Tag Archives: Mental Health in Sport

Brentford’s Stuart Cashman on the role of the football chaplain

Sometimes it’s a word of encouragement, sometimes it’s a listening ear, sometimes it’s knowing when to just leave someone alone. The role of a sports chaplain is one that requires a well-stocked quiver of different emotional responses, and more importantly, knowing when to utilise each one.

These are the men and women whose job it is to treat athletes as men and women, to ignore the stereotypes and stigmas associated with the wealthy sportsperson and treat them as they would any other human being.

Stuart Cashman is chaplain at Brentford Football Club, and it was the opportunity to delve into a sporting world of varying emotions, of highs and lows, that enticed him to get involved with Sports Chaplaincy UK, the organisation in charge of providing chaplains for sporting institutions.

“Football, and I suppose any sport, is a very intense little world of its own, which just consumes people’s lives,” he tells me over a drink at the Griffin pub, which lies in the shadow of Brentford’s Griffin Park stadium.

“Knowing there’d be people with needs, people asking questions about what life is about, footballers getting injured, careers being very transient — I thought this was a world where people could do with a listening ear, where hopefully I could contribute. I come from a local church in Brentford, so I thought it would be great to be involved with the club in some way”

“I learn about what sort of things people are struggling with, what their issues are, what’s important in their lives”

He combines his one day a week at the club with his full-time role as pastor of Immanuel Church Brentford, but Cashman does not consider his chaplaincy post an “intrusion on the day job.” In fact, the opposite is true.

“A lot of what I do is listening to people,” he says, “trying to help them navigate life and find the truth, and so [working with the club] is good for me because I learn about what sort of things people are struggling with, what their issues are, what’s important and not important in their lives.

“That keeps me sharp in how I help them to see something that I think is of even greater importance.”

Ear to the ground

Indeed, the word ‘listening’ is one that crops up countless times during our chat about Cashman’s role, his techniques, and his motivations. The job of a chaplain is to provide emotional support to all staff at the club, and his one day a week at Brentford’s Jersey Road training ground in nearby Osterley is a weekly carousel of conversation.

“I wander up to the training ground, and just talk to people. I chat to the first-team squad as they’re warming up before they go outside. I’ll sit on an exercise bike beside whoever’s on an exercise bike.

“I spend time in the treatment room, which will often have guys getting strapped up, or having a massage before going out. Obviously you have the more long-term injured players as well, so I just try to talk and listen to them, usually just asking how they are, how the family is, what they’ve been up to. Likewise with the physios and fitness staff.”

“I think players appreciate feeling like someone values them as a person”

It’s easy sometimes to reduce a football club in our minds to its mere playing and coaching staff. But this insight into Cashman’s weekly odyssey through the training complex shows how his role encompasses the entire club, from the lowliest employees to the loftiest.

“I chat to the people on the gate, I’ll wander round and see other people who are up there, the media staff, the ground staff — they’re the hardest ones to find sometimes because they’re off on mowers and things like that — the analysts, the logistics and welfare folks. Anything that’s got a pulse, I’ll try and come alongside and just talk to.

“I always stay out for lunch. That’s a good time to chat, over lunch. Players will have come in from training — coaching staff, medical staff, anyone and everyone. If you did a time and motion study on me, you’d think all this man does is wander around talking, eating a nice meal and going home again! Yet within that, there’s a certain amount of listening to people who want to talk.”

Therein lies the key to the work of a chaplain, and the reason why some 76 of the 92 football league clubs make use of their services. The reality is that there are footballers who want and need someone to open up to about their struggles or misgivings. Cashman has found their issues to be wide-ranging.

“Sometimes I’ll find out someone’s just been bereaved, or somebody’s had a cancer diagnosis within the backroom staff, and so I talk to those people, send them cards, send them texts and try and keep in touch with them.

“If they’re struggling with relationships, or if they are feeling frustrated, I’m a person they can talk to in confidence. I don’t work for the club as such, so I can be a sounding board. It’s those type of personal things which they feel they can’t talk to other people about. I think they appreciate feeling like someone values them as a person.”

Winds of change

There’s a distinct gloom lingering over Brentford’s Griffin Park on the dreary Monday on which I meet Cashman. A soft drizzle drifts down from the grey blanket of cloud, obscuring the stadium’s old floodlight pylons in a thin mist.

It’s just days since manager Dean Smith left the club to take up the manager’s post at Aston Villa. Cashman is saddened to see Smith depart, as it was the former Walsall coach who brought him to the club just over two years ago.

Dean Smith has moved on to pastures new at Villa

“He’s a great manager of people, and I will miss him,” Cashman admits. “I think he set a really positive tone at the club for how the players respond to people. Lots of people will miss him for that reason, let alone the results.”

“When I first started, Dean walked me around and introduced me to everyone, to all the backroom staff, then invited me in for a team meeting the following week to introduce myself to the players. Everyone knew I was there at Dean’s behest.”

