Editor’s Note: This article was first published as part of ESPN’s Mental Health Awareness Week coverage in May 2021. Fulham have since been relegated from the Premier League.
Joe Bryan can’t remember how he felt during the best moments of his career. He only recalls those two goals he scored against Brentford in the 2020 Championship playoff final, which earned Fulham promotion to the Premier League and a £170m windfall, through watching highlights. Nor can he remember the emotions of scoring a wondergoal against Manchester United for Bristol City in 2017.
But he can vividly recall the moments mid-match in which he was gripped by anxiety, and that feeling of wanting to run 100 miles away from being him in that moment. There are mornings where he wakes up “feeling like s—“; those minutes are vivid, too. “I still question whether I have a right to be playing where I am, whether I’m good enough to be where I am,” he told ESPN. “I still question myself.”
There was a match he played for Fulham against West Ham in 2019. He remembers Michail Antonio dominating him, and the resulting anxiety. It felt like a headache that wouldn’t go away. “It was like being in a trance, a fog over your head.”
Then came those moments just before bedtime, preventing you from sleeping. “You’re internalising everything, and your brain is throwing up these scenarios that would never happen, and it’s like a snowball,” he says. “I realised it’s important to come out of your own head. It’s hard… it’s really hard to do that at the start.”
Two years after that West Ham game, he’s sitting on the Craven Cottage steps talking about how he manages anxiety and football. And how he navigates those mornings where he wants to hide under the duvet, but also the importance of talking about mental health.
Joe Bryan wants to help.
The mental toil the 27-year-old defender describes will resonate with many, but talking is a way forward. How some days you just can’t face the world. Whether you’re a journalist, janitor, footballer or fisherman, anxiety can be debilitating, a cloud of inescapable self-doubt. Then there are those moments where you’re unable to think logically about a situation; or the all-encompassing paranoia, which has this disabling fear. Then there is the peer vacuum of social media, where the odd negative tweet can throw you.
“At the top levels, the scrutiny is more intense than ever,” said Michael Caulfield, one of the UK’s leading sports psychologists. “All we see is if they have played badly. There is such little leeway to be any less than perfect.”
Bryan had to be told he had anxiety — “I was lucky that a physio… Natalie at Fulham, pulled me aside and said ‘you’re not the same person since you joined here’ — but he remembers feeling awful for a while.
Growing up, Bryan had one goal: he wanted to play in the Premier League. He started his career at Bristol City, the club he supported growing up, at 18, and dreamed of reaching the Premier League with the club. He’d never really lived away from his parents, either. He moved out of the family home at 21 years old, only to move 10 minutes down the road.
After consistent, impressive form in the Championship, Premier League clubs took notice. Aston Villa were interested, but it was Fulham who paid £6m for him in August 2018. He signed on Aug. 9, and two days later, he made his Premier League debut against Crystal Palace. He’d achieved his dream of playing in the English top flight, but instead of exhilaration came a feeling of emptiness.
“If you’ve spent such a long time working towards a goal, to achieve it and then reset, refocus and find another goal that means an equal amount to you is tough,” Bryan says. “It probably took me a while to adjust to that way of life. It was tough at the time, and I think that’s initially what sent me into a bit of a spiral.”
That West Ham game came amid a bad run of results. Fulham were locked in a relegation battle ahead of a big match at the London Stadium. They lost 3-1, on Feb. 22, 2019. They’d go on to lose their next seven Premier League matches. When he posted on Instagram in August 2019 about his battles with mental health, he chose a photo from that West Ham match.
“I just think you can see the look in my eye… I was concentrating on the game, but I remember that game being very, very tough,” Bryan says. “It was one of those games where you can’t catch your breath, everything’s on top of you, I had a headache, and it was a rare game in my career where I did not want to be there.”
Said Caulfield: “The number one topic of conversation among athletes is this genuine fear of failure. But if you use it in the right way, it can fuel you and drive you as many do.”
The exact moment Bryan started realising he was dealing with anxiety is a little hazy, but it was somewhere around that West Ham game. He thinks it was born from several factors. Fulham were bottom of the league, he’d struggled with injuries, and he was homesick.
“By the time I got back to fitness, we were struggling even more, and it was like a snowball effect — you might know this feeling, and others might too, but it gets on top of you,” he says. “The thing for me was… I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was feeling this way, and it throws up more questions. So unless you’re chatting to someone who knows what you’re feeling like, it’s hard. The club were brilliant with the way they handled it.” After that, the club connected him with their psychologist.
Bryan’s battle with mental health is not a unique case in football. Derby’s Jordon Ibe posted on Instagram in January about his journey with depression, while Netherlands international Gregory van der Wiel opened up about anxiety and panic attacks last November. Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has also spoken about how he missed a game through a panic attack.
The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) said in September that they’d seen a quadrupling in numbers from 2016 of their members accessing its counselling services, with the most common concerns centered around anxiety. The English FA’s “Heads Up” campaign, which launched in 2019, sought to change the narrative around mental health, by emphasising mental health awareness was just as important as physical well-being.
As we sit talking on the 100-year-old seats in the Johnny Haynes Stand at Craven Cottage, Bryan remembers another moment where he had a panic attack, at a hairdressers’. The other people in there were speaking Spanish; he was convinced they were talking about him. His body went into panic mode. “It was like that feeling where you’re walking into a supermarket and you’re convinced everyone’s looking at you because you have toilet paper stuck to your shoe, when you don’t.
