Discussing mental health in elite sport. TFB interview: Mark McGuigan

Mark McGuigan is the Lead Mental Health Consultant for Willow Grove. He has experience of working with elite athletes, and specialises in the prevention and treatment of mental illness. 


Mark McGuigan has an incredible background in mental health support and rehabilitation in elite athletes and beyond. When we first approached Mark about featuring in our ‘Feel-Good Football’ series, he was nothing but positive and supportive.

Chris Henderson talked with him about his background in mental health, his love for Newry Town and some tips for what our readers can be doing to look after their own mental health during these challenging times…


Chris Henderson: Thanks for joining us, Mark. Firstly, how are you getting on in lockdown?

Mark McGuigan: I’m doing ok! I lead an Occupational Therapy Department in an acute mental health hospital and I’ve been going to work as normal, so there hasn’t been a huge change in my normal routine.

My wonderful wife Jess has been furloughed so she’s been doing an amazing job looking after our little boy. He turned two a few weeks ago. It was tough not having visits from his grandparents on his birthday.

We’re based in Norwich – my parents are in Ireland, and the in-laws are in Newcastle, but there’s been plenty of FaceTime to keep everyone connected!

CH: Tell us a little bit about your relationship with football. Do you support a team and what’s the best game you’ve ever been to?

MM: I absolutely love football! It was my childhood dream to play for Manchester United. But a lack of any footballing talent had a significant impact on that career path.

I was directly behind the goal for that Ronaldo free kick against Portsmouth

I really fell in love with football going to see my local team, Newry Town (now known as Newry City AFC) play with my dad and grandad every other Saturday. My grandad played for Newry Town long before I was born, and his passion for football was passed on to all of his grandchildren (although not his love for Aston Villa).

I’ve been to dozens of United games at Old Trafford and a few away games over the years. I was directly behind the goal for that Ronaldo free kick against Portsmouth, but the best game I’ve been to was Newry Town v Linfield in our first ever game in the top flight in 1998. It was a Friday night game and despite the fact that Linfield were an absolutely dominant force in the Irish League, we beat them 2-1! Unbelievable scenes.

We finished fourth in the league that year and qualified for the Intertoto Cup. We are the only team in Ireland to progress through a round of that competition.

CH: That’s quite an achievement. So who are your football role models leading the way in promoting positive mental health?

MM: There have been huge advances in recent years in terms of individuals being really open about the challenges they have faced. People like Danny Rose and Aaron Lennon have been really open, and Tony Adams has been remarkable in relation to the work he has done regarding addiction in elite sport.

Neville Southall is a huge mental health advocate. I’d recommend giving him a follow on Twitter to see the work he does in terms of promoting a range of causes who support individuals facing mental health difficulties.

CH: Tell us about your background as a mental health consultant…

MM: I’m a Mental Health Occupational Therapist. I qualified in 2010 and have spent my entire career working in in-patient mental health services. I’ve worked in secure hospitals for adults and kids (CAMHS – Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services) as well as acute mental health settings.

As an OT I support individuals to improve health and wellbeing through enabling participation in occupation (the activities, roles and routines of everyday life). OT’s recognise that engagement in meaningful activity can promote good mental health, assist recovery and help people achieve personalised outcomes such as being able to care for themselves, engage in work and leisure activities, and participate within the community.

I noticed some striking similarities between the experiences of my patients, and those of elite athletes who have experienced long term injury. Many athletes become incredibly isolated, and the inability to access meaningful activity (football, training, being around teammates etc.) significantly increases the risk of an individual experiencing a decline in their mental health.

There is still a huge reliance on coaches and backroom staff with minimal mental health training

I reached out to a number of athletes, clubs and representative bodies and it is very evident that the levels of mental health support in football, although they have improved, are still a long way behind organisations like the NBA who require every club to have several mental health professionals on their staff.

Even across the upper tiers of the football pyramid, there is still a huge reliance on coaches and backroom staff with minimal mental health training or experience to highlight and address mental health difficulties that an individual may be facing. Some clubs have amazing sports psychologists who do have the specialist skills to support players, but this is not consistent across all clubs.

The picture in women’s football is even more concerning, particularly with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic leading to leagues effectively being cancelled or scrapped. Female athletes have far less access to funding, rehabilitation support (physios etc), as well as effective representation across all levels of the female football pyramid.

I’ve worked with athletes who are effectively on zero hour contracts, and risk being “laid off” by their clubs if they get injured. This of course can lead to significant mental health challenges.

I recently formed a partnership with The Women’s Sports Alliance to provide mental health support and guidance to its members. They’ve been doing some great work in raising awareness of mental health, and providing support to their athletes across a range of sports.

