How Trauma Manifests Itself in Football’s “Bad Boys”

By Kevin George, for soccology.com – Check out more of Kevin’s blog posts + information on Mental Health, Football Intelligence and how Soccology is continuously developing new ways to improve the human experience and change the world! Visit www.soccology.com

With the Heads Up campaign in football bringing thousands of more eyes to mental health, I thought to use the extra attention to diversify the conversation and focus on how trauma affects behaviour.

There are people all over the world that do not achieve their potential. Some achieve great things, but still, not what they were potentially capable of, due to trauma. In this blog, I’m referring to vulnerable and at-risk footballers. Footballers that are exposed to high levels of adversity in their childhood, those who get support but not the type of support they need. The clubs and the player’s friends tell them to do better, but they can’t, they ask the player what’s wrong, but the player cannot articulate their emotions.

I will focus on how trauma manifests itself within the footballers we see as “bad boys”, leaning on history, science and the biography of a former elite player, with the objective of developing empathetic understanding.

To give you a thorough understanding of how childhood affects behaviour in football, retirement and how football clubs can improve to become therapeutic hubs for change, I will use Jermaine Pennant as a case study.

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Pennant’s story is a representation of thousands of players that share similar stories to his. Stories of past traumas that unconsciously dictate behaviour in the present, especially when tough times arise. Behaviour that is often followed by being misunderstood and misdiagnosed.

Ironically, I started writing this a day before the Sky Sports News story (pictured) broke. Pennant and myself had planned to do a prison program together and I wanted to use his biography as an example of how we are failing the youth.

I knew and had seen things at such an early age that most adults will never see in their lives.”

– Jermaine Pennant

Adverse childhood experiences

Pennant and myself were in the same age group during our football years, so we played against each other when he was at Arsenal, and I was at Charlton Athletic during our youth team days. Years later, I stayed at his apartment when he played for Birmingham City and I was on trial at Walsall. He is a fun and happy-go-lucky guy. I knew little about Pennant’s childhood, as it wasn’t something that we had spoken about. Pretty much like most connections in football.

I began to get curious about his childhood when I created Soccology, so when he released his biography, ‘Mental’ I was keen to read it. After reading the book, I had learnt that Pennant’s experiences consisted of –

  1. Being abandoned by his mum
  2. Being told his mum was dead only to find out she was still alive.
  3. Dad selling drugs.
  4. Dad being addicted to drugs.
  5. Being neglected by dad.
  6. Pennant being exposed to gang culture.
  7. Witnessing a murder and questioned in relation to it, at fourteen.
  8. Racially abused by grandmother.
  9. Left to bring himself up.

And more!

“There’s a lot of stuff that I bottled up through my family, a lot of issues and anything to do with emotion. I had no one to turn to, no one to talk it through with. Most kids have a mum or a dad to talk things through and say, ‘Mum, this happened. Can you help? I had none of that.”

– Jermaine Pennant

Adverse childhood experiences can plague a life for decades. In 1995 there was a study carried out among 17,500 middle-class Americans in San Francisco. The study looked at the different types of adversity children were exposed to, from physical abuse to a family member going to prison. The study was to assess the impact childhood adversity has on health and behaviour in adult life.

The study is called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), I had the pleasure of being sent documentation on the ACE Study by one of the co-creators Dr Vincent Felitti. Reading through the ACE Study helped me to have a clearer understanding of how multiple traumas affect an individual. More specifically to football, it helped me to understand why those given multiple chances, struggle to make good use of them.

When you fill out the adversity questionnaire for the ACE Study, for each adverse experience you get one point/one ACE. After gathering data from the study, Dr Felitti and co-creator Dr Robert Anda came to the conclusion that if a child is exposed to a certain amount of ACEs, they were more likely to be a victim of substance abuse, physical and mental health problems. For example, having six or more ACES (out of ten) puts you at risk of being 4600% times more likely to be addicted to substances and 3150% to take your own life. When I read Pennant’s book a few months back, from memory I can say that he has five ACEs, if I were to go through his book again, with the intention of looking for ACEs, I’m sure I would find more.

The Science

Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the malleability of our brains, due to our brains being constantly shaped by our experiences. Our brains have billions of neurons that constantly transmit information from the environments we are exposed to, every thought or emotion creates a neural pathway, and with each thought, we create a new way of being. The new neural connections change the structure of our brain.