It’s notable that the fondness he reserves for Smith is entirely based on the coach’s personality rather than the on-field success he brought to Brentford.

“He’s a fine man, a really nice guy. I remember the first day I went up there [to the training ground], he escorted me out of the office because it was my first time, and there was an injured pigeon on the ground.

“He went to try and rescue it and see if he could help it. I think you can tell a lot about a person by the way they deal with injured animals!”

While Smith’s departure leaves something of an emptiness at the club, Cashman does not foresee a downturn in the good feeling instilled there during his time as head coach.

“I think because we have such a strong ethos about what the club is trying to do, I don’t think it’s going to be hugely unsettling. Most of the players will have lived through managerial changes. Okay, he’s been there at Brentford for nearly three years, but many of those players will have had ups and downs before. I think they’ll just crack on.”

Multicultural

Griffin Park is about as English as a football stadium gets. Its four small stands are wedged between rows of terraced housing, its old and rusting floodlights stretch upwards into the west London sky. Walk through its environs, and you can almost see the ghostly figures of match-going fans, smell the pervading aroma of pies and burgers, hear the clip-clop of a police horse’s hooves.

Brentford’s Griffin Park on a matchday

But despite its very English home, Brentford is a club which has become increasingly multicultural in recent years. The club’s recruitment policy sees Europe scoured for the finest and most cost-effective talent.

Seven nationalities were represented in the Bees’ last league game against Leeds. Part of Cashman’s remit is to make foreign arrivals feel at home.

“I try and find out what they’re liking, what’s different, what they miss from home. Especially younger players, because a lot of the B team players are from overseas, and that’s hard when you’re a 17 year-old who’s just arrived from Finland or Iceland or Sweden.

“There’s a world of difference between someone like that, and someone like Henrik Dalsgaard arriving at 27 or 28.”

Does he feel a responsibility, or a pressure even, to help foreign players settle so they can produce their best? “Yes and no. The club does a pretty good job of getting them housing and stuff like that.

“There’s also a limit to what I can do, and I have to be realistic about that. I’m only in one day a week, but I’ll offer to meet up with people if they want to. There’s one or two players I’ve still failed to manage to do that with. I don’t feel a huge pressure in that sense.”

It’s an old adage that if a player is happy off the pitch, they’ll play well on it, but Cashman is wary of such assumptions. “It sort of works both ways. If you’re happy, you’ll play well, and if you’re playing well and results go well, generally you’re happy.

“That said, the first team usually has a very professional attitude, but I think it’s a little harder for the younger players because they’re still adjusting and they’re still trying to find out who they are in the football world.

“The days I go into the club when they’ve been on a winning streak, everybody’s upbeat. When things have gone badly, and the wheels start to fall off, things will change. It’ll be interesting to see what happens on Saturday in the first match post Dean Smith.” 

“I’ve come to understand the difficulties in the life of a footballer”

The wide ranging cultural and ethnic make-up of Brentford’s current squad mean a vast array of religions and beliefs are represented. Does Cashman find it hard to set aside his own beliefs when offering advice and support to those of differing religions?

“Yes and no. In a way, I don’t see their beliefs as being any more different to my beliefs when compared to the secular players who officially don’t believe in any [religion]. While there are vast differences, I have more in common with the Muslim players because their beliefs are theistic at least.

“It’s early days in terms of that experience for me, actually. Whilst I want to be able to facilitate people living out their faith, there are bound to be conflicts somewhere that I’ll come across.”

A rewarding challenge

Cashman admits that he has learned a lot about the world of professional football since taking up the chaplaincy post, and finds the job to be a challenge which he relishes.

“I think I’ve come to understand the difficulties in the life of a footballer. It’s not just a great, fun life, really. Wherever you go, the struggles are still the same.

“We’re all trying to get on with other people, trying to recover from disappointments. A lot of it is about where do I find my identity. If my identity is being a footballer, one day that’s going to go, so who am I?

“As someone who believes that the gospel is true, it’s a constant challenge for me to help people start to think through what they believe and what they think in the world of football. It’s helpful for me to think through how I do that, and how this gospel actually impacts the footballing world, in ways that people can relate to.”

To many, the work of a club chaplain may seem insignificant. But perhaps a problem we face as a society is how we regard sportsmen almost as a different species, setting them on a pedestal and demanding they perform regardless of their mental and emotional well-being. At the end of the day, Cashman says, we’re all more alike than we think.

“To be able to treat players in a more human way, where their identity and value isn’t wrapped up in what happened on the pitch last week, or how well they’re getting on with their manager, I think helps them.

“Fundamentally, we’re all human beings, we all deal with the same problems in life, the same struggles, the same joys, and so it’s not a big division between being a football club’s chaplain and being a Christian minister. It’s all the same goal.”

Click here to find out more about Sports Chaplaincy UK

Photo of Dean Smith sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Review – Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me

The cross comes in and, of course, Alan Shearer is there yet again, greeting the ball with his forehead to send the back of the net bulging. 

