20: The Anxiety of Football

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Whether you’re a player on the pitch or a fan in the stands, the highs and lows over the course of a football match test our nerves and pull at our emotions. It’s a unique experience where intense feelings are concentrated and heightened.

There’s also a parallel with emotions we experience in our own lives. This is especially felt by those who struggle with mental health issues. But football can often be an outlet and a comfort when we need it most. Aaron Wolfe shares his story of how the game helped him overcome anxiety and depression. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.

Whether you’re a player on the pitch or a fan in the stands, the highs and lows over the course of a football match test our nerves and pull at our emotions. It’s a unique experience where intense feelings are concentrated and heightened.

There’s also a parallel, with emotions we experience in our own lives. This is especially felt by those who struggle with mental health issues. But football can often be an outlet and a comfort when we need it most.

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James: Aaron Wolfe has always had an emotional connection to sport, but it didn’t start with football.

Aaron: I love baseball. I have always loved baseball and one of the main reasons I love it is it’s incredibly boring.

I’m Aaron Wolfe and I’m a screenwriter and podcast producer and I have a show called First Time, Long Time where I tell stories about sports for people who may not like sports.

Every day, practically, there’s a game throughout the entire spring, summer and fall. And it’s hours of sport to just kind of eat up my time and as a person who’s sort of prone to depression and prone to anxiety, I was like completely self medicating on baseball, it was my drug of choice because it would just sort of even out all of the ups and all of the downs. It just, like the game would start and I would just let it wash over me.

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James: Eventually, the affect of baseball would begin to wear off. But first, we need to go back to where Aaron’s anxiety and depression began to surface.

Aaron: So, my brother, Jessie has cerebral palsy. He was adopted when I was twelve and he was two months old. And we didn’t know right away that he had cerebral palsy but within six or seven months he stopped hitting the benchmarks that kids are supposed to hit and he went to early intervention programs and basically, eventually got a diagnosis from a neurologist that he has cerebral palsy. Which is kind of a specific type of brain damage which prevents good communication between the neurons and the muscles. So he has what’s called mild to moderate spastic quadriplegic, which means all four limbs of his body are affected - they’re spastic, so his muscles are tighter than normal - and he has the palsy which is this sort of tremor.

And as a kid, as a twelve year old I didn’t have too much ability to kind of wrap my head around what that meant and I also didn’t have very many skills to process it. In fact I had kind of the opposite of skills. My parents said, “you should go to like a group, a therapy group to talk about this”. And I just said, no he’s my brother, I’m just going to love him no matter what. And my parents were sort of overwhelmed by the situation that they, they just sort of said “okay, that’s fine, I guess you’ll be fine”.

And I was for the most part, fine. But slowly, as I got older things started to creep up. You know, this kind of weird mix of shame and associated sadness about being shameful. So friends would come over and I’d feel embarrassed that my brother just fell over or spilled something and then I’d feel embarrassed for feeling embarrassed and then I’d feel angry for being embarrassed. And all of that sort of turned inwards, I didn’t have really many ways to deal with that.

Eventually, all of that kind of turned into a big, dark pit of anxiety. Just kind of a constant feeling of the shoe is gonna drop, you know? When my brother was three months old he was this like perfect little, cute kid and then one day he gets this diagnosis and then suddenly my whole world is turned upside down. My parents are going to therapy with him, they’re taking him five days a week to various therapies and I’m suddenly kind of left in the lurch. And not to say that this is like “boo hoo, sad for the older brother”, but just - it upended my world completely. And that feeling of like “up-endedness”, it became - I internalised it, it became a constant.

James: And so Aaron found solace in baseball, which brought a calmness and steadiness to his life. But one day that all changed.

Aaron: My friend had just come back from a year living abroad in Israel where he was - he had spent tonnes of timing watching Hapoel Tel-Aviv play and he had become this like big soccer fanatic in Israel. And he came back and was like “Aaron, we’re gonna be soccer fans, this is gonna happen”. And I was like, “this is ridiculous”, like I have - I’m obsessed with baseball, I watch baseball all the time, I spend hundreds and hundreds of hours every month watching the Yankees and I don’t have any more time in my schedule. And he was like, “Dude, we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna be soccer fans.”

James: Aaron was resistant at first, but this was 2010, a World Cup year.

Aaron: There was the World Cup just sort of waiting for me and there was my friend, Ayal, saying “let’s do this, let’s get into this game”. I didn’t have any real baseline for what I should be seeing, and so it was fun and it was there, plentiful to watch. And at the end of the World Cup, a friend of mine said “hey let’s go down to this pub, down the block from where you live. There’s the New York supporters club for Tottenham Hotspur is there, we should go, you’ll love it, it’s great and they’re the Jewish team, we should be fans”. And I thought “that sounds ridiculous, I’m not going to waste any more time on this ridiculous sport, I have no time for it”. And I went back to sort of laying on the couch watching Yankees baseball.