This is great if we are in a loving and safe environment. If exposed to unpredictable and high levels of stress, the brain will produce adrenaline and cortisol from our adrenal glands. Affecting functionality in the brain, as cortisol is toxic to developing neural networks, creating problems for nerve cells as they try to connect. The adrenaline (neuro-transmitter) also confuses the neural networks. Young people exposed to different types of adversity, have the development of their neural networks stunted.

  • How does this affect physical health? There’s a higher risk of terminal diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
  • How does this affect mental health? There’s a higher risk of being depressed and anxious.
  • How does this affect behaviour? More likely to participate in high-risk behaviour and find it difficult to regulate emotions, leading to aggressive behaviour, failure to adhere to boundaries etc.

What the ACE Study and neuroscience reveals, is that our opinion, money or a football contract doesn’t mean much when it comes to housing trauma. When adversity gets exposed to a young life, like other experiences it becomes part of that life, negatively affecting development; biologically and neuro-chemically. The negative effects can be reversed if treated as a health problem and not a behavioural problem.

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Frustration, given time, completely overwhelmed me and shaped everything that went wrong for me.”

– Jermaine Pennant

A game of frustration

Pennant grew up without boundaries, boundaries to run the rule over his behaviour and deliver consequences, as most young people have. We, the majority take this education for granted, boundaries at home exercise the ability to manage frustrations and perceptual injustices bestowed upon us by authority (parents), giving us experience in how to work/adhere to the “system”. Being the majority, we expect others to of had similar boundaries, as part of their upbringing and for them to behave in a manner that reflects this experience. If they don’t, then they are “rude”, “mental”, “disrespectful” and a host of other judgements.

Footballers globally, go through a great deal of frustrations and perceptual injustices, daily. With the training grounds producing more wailing chorus’ than neonatal units, as players vent their frustrations in training and on the phone to their agents. It’s an emotional theme park!

They push their bodies to the limit only to be dropped, not picked and other experiences that see their career go backwards in the moment. They then become overwhelmed with stress that manifests itself in unique ways, ways they will be judged, criticised and punished for.

Pennant felt that he deserved his chance at Arsenal, although he respected the great players that were ahead of him, he was frustrated by his lack of opportunities. His frustration could have been simmered, if his behaviour was met with more curiosity and fewer punishments. His frustrations escalated into self-sabotaging behaviours, like partying and drinking.

Some need to spill out and some need to be contained

In therapy, some people see me because they need me to emotionally hold them. They are spilling out everywhere and they just want to be contained. Others are contained, too contained. From an early age, they have been told/taught to suppress their feelings and after years of doing so, they get to a point of needing to release them. They need a safe environment to emotionally expose those themselves, one that will take time, as trust will be a key element.

Providing the arena of need will help the person move towards being their true self, as a person and on the pitch as a player! Rules are for everyone but the best leaders look to the individuals and tweak the rules to their needs, whilst keeping everybody else happy.

Pennant played some of his best football under Steve Bruce at Birmingham City FC. He shares openly in his biography how he repeatedly got into trouble, yet Steve Bruce always picked him and he always produced top performances for Bruce. I am not surprised that Pennant performed well under Bruce and that he enjoyed his free rein. Bruce created an environment of familiarity for Pennant, he recreated his childhood. A place with little, to no consequences. Not to say that Pennant didn’t get fined for his misdemeanours, but he was still able to do what he wanted most of all and that was to play football. Freedom.

“Some people find solace in the chaos.”

I am not saying that you should allow the player to do what they want, but you must consider the player when setting boundaries. If I were to coach Pennant he would be given greater freedom than others and over time I would slowly enforce more boundaries. Drastic change doesn’t work, ask those that diet. It has to be small change over time.

Bruce’s treatment of Pennant isn’t a one-off, and Bruce himself may have been inspired by his old manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s way of managing his old team mate, Eric Cantona. Cantona would turn up late to team engagements and wear the wrong attire. Sir Alex Ferguson, known for the hairdryer treatment, allowed this behaviour because he felt that if he changed Cantona in one area, it would have a knock-on effect in another (his game). I have not read up on Cantona, but my assumption is that there may be a link to powerlessness/dysfunctional relationships with authority in his past, which may be the reason for the need to take control in other areas. Control during his playing career, being the need to wear what he wants and turn up when he wants.