There is still a huge amount of stigma surrounding mental health, and I feel there is still a lot of work to do to break down barriers

CH: Tell us about the mission of Willow Grove…

MM: At Willow Grove Consultants, we offer preventative mental health support to elite athletes who have experienced serious long term injuries, as the risk of depression and other mental illness significantly increases when an individual is not able to access their primary occupation.

We also provide individual consultations and mental health screening for athletes who are concerned about their mental health, and can provide targeted interventions, or signposting as required.

We also provide workshops for clubs and sporting organisations to improve the mental health literacy of their staff, and to support them in creating mental health friendly environments.

We often talk about the need for people to reach out to someone, or to speak to someone if they are having difficulties with their mental health, but this relies on the individual feeling safe and comfortable in that environment, and with those around them.

I feel that the athletes and coaches could be kinder to themselves

Ultimately, our mission is to support clubs and sporting organisations to become more “mental health friendly” thus increasing the likelihood that individuals will speak out and ask for help. By providing coaches with the knowledge and skills in terms of mental health awareness, mental health first aid, and crisis management, we are supporting them to look after their players mental health more proactively, and a more preventative fashion.

There is still a huge amount of stigma surrounding mental health, and I feel there is still a lot of work to do to break down barriers in this area, both working elite sporting environments, and society in general.


CH: ‘Kindness’ was the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week last week. How is ‘kindness’ applicable to elite sport?

There’s room for kindness in every walk of life. In elite sport, I feel that the athletes and coaches could be kinder to themselves. There’s so much pressure in these environments that these individuals can at times be guilty of not reflecting on the amazing things they have achieved, and the obstacles they have overcome. There’s more focus on mistakes that have been made, or the things that have gone wrong.

I also think that fans have their part to play too. Some people don’t seem to acknowledge that players are human too, and they can be really quick to criticise, particularly on social media. I think we should all consider the impact that our words and actions can have on these individuals who have sacrificed so much for our entertainment.


CH: That’s such a great point that when we think of kindness, we often neglect the notion about being kind to ourselves as well as to others. What are some of the things you do to look after your own mental health?

MM: I like having a really good routine, so being at work most days during the lockdown has been a great help. Exercise is so beneficial for mental health, so I go for a run 3 or 4 days a week. I also enjoy walking my dog every night and listening to some podcasts. There are some brilliant mental health and football podcasts out there – Man Marking is unbelievable, and Lockdown Tactics with Kris Boyd and Robert Snodgrass is hilarious.

Getting enough sleep is also vital, so I try and get to bed reasonably early every night as my little boy enjoys waking me up long before my alarm does. I’d recommend the Headspace app for people having difficulty sleeping, or getting some “pink noise” on in the background.

Spending time with friends and family is very important to me. We try to do lots of family activities, so at the minute we go for lots of family walks. It’s a good time to have a chat with my wife about mental health. It’s an area we try to be really open about.

I try to speak with my parents via FaceTime every day during the lockdown. I’ve also got two amazing mates, Chris and Nathan, who I chat with on WhatsApp pretty much every day. We try and check in on one another’s mental health, and I know I can always be really honest and open with them if I’m ever struggling.

CH: There are some great tips for our readers there. What final piece of advice would you give to people who are struggling with their mental health during these challenging circumstances?

MM: The most important thing is to acknowledge that these are really tough times! It’s perfectly understandable to be feeling a bit rubbish. We can’t see our friends and family; we can’t go to the football – it’s not even on TV; we can’t go to the pub; we’re generally stuck indoors for prolonged periods of time, and many of us are struggling to entertain kids who would normally be at school.

Set some small goals each day, like just going for a short walk, or doing something you enjoy. Don’t give yourself a hard time if you’ve spent all day watching Netflix, and don’t compare yourself to others on social media who are encouraging you to “use this time wisely and learn some new skills” or go run a marathon. Connect with loved ones, be kind, and just focus on getting through these tough times.

If you are still having difficulties, speak with someone you trust, and tell them you’re finding it difficult. It’s amazing how much of an effect that can have on your mental health. If in doubt, you should speak with your GP. I know this sounds intimidating, but GPs can put you in contact with so many different professionals or organisations who can help. You can also call organisations like the Samaritans for confidential support.


Get involved in the conversation by using the hashtag #FeelGoodFootball. 

If you are struggling with any of the issues mentioned, speak with your GP or reach out to the Samaritans here.

You can find Mark on LinkedIn. To hear out more about Willow Grove Mental Health Consultants, head to their website or find them on Twitter

By |2020-05-25T11:53:34+00:00May 25th, 2020|

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