Football just seemed too inaccessible somehow. But he dragged me down to this pub, called Floyd’s pub. And I walk in, having no idea what to expect and the place is packed, just elbow to elbow with people. And every single eye in the room is on the TV screens. And they’re terrible, tiny, old TV screens, it’s like not HD sports bar material. This is like a junky, divy bar. And everybody, they’re like you know, elbowing each other to get a good look at the screen. And the game starts and right away, just the level of attention that was being paid, I was - like the hook had already gotten into me.

Here were two, three hundred people in this terrible bar that smelled like underwear and cigarettes and stale beer. They were all just one hundred percent laser precision focused on these TV screens, watching these guys across the ocean play this game that I honestly, truly didn’t understand yet. But I just loved the focus. And then the songs started and this kind of camaraderie and laughter and then, I dunno, like I woke up six months later just sort of a complete fanatic of the game and of this club, of Tottenham, I just, I couldn’t get enough of it, I couldn’t stop, it completely replaced baseball as my drug of choice. And it was something about this kind of build of tension and release of ecstasy that was exactly what I wanted.

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Aaron: It was this way of experiencing anxiety, right? Like there’s so many anxieties in a football match. There’s, first of all the baseline right. It’s like the anxiety it’s gonna be a nil-nil draw and like you’ve just wasted two hours of your life, right? Like, that’s one level of anxiety. The next level is “oh my god, what if we lose?” There’s so many various anxieties and tensions, constant push and pull of tension. And then the release of a goal. That feeling, that ecstasy, that collective expression of joy. It was amazing. Like, the first time I experienced it as a fan, as like really wanting my team to score and seeing Gareth Bale score in the 92nd minute, there was nothing like it, ever.

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Aaron: Also, this community. This kind of, group of strangers that embraced me just because I liked the team that they liked.

I’m sitting at Floyd’s watching a game and there’s very few people there. And this guy sits down next to me on this couch and he’s English and he’s super excited because he’s just come in from London and he looked up where to watch Tottenham in New York and he found Floyd’s bar. And he sits down next to me and we share a pint in the morning and it turns out it’s like, his birthday and we’re like having this conversation. And we’re laughing and he’s asking me how I got into this team and I don’t really have a good answer and we’re talking and talking. And then suddenly there’s a goal we both leap up and he just wraps me in this giant bear hug. And I sit back down and my friend leans over and he goes “this is the happiest day of your life” and I was like “it is!”. Somehow it was. This was, this complete, radical acceptance of this stranger - by this stranger, of me, because of this club. There was just no looking back after that.

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James: Even in defeat, football taught Aaron a valuable lesson. He cites a particular North London derby in 2012 as a defining moment of his fandom and this newly established connection with the game. It was a match in which Tottenham led 2-nil within 34 minutes, only to lose 5-2 after a crushing fightback by Arsenal.

Aaron: It’s just the worst, right? And this guy just starts to sing behind me. This guy sings “I’m Tottenham till I die, I’m Tottenham till I die, I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Tottenham till I die”. And the whole place just starts singing.

And I just remember thinking, we have songs when we win, we have songs when we lose. We’re gonna be okay, this is okay. And it was incredibly soothing.

That game will kind of always live in my mind as the moment in which it was cemented for me. That this sport and this team is a fundamental part of my existence, its a fundamental part of my emotional wellbeing. Like, that the idea that you could sing away a defeat and take solace in each other, in a defeat. It was revolutionary for me as a person.

Baseball was a distraction. It was a muting of my environment and a muting of my feelings. It was a way of kind of creating a constancy for me. But football is not a distraction. It’s like a stimulant, I guess. It’s a drug.

By finding this community that was so accepting and that I was attracted to - like, it’s not just that they accepted me. It’s that we shared this vision of what it meant to be a sports fan and what it meant to support a team. And what it meant to experience a game, you know. Finding that is what kind of pulled me out of this kind of wallowing depression. It was inspiring because of the game itself, but it was inspiring because of the people I was watching it with and this collective experience of watching a football game.

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James: There’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, not just within football but of course in our society as a whole. But I believe the game has the ability to make a genuine and positive impact. And it starts with just talking about it.

We are all human and we are all vulnerable - and that includes the players on the pitch, no matter how much they earn.

So please, let's look out for eachother.

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James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to Aaron Wolfe and be sure to check out his podcast, First Time, Long Time. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Music featured in this episode comes from Podington Bear, Chris Zabriskie and Josh Woodward under creative commons.

And support for the show comes from listeners just like you. This is a independent, one-person production. I want to keep bringing you bigger and better stories each month and you can help me do that by joining the community over at patreon.com/byassociation.

For more from the show, check out the website, byassociation.audio. We’re also on Twitter, Instagram, Medium and Tumblr at byassociationfc.

Thanks to you for listening and thanks our parent site, 3nilfc.com, where we always love the game.

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