It can be hard to take care of yourself during the demanding times in life. Whether it’s working on a big project, organising an event or looking after the kids; often times there doesn’t seem to be a moment to tend to your mental health. So how do professional athletes manage it when they’re in really high pressured environments? Former England captain Kelly Smith talks to David Lloyd Clubs about how she looked after her wellbeing during major football tournaments.

Kelly Smith headshot

What was it like to compete in a major sports tournament?
It was always of a dream of mine to play for my country in an international tournament, which I believe is the pinnacle of a footballer’s career. It never felt high-pressured. Instead, I went into major tournaments with the mindset that I worked very hard for the opportunity, and I’m going to embrace the game and enjoy the journey.

How did that affect your mental health?
Preparation is key to a strong mind going into a big tournament. Being mentally stable and physically ready going into any game is important. We had support with psychologists and coaching staff that gave us the tools to prepare for the games. We were given insight into sports psychology, how to manage our nerves, emotions, and fears.

How did the ups and downs of a tournament impact how you were feeling?
During a tournament you can’t get too high or too low as it could impact how you perform. If you win a game, you have to enjoy that moment but then the focus quickly shifts to the next game. If you lose a game, you have to learn from it and also quickly move on. The coaching team always analysed our games straight after so we could take the learnings away and identify technically and tactically how we could play better in the next game. You always learn more from a loss than a win.

How did you manage your mental health when incorporating something as big as a tournament into the stresses and strains of everyday life?
Big tournaments, such as when we played in China, could be challenging as we were away from home for 5 weeks. I was fortunate as my dad travelled everywhere to watch me play and it was a comfort for me knowing he was in the crowd watching me. It’s also important to try and switch off and relax when you are away. The coach always built in rest and recovery time and activities away from football. It can’t be football 100% all the time as that can burn you out. Finding that balance is key to tournament football and mental health and wellbeing. For me, I liked to get lost in a good book or TV series enabling me to completely switch off.

How did you take care of your mental health and wellbeing both in preparation for and during that time?
We always had a sports psychologist on our staff and we would work together as a team in meetings to be open and honest. We’d talk about how we were feeling. The psychologist was also on hand for anyone to have individual meetings if we were feeling low or just needed someone to talk to or for extra support.

How did you prepare to win a big match?
These are my key contributors for a big event: nutrition, mental health and wellbeing, hydration, focus, planning. When all of these were met, I was confident and performed at a high level. There was a lot of game analysis of the other team where we looked at their strengths and weaknesses to identify a game plan to beat them.
Recovery is crucial in tournament football because the games are close together and there is little time to get your body ready for another gruelling 90 minutes. The coaching team were mindful that the team must recover and give the right level of training in between games to ensure we were ready for the next game. It’s vital to eat the right foods and always stay hydrated during and after games. We had to ensure that our post-game recovery nutrition and rehydration was right to refuel our bodies allowing our muscles to recover quickly. Recovery strategies such as ice baths, light stretching, and massages are key to preparing your body and mind for the next game.

And how did you prepare for the outcome, be it winning, coming in as runners up or third place, or getting knocked out?
Being knocked out of tournaments is very tough emotionally both individually and as a team. For months, we worked as a team with the expectation that we’d win. That was our focus. If we lost in the quarters, semis or the final, it hit me hard. I don’t think I was ever prepared to lose. I always found the come down very difficult to deal with. I felt very low, angry, upset and thoughts kept running through my mind on how I/we could have done things better or differently. If you lose in the knockout stages, there is no grace period, the team are on the plane home the next day. Players will normally be given a week or so off after an international tournament to recharge and rest and then the focus will be back into club football. Being open with my friends and family helped my emotional state after tournaments.

How did you take care of yourself when the tournament came to end?
Going away on holiday was my go-to for the finish of club football and tournaments. It gave me the time to think and decompress. Being with my family and friends is always the best medicine.

Football players can often be at the receiving end of discriminatory abuse. Is that something you and your teammates have had to contend with in your career? If so, how did you deal with that?
The women’s game was in a different place when I was playing. Social media was just coming of age when I was finishing my playing career. After I retired in 2016, I went into the punditry world for both men’s and women’s football. I would get a lot of abuse on social media from trolls who were quite misogynistic in their views. This did affect me mentally. To combat feeling hurt and upset, I used the Twitter safeguarding tools so you only see posts from those you follow.

You were a captain during your career as a player and have now moved into coaching. Has that changed your perspective on looking after the team’s mental health?
My methodology is we are all one team. Football is a squad game. You can’t just focus on the starting 11 players, because you need everyone in the team to be focused and ready to perform at any given moment. It can be frustrating for players that aren’t playing or getting much game time, so I make sure those players are happy, engaged and ready to play when needed. My approach is to give all players the reassurance that they’re there for a reason.

How does competing as part of a team help with the players’ mental health, if at all?
Being on a team is a journey. You learn together and have to rely on each other to deliver the results. Reaching a common goal of winning builds friendships, trust and enables for a healthy culture in the team.

Finally, do you have any tips for readers on how to get motivated to exercise if and when they’re feeling low?
Whenever I’m not motivated to exercise, it is due to feeling low. I know if I work out, the endorphins will be released and I’ll automatically start to feel better. There is a direct link with me that if I am not working out, I’m most likely feeling low so I always build time in for the gym.

You can read more from Kelly in her posts: The Importance of Recovery and Essential Football Training Tips.