Ferguson allowed Cantona to spill out in areas that were trivial in the grand scheme of things, to achieve bigger and more and important things. It’s a worthy trade-off that worked! Roy Keane speaks about Eric Cantona’s resistance to the team’s code of conduct in his biography. Ryan Giggs also spoke about seeing Cantona as the Boss’ favourite in an interview, and that if it didn’t work there would have been a rebellion from his team-mates. It’s a gamble for the coach but one they must be fully committed to, otherwise it will almost be certain to fail.

What Bruce and Ferguson did was provide buffers for their players, by tailoring the environment to their needs. Some of the best players, are the best because of their traumatic lives. Signing a player who has different needs must be met with a unique and patient approach.

Change represents chaos to human beings. Our whole world and everything we know becomes outdated and we become lost in something new. Chaos is a part of coaching. Working with different generations from different backgrounds continuously outdates your experience. This is a huge strain but it’s part of the job. A player has to play for a coach with different expectations and beliefs that clash with their own, this is chaos for the player, it’s also part of their job. Less judgement and more support provide buffers to both coach and player in the long run, absorbing the unneeded stress.

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“I didn’t get the support, the upbringing of a normal person who handle a few setbacks and disappointments. I brought myself up.”

– Jermaine Pennant

Lack of attachment

When you look at Pennant’s life, everything that he has got into trouble for links back to three points, his patterns have been consistently communicated through his behaviour, throughout his career.

  1. Failure to stay within boundaries
  2. Struggle to manage frustrations
  3. Pursuit of women (fill void left by mum)

All three in one way or another link to a lack of attachment, he never had a secure person to attach to and feel safe. He grew up in a chaotic environment, that he then internalised and projected through his behaviour.

“I just didn’t realise at the time just how much it would affect me.”

– Jermaine Pennant

I came to these conclusions myself however, when I met with Pennant to discuss the joint prison project, I shared what I had concluded from reading his book. He said with a burst of energy “you’re right!”, as though someone finally gets it.

The greater community

Football has people that work tirelessly to support young players and the environment is forever changing but I think more needs to be done when signing vulnerable and at-risk youth. In the Soccology book, I have a chapter talking about similar cases to Pennant’s, players that suffered abandonment, neglect and exposure to aggressive street culture. The same players ended up being neglected and abandoned by football.

There are thousands of Pennants, we see them in the form of Ravel Morrison, Nile Ranger, Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli and many more!

Pennant should have been seen as a high threshold safeguarding case from his Notts County days and had a support team around him from the local authority and mirrored by the football community as he got older.

Pennant was seen as a bad boy, when in fact he was exposed to bad things when he was a boy.

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What can football do?

  1. Respect the individual. I’ve spoken about how we can improve the support offered BUT we must wait for when that person is ready, and not when we feel it’s ready.
  2. Club therapists must help the player in revisiting the root of the problem to change how they see and feel about it, otherwise, they will either not survive in the environment or they will turbulently make it through their career and life.
  3. Coaches must liaise with support staff with regards to the management of safeguarding cases.
  4. Coaches to seek advice from support staff in terms of how safeguarding issues could spill out into the football arena e.g. Pennant struggling to manage frustration. A common case is transferred from an abusive father, projected onto the relationship with the coach, due to the coach’s aggressive style.
  5. Coaches to seek psycho-education. This blog is why I champion therapy being part of the coaching syllabus.
  6. Welfare staff must be brave enough to challenge coaching staff. If the coach is the problem, young players will need welfare staff to step up and represent them.
  7. Chief execs to invest in people development. Pennant was able to achieve many great things during his career, imagine if he was able to disempower his past? Football is big business, for a small investment in welfare you can get big performances and fees in return.

For more information on how to better support players from a coaches perspective click here, from a parents perspective click here, and on everything football from a holistic point of view, you can buy the Soccology book available at WWW.OWNIT.LONDON/SHOP at all major outlets.

Thank you for reading.

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Soccology is also now available as audiobook via Audible: https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/Soccology-Audiobook/B082MS7Z3L?qid=1586631286&sr=1-1&ref=a_search_c3_lProduct_1_1&pf_rd_p=c6e316b8-14da-418d-8f91-b3cad83c5183&pf_rd_r=WGZ7AZWTS4JSEW5EHVKF