Not to be confused with pressure - nerves and physical tension, biologically combined wreak havoc with the human body. Yet its effect on the game remains abstruse. As an emotional concept, nervous tension is defined as a ‘mental or emotional strain’; ideas that football fans know all too well, as they head into the weekend. Closely tied to anxiety and worry, its effects may be more significant than we could truly appreciate.
Of course, we should distinguish between the ‘healthy nerves’ of a supporter prior to each game and those that a player experiences. I don’t want to go down the route of over-emphasis but simply feel the need to point out an undervalued entity. For instance, why are fans absorbed by negativity? Why is it that, even in apparent comfort, we fear the very worst in football? With players, why do some thrive and others not? When injury time appears on the board, be it three minutes or more, it can be met with a collective groan by those in the terraces. Managers have been seen to throw their arms up in frustration and the ground is then thrown into a cold silence.
Anxiety, which ties in neatly with nervous tension, has a substantial physical effect on the human body. Ideally, in sport, your body needs to be in peak condition. That’s why there are medicals in football. In an interview with the BBC in 2014, Dr Charlotte Cowie of the FA talked through the process of a medical. She alluded to the depth of analysis in a medical, noting risk factors with a long-term injury. Some more detailed tests would delve into MRI scans, blood tests and cardiac screening. The latter of which is now more necessity than optional.
One thing Cowie didn’t discuss was a player’s state of mind. If for instance, a Premier League side was buying an experienced professional footballer from another club at a similar level, their state of mind has probably already been proved. But if the step up is a large one, or if the player is particularly vulnerable and has little experience in the elite, are their emotions overlooked?
Physically, anxiety manifests itself in a number of forms. According to WebMD, a voice in health and medicine, anxiety triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response, something I will allude to with examples throughout this piece. Reactions include fatigue, an inability to concentrate, muscle tension and nervous energy; all of which can be associated with football, whether it be the players or the fans.
First up, the fans. In any tier of football, they are the ones who carry with them a range of emotions; the passion, the anger and the excitement. That won’t ever change. From the riches of the Premier League to Sunday League and parents on the sidelines - nervous tension plays its role in every facet of the game. How do we interpret it? We know of its existence, but do we fully appreciate its impact? I’d argue not.
Think of the family situation. A mother or father may take their son or daughter to football training for the first time. For the duration of that session, they are under the watchful gaze of their role model, mentor and idol. After all, any sporting kid wants to show off their skill, finesse and exuberance in front of their parents. The parent does their best to avoid burdening their child with pressure, which in some cases of genuine talent, is hard to suppress. Tension is rife. There have been interesting arguments about the case of competition vs the case for enjoying the sport, and in instances when the former prevails, football’s concealed truths shine through. Luckily for kids, it’s rare to be overcome by nerves and worry because the game is about showing off your skills and proving yourself. Parents revel in that.
Something you might be familiar with is the version of nervous tension in evidence at any football ground near you. Unless you’ve grown up with the successes of Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea, you probably go into each game with an element of doubt. An element turns into an abundance and frankly, it’s not unreasonable to propose that at times, we as supporters abhor the game as much as we adore it.
Football has a way of bringing out different personalities: the curser, the eternal pessimist, the fidgeter or the outburster. All are united by one thing; nerves. While the curser expresses his version through expletives and irrationalities, the pessimist may opt for the more conservative, ‘Oh this has got 0-1 written all over it’. The fidgeter tends not to vocalise their view, rather sits and shakes their leg.
Then you have those that remain silent all game until tension peaks. The outburster appears to bellow something, anything, usually an expletive at any given insignificant aspect of the game. These are the sort of supporters who leave the game 10 minutes before the end; our first example of the ‘flight’ response. The fidgeter, on the other hand, may well be quiet and shy, but if they stay until the end and manage to keep their hands from covering their eyes, they’re a case for the ‘fight’ response. You can probably locate yourself somewhere on the spectrum. True nervous tension plies its trade in the stands, the terraces and within the fans. We bear the brunt of emotion in football, but it’s all in good spirits (ish).
