teams are always desperate to one-up the other. The last time they faced each other, Bradford lost 5-2.

The Bantams were one nil down in the first half when they received a vital free kick. The ball was bounced into the air by her teammate Shareen for Val to volley past the Whites keeper and into the net. There was a loud cheer from the home fans as Val was embraced by Shareen and her friend Hannah. The goal helped secure the team a 2-2 draw, and the match became Val’s highlight of the season.

Val celebrates with her two teammates after her goal, her two teammates are both hugging her.
Val celebrating her goal with her teammates Shareen (left) and Hannah (right)

However, football isn’t always highlights. In the team’s final game of the season they faced the notorious Huddersfield Reserves. The Terriers had already won the league the weekend before by a landslide. The Bantams were unfortunately beat 7-1, with many players on team left mentally and physically drained. 

Football is a team sport, and Val told me how much her team and the coaching staff support her. “We all want to work for each other, and succeed. When they tell you you’re doing good and you played great, you reciprocate that positivity, it makes you feel special.” Val explained with a smile.

You can tell the team were close knit, even in some of their toughest moments they supported each other.

Ashleigh Storey – also known as Ash- joined Bradford City this season. She started playing football at school and with her friends on her road as child, but herself and her family preferred rugby. “We watch and support the Leeds Rhinos, but I’m too pretty to play rugby; I’d ruin my good looks!” Ash said with a laugh. Ash started playing football at around 14 years of age, when she joined Guiseley girls before they dissolved. She then moved to Leeds United girls and started playing with them for 5 years. She moved to Bradford this season with her best friend and current skipper Katie.

Ash has brown hair tied up in a high pony tail. She is clutching the Bradford city logo on her top whilst laughing
Ash joking around on the pitch

Ash is a self confessed class clown. When morale was low in the team, you could always count on her to crack a laugh from the team. She has an infectious personality and character, but she is also battling her own head and ADHD.

Ash was diagnosed around the time she started playing football. She was always known as cheeky, naughty kid at school who couldn’t pay attention. In high school she realised her behaviour wasn’t normal and at sixth form she began to struggle.

“I was struggling to sleep, I found easy things difficult and I was getting in trouble at school. My drama teacher helped me so much with my behaviour and helped with the diagnosis process. At sixth form during my exams I was given a separate room in case I got distracted.

“But, anyway, up the ADHD!”

This season has been extremely disrupted for Ash. She suffered some bad injuries in her last couple of matches including a sprained and a rolled ankle. A typical pre match ritual for her was to go see one of the club physios to get strapped up with tape, pester the physio for sweets, and then have her shoe laces tied by one of her other teammates before the warmup.

Apart from the injuries, Ash’s season has been a challenge mentally. Not only has she had to cope with her ADHD, but also with the pressures of bonding and fitting in with a new team, and a new club. “We started of the season in a bad way, struggling to get results, but everyone dug in and stuck with it and it started to show in our performances.

“Eventually we got our first win on the road against Liverpool Feds. We worked so hard and to share that with my new teammates and the coaching staff was amazing.”

Ash is sat on the floor whilst a physio massages her leg
Ash being treated by physio Amy before the match against Leeds

Like Val, another fond memory for Ash was the Leeds United game. For Ash, it was a challenge playing against her former teammates and coaches, but she rose to the occasion after being subbed on in the second half.

She took dangerous 1-on-1 challenges head on without backing down, and worked hard in defence to keep Leeds at bay. Like with all football players, she did make a couple mistakes.

Ash admits that having ADHD and playing football has it upsides and downsides. One of the many traits of ADHD is poor concentration. Sometimes she struggles to concentrate during training sessions and pre-game tactics. On the pitch, she finds her ADHD makes her frustrated easily.

“If I do something wrong it’ll frustrate me and I’ll wind myself up about it and doubt myself,” Ash explained. “It can also mean I have short fuse so I can be wound up easier than other players.”

Ash made a mistake during the Leeds game which lead to her taking her frustrations out on another player. She gave the player a tug on the shoulders leading to a chorus of “Ash, leave it” from her coaches and teammates.

“During games I have to really focus, otherwise I’ll let myself and my team down.”

Ash is facing away from the camera whilst tugging another player by the shoulders
Ash’s frustration sometimes spill out onto the pitch . . .

However, there are upsides to her ADHD. Impulsiveness and a lack of fear is another common trait to ADHD; this allows her to be dominant during games.  “I don’t really care, like I will slide tackle someone and risk being hurt but it won’t faze me. It excites me; if I get hurt, I get hurt, so be it.”

Ash finds football is a great distraction from normal life and her job. “Having ADHD, football helps me massively because my mind is always working overtime.  If I’m having a bad ADHD day -yes they’re a thing- going to play and train helps calm me down. I love being distracted so going and distracting myself with football with my friends is amazing.”

Ash during the game moving her arm in a circle to signal to her team to turn it around
Ash signalling to her team to turn it around

Val agrees with Ash and also believes the sport is good for mental health. “You get so many ups and downs during football, but it helps (your mental health) massively, even if you lose games, you enjoy yourself so much.”

Bradford finished their season in 9th position on the table with a total of 14 points. It may not look much, but for a new team who have only been together for a year, it’s impressive.

You could tell the team all wanted to see each other succeed and thrive in the sport. On and off the pitch, they cared for each other, and the coaches cared as well.

However, I can see why some players may become overwhelmed. The pressure to perform is often immense. Bradford City have an amazing support group of coaches and staff to aid the players in their queries and problems.

Val and Ash both show that no matter what you’re going through, and how tough life gets, there will always be better times ahead.