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Football + Feelings - 'All or Nothing: Arsenal'

Although Arsenal are definitely going to win the Premier League this season (you heard it here first), the 2021/22 campaign was, unfortunately, not so successful: there were moments of brilliance; important re-connections with the fans; and clear signs of progress, but it ended in excruciating disappointment. It was a season like no other, not least because it was captured on camera by Amazon, for their All or Nothing: Arsenal documentary.


As an Arsenal fan and a general sports-minded person, I really enjoyed this series. While the format necessitated that it provided only glimpses into life in Arsenal’s football team, those glimpses were fascinating. What comes across very clearly is how much focus the management team give not only to the physical demands, but also the emotional and mental challenges the team face throughout the season - all three aspects are regarded as essential to the team’s success. We see players grapple with the challenges of handling the immense pressure of competing at the highest level; balancing individual identity and the team; juggling between personal and professional lives; managing disappointments; and coping with the loneliness that comes with moving to a new place (whose language you may not speak), away from friends and family.


Although some of these challenges are unique to professional footballers (fortunately, few of us have to learn to survive a press conference after a crushing defeat!), many are much more relatable. A particularly universal question we see all of the team grapple with is one about resilience, and how to build and sustain enough of it to keep going, despite significant obstacles. So, what can we learn from Arsenal FC about the ingredients that form the resilience-recipe?


THE PITFALLS OF PERFECTIONISM


As is the case for all of us, professional footballers make mistakes (especially those at Tottenham Hotspur). Responding well to these mistakes is crucial, because they have the potential to severely impact the footballers’ mental health. In episode 3, we see 22-year-old left-back Nuno Tavares struggling with this. Nuno is a very talented player, but he’s also inexperienced, and this led to costly mistakes in a couple of matches. In one scene, Nuno tells the interviewer, ‘I think about my mistakes, because that’s what stays in my head, not the good things I’ve done on the pitch. I think, in your head, you always think about what you did wrong in the game’.


Nuno’s experience of focussing only on ‘the mistakes’ is something very relatable: we’ve all been there (probably?!), and understand how impactful getting caught in that thought-pattern can be. It is important to give mistakes airtime: they provide us with important data, which can help us if we use it appropriately. However, if we do not accept them as a normal - albeit frustrating - part of the process, and do not allow ourselves to let go of them once we’ve reflected, we are in danger of entering a perfectionist mindset. A perfectionist mindset traps us in a cycle of criticising ourselves for falling short of an impossible task (not fun!). It stops us from being able to move forward, because it diminishes our self-belief to the point that we believe progress is impossible.


As Arsenal’s development coach Carlos Cuesta tells Nuno: ‘you are going to make mistakes. It’s normal, don’t worry about it. We’ll correct them and they won’t be repeated. Maybe you will make different ones, it’s normal’. The message is, nobody is expecting Nuno to be perfect. So, here’s the first ingredient in our recipe for resilience: holding reasonable expectations for ourselves; not demanding perfection; and allowing ourselves to let mistakes go once they’ve had their air-time (the semi-colons make this one ingredient instead of three, I promise….!). This doesn’t equate to never pushing ourselves, but to knowing when it’s right to give ourselves a break, laying a foundation for a much more sustainable way forward.


THE IMPORTANCE OF BOUNDARIES


The Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka is an important – and occasionally divisive – member of the team. During the series, he talks about some of the off-pitch challenges the players face, such as fan criticism. As he says in episode 5, ‘people forget that you are human’. Later that episode, we see Granit at home with his family, where he talks about how important it is to have that space as respite, away from everything else. A very different Granit comes out when with his family, compared to the one we see on the pitch – and it’s clear how important it is that both these aspects of Xhaka get their time.


While most of us don’t contend with an angry fan-base during our daily lives, boundaries are still crucial for our mental health. We need to be able to switch off from our work, and from the role we play there. Clear delineation between who we are at work and outside of it is essential for resilience, because it underlines to us the fact that we have value, purpose and things that matter to us as individuals, separate to our work. Without that understanding, we are vulnerable to being significantly affected by the ups-and-downs of a job, over which we may have little control (particularly true if you play for Tottenham Hotspur, who get battered everywhere they go). While work can play an important part in providing meaning to our lives, it is essential that we don’t neglect our human side, nor – like some of the fans Granit describes - forget that it exists. So, that’s the second ingredient in the recipe for resilience: clear boundaries and breaks.


HOW OUR SUPPORT NETWORK HELPS…SUPPORT


While the series gives insight into the individuals at Arsenal, we also learn a lot about how they function as a team, and how important this is for resilience. Episode one features the first of many moments in which Mikel Arteta demonstrates his majestic skill with a whiteboard, as he talks to the team after back-to-back defeats at the start of the season have significantly dented morale and incited heavy criticism from the media and fans alike (it was not a good time). Arteta tells the team how low he felt after the last defeat, but that he’s been brought up from that lowest point of feeling by his family; the support of the club and its owners; and then the players themselves: ‘thank you so much to all of you, because you made, in a difficult moment, the best week of my football career.’


Individual resilience requires collective support. As Arteta describes in this team-talk, we need to connect to others in order to maintain our own good mental health. This doesn’t mean asking or expecting others to ‘solve our problems for us’, but it does mean letting people in, talking about things we’re struggling with, allowing them to be alongside us during tough times. Nobody – in football, or anywhere else in life – can manage everything alone: as Arsenal show us, we all need to be part of a team. So, that’s the third ingredient for resilience that we can take from Arsenal: allowing ourselves to be supported by the important people around us, and to support them in turn.


Although few of us will need to learn how to succeed within the unique environment of Premier League football, developing and maintaining resilience are fundamental requirements for everyone’s good mental health. Much like a football season, our lives will not always run smoothly (and obviously, for Tottenham, they never will) – so, keeping our resilience muscles well-trained means they’re ready to help us navigate those rougher moments when they arise. It also means we’re better-equipped to enjoy the smooth moments, too, and that we are looking after ourselves well at all times. Or, as Arteta puts it in his iconic whiteboard illustration: to keep them both smiling, your heart and brain must be holding hands, together. Obvs.


A (less snarky about Tottenham Hotspur) version of this post appeared as an article published on Welldoing.org in August 2022.

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