How does it affect the players? What separates the professionals from the amateurs? Of course, genuine ability and talent are the principal factors in distinguishing those who make it and those who don’t, but there have been strong arguments to suggest those who thrive in professional football are the ones who have the right emotional state of mind. I’d be inclined to agree. The players are the significant ones in all of this.
Let us return to the family situation. The focus is on the child who, naturally, wants to impress their elders during a game. Not only are they nervous with the sociality of meeting new people at their football club, but they must impress to be noticed by the manager and praised by their parent. Pre-teenage years, football is about enjoyment, exercise and moulding community spirit. You pay your subs and you’re in the squad that weekend. It’s an impartial system that doesn’t necessarily lend itself nervous tension because straightforwardly, it’s not about playing well; ‘it’s the taking part that counts’. You don’t need to fight or flight, you’re just having fun and reaping the physical and social rewards. Fast forward a few years into the u15s, 16s and above, suddenly the game is taken a little more seriously. If you play anything below your par, you’re subbed. If you don’t follow instructions, you’re openly the receiver of abusive ‘constructive criticism’. Suddenly, the football world is a solemn one. Players hang up their boots or demonstrate the ‘flight’ response because all of what made it exciting was soon squeezed out through escalated competitiveness and pressure. For what?
If you ‘fight’ all the emotional challenges required to ‘make it’, a game becomes a profession. That, in itself, is extremely rare. In this era, expert footballers are ones who have devoted their whole life to the cause. The point is, footballers who have made it to this stage have lived a life of pressure and coping with nerves. But there remains a hierarchal structure of nervous tension with the players. Think of the real elites in football; the Lionel Messi’s, the Cristiano Ronaldo’s, the Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s. Perhaps mistaken for arrogance, these type of player are so absorbed in self-belief that nervous tension could never come to fruition. That’s not arrogance at all, in fact, it’s a template for us all to believe in ourselves and our abilities - whether that be in football or elsewhere.
Clearly, there is a demonstrable instance of where nerves take the floor - penalties and England. Penalties are where anxiety summits to its highest peak. Why do, for instance, England crumble so miserably but Germany thrive so wonderfully? Because psychology and mentality mean more than we think they do. Football is a game where the mentally strong excel and the frail, fail. I say, ‘England crumble so miserably’ on purpose because those are the sort of words thrown around when we perceive mishaps as frailties.
The truth is, anxiety is just a side dish in an extravagant spread. Sometimes, pundits and fans might allow for nerves if the player is making their debut or is particularly youthful, but that idea has an expiry date. Why? Because being a professional footballer means you can’t afford to let your nerves show anymore. The next generation of genuinely excellent footballers seem devoid of self-doubt, so the leeway for nervous tension is minimal.
What’s next? Well, themes of anxiety and more constructively, mental health, are ones that are growingly deliberated. While anxiety in its most marginal form is part and parcel of the game, its full impact is one we are still yet to fully appreciate it. An understanding of it in the very roots of the game would be preferable, if difficult. There have been and will continue to be, players who abandon the game, whether at amateur or professional level because the stakes are too high. Semi-professionally, the game is taken too seriously and of course, the Premier League’s incentives are increasingly ludicrous.
As we enter times where mental health and sport are beginning to be discussed more happily together, rationalising football would be a necessary step in addressing nervous tension. Football fans, as tough as it is, must learn to comprehend that footballers, despite their wealth and seemingly fantastical lives, are often burdened by nervous tension, so much so that it leads to much more than a few pregame butterflies.
Mental health takes its form in multiple ways, which is why it is important that we tread carefully. However, we need not trigger fight of flight through unnecessary stress, we need to make the game about expressing yourself again.
If you've been impacted by mental health issues, there are a number of people that you can talk to, including CALM who have a freephone helpline on 0800 58 58 58.