However, this time he won’t be adding to his record tally of 260 Premier League goals, nor will he be wheeling away in jubilation with his right arm aloft at St James’s Park.

Instead he’s at Stirling University in Scotland, in a laboratory, taking part in research into the impact on the brain of repeatedly heading a football.

The links between this intrinsic part of Shearer’s sport and conditions such as dementia are explored in his BBC2 documentary Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me.

The tests that the former Southampton, Blackburn and Newcastle striker undergoes are cognitive as well as physiological, from testing memory and reaction times to monitoring muscle contractions and balance.

Insight

Famous for his scoring prowess with his head – he notched 46 headed goals – it’s clear that the former England international has a vested interest in the outcome of the study.

The results show a decline in memory while signs of neuro-signal stimulus disruption of brain chemistry also becomes apparent. However, the tests are unable to identify what the long-lasting effects of repeatedly heading a football could be.

Shearer undergoes tests on his brain
Shearer undergoes tests on his brain

Still, it’s a brief insight which suggests that heading just 20 balls in succession does have an impact on the brain, never mind years of practicing the same repetitive skill in training.

The documentary builds towards Shearer’s moment of truth, where he agrees to an MRI scan as well as other neurological tests, to see if any brain damage has occurred following his 20+ years as a professional.

With his anxiety there for all to see, the cameras zoom in, paying close attention to the Geordie’s clammy palms. It makes for tense viewing.

Thankfully, he receives the all-clear and is told the results showed evidence of a normal, unharmed brain and for now, the 47-year-old can breathe a sigh of relief.

Emotional

Shearer also conducts several interviews, including one with Dawn Astle, the daughter of West Brom legend Jeff, known as ‘The King’ by many in the Black Country.

‘The most devastating and brutal thing I have ever seen in my life’ – Dawn Astle on her father’s decline

It was Astle’s death in 2002 which produced the first piece of official documentation linking the risks of repeatedly heading footballs with an increased possibility of dementia.

It was stated in the coroner’s report that “the cause of death was down to the repeat of minor trauma which was probably caused by heading something like a heavy football”. A verdict of death by industrial injury was recorded.

In an emotional encounter, in which Shearer comes across as awkward, but succeeds in showing empathy nonetheless, Dawn reveals that watching the decline in her father’s health “was the most devastating and brutal thing I have ever seen in my life”.

Other interviewees included John Stiles, the son of England World Cup-winning midfielder Nobby – just one of several of players from the 1966 squad who are struggling with dementia. Stiles in particular is in a bad way, currently suffering from the disease in a care home.

Degeneration

His son passionately argues his concerns, suggesting that if we do not have conclusive evidence then we should stop children from heading the ball.

This follows research in America, where a similar protocol was announced in 2015, banning children under the age of 11 from heading balls to prevent the risk of concussion and brain degeneration.

“Coaches shouldn’t be throwing missiles at kids’ heads until we know for definite [that heading does not cause damage to the brain],” Stiles argued. “If problems could have been prevented, then it’s a disgrace.”

The most heart-breaking story of all came from Shearer’s visit to Chris Nicholl, the former Southampton manager who gave him the first big break in his career.

What began as an endearing catch-up soon became an uncomfortable watch, as the ex-Northern Ireland international revealed his struggles with severe memory loss.

It was plain to see that Shearer’s concern for his old boss’s health was sincere, and on several occasions he challenges Nicholl to seek medical advice, although sadly to no avail.

Naïve

When Shearer speaks to the Football Association and Professional Football Association, it becomes clear there is a lack of funding and resources being made available to research the issue in its necessary depth.

Interviews with former England captain John Terry and Shearer’s former Newcastle United team-mate Les Ferdinand seem to suggest that the current crop of players and coaches are a far cry from being well informed on the matter.

At one point, Terry mentions that his daughter, aged 11, is now playing at his old club Chelsea, and Shearer tells him that girls are at a greater risk of concussion and brain damage than boys when heading the ball.

Terry’s rather naive response is: “In girl’s football, they don’t really head the ball, everyone shies away from it. So, I try to encourage my girl to meet and attack the ball so the contact’s better, rather than allowing it to hit you.”

Engaging

Shearer shows that, away from the pundit’s chair, he is capable of tackling sensitive issues in the world of sport and comes across well, throwing in some humour and not taking himself too seriously, which creates a nice counter-point to the seriousness of the topic.

He asks good, engaging questions and challenges interviewees with relevant research findings. Although with no conclusive evidence to suggest what the implications of repeatedly heading a ball are, I felt his assessment of overlooking the banning of heading a little disappointing.

He may also be some way from possessing the charm, authority and wit of award-winning television presenters Ross Kemp or Louis Theroux.

However, Shearer was able to use his head in another way to produce a well-researched, thought-provoking and eye-opening piece, creating awareness on a taboo subject with another winning performance.

Alan Shearer: Football, Football and Me is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.