“Most of the time when you’re thinking about other people’s opinions and worried about what they’re thinking, they’re not looking at you thinking ‘your T-shirt’s too big for you,’ they’re thinking about what they’ll have for dinner.”
Social media was also a trigger. He realised he could lose hours in a day just flicking through Instagram or Twitter, and used to have this “sick curiosity” of seeking out reviews of his performances on social media.
“I used to look at it when I knew I hadn’t played well, to see if I’d got away with it, to see if they’d noticed you were crap… I’ve stayed clear of doing that since I was 22.” But those external perspectives used to have an adverse effect on him. “Other people’s opinions of you used to be a bad one, but I don’t really care now.”
His mates take a screenshot of particularly brutal tweets directed at him; they’ll make joke about it. Laugh, compartmentalise, move on — focus on what’s important in life.
It’s more in everyday life where anxiety can kick in. “I’ve had training sessions where I’ve been running around, wondering if everyone’s judging me because I’m not working hard enough, that sort of stuff — or because I’ve had a bad touch, or a bad pass,” Bryan says. “Those silly little things: if you make a bad pass in training and you’re in a good frame of mind, you laugh it off.
“In games, it’s different. I did have that West Ham game, and a couple of others, but usually there’s so much adrenaline and more pressure on it. My brain blocks it out. I realised that in matches, I play better if I’m less tense. If I have a s— touch, the reality is if I don’t overthink it, the next one will be good. Like, if you’re walking along with a coffee thinking ‘don’t spill it,’ what are you going to do? Spill it. It’s the same in football. If you’re thinking don’t lose the ball, you’ll lose it. It’s about being as free as possible.”
He started to develop some coping and preventative mechanisms.
“People might notice I wear a piece of white tape on one wrist, it’s a bit of a gimmicky thing, but it’s about anchoring your mistakes into that and then at half-time you throw it away, it’s a symbol of, me throwing away all my mistakes. Bosh! I’m clear of it, let’s go in the second half.”
This technique is becoming more widespread in football. “Many of them have their own personal routines that they’ve have developed over the years,” Caulfield says. “I think there is a big difference between a routine and a superstition. A superstition is it worked last week, so you wear your lucky underpants this week. The difference in what Joe is talking about there is he knows and controls that process, week in and week out. That gives him a sense of control in a very uncontrollable world. He wants to have a better chance, rather than leaving it to chance, to play well.”
Bryan also distanced himself from social media, and he started being more open with his teammates about how he was feeling. “I haven’t really had therapy, but I just tell the guys, ‘Lads, I feel rubbish today.’ I realised you’re allowed to go to work and have a rubbish day because you feel rubbish. I’m allowed to go training and be terrible because something happened, which wobbled me a little bit.
“There are people around me who are open to me being a bit of an idiot at times because of anxiety and depression, but equally I’m learning to be there for them. Calum Chambers, when he was at Fulham [on loan from Arsenal]… I used to drive to and from training with him, and he always used to take the p— out of me. ‘Why are you always so moody? What’s wrong with you?’ Humanising the whole situation really helped. Laughter is a cure, for sure.”
This season has been tough for Bryan and Fulham. Their relegation was confirmed on Monday, after defeat to Burnley, and Bryan has had less match time than previous seasons with USMNT’s Antonee Robinson or Ola Aina preferred down the left. “I always say to my dad that whatever challenge in life comes up now, I’ve dealt with most things in my career,” Bryan says. “My challenge this season has been staying calm, not getting annoyed and just trying to do my work and use it as an opportunity to develop as a person.”
It’s a shift in mindset for Bryan. Having reached his own goal in life of playing in the Premier League, he had to reaffirm who he fundamentally was as an individual. “I’m aware that football doesn’t define me as a person. I love it and I’ll do everything I can on the pitch to succeed and to help the club, but I don’t define myself by my ability as a football player. There’s a whole lot more to my life than that. If you focus too much on what people think of you as a footballer, then it can be dangerous, that’s something the last two years have really taught me.”
These days, he still loves football and laughs at the memory of those two goals from the 2020 playoff final, though it’s interspersed with one regret. “I’ve always wished I could see my family’s reaction when I score, especially like the goals against Brentford, or that one against Manchester United. It’s something that saddens me, that I’ll never get to see them react to me scoring and making them proud.”
His Instagram now is a mix of books, happy memories, photos of his family, his dog, Loki (who is at home with his parents in Bristol), and messages about mental health. After that Instagram post back in August 2019, he’s had parents dropping him messages telling him speaking out has helped their children. That’s why he speaks about it — he hopes his openness will help others.
“I think the last 18 months with the pandemic have taught us — apart from that we should wash our hands more — that mental health is prevalent in society, and the more accepting we are of it, and the more we normalise it, the better,” Bryan says.
“That’s the message I tell people: it’s completely normal! A lot of people won’t realise they’re struggling, and it doesn’t have to be a big ‘Oh my God! I’m anxious, or I’m depressed.’ It can just be as simple as saying to a friend, ‘all right mate, I don’t feel good today and I didn’t want to get out of bed — why’s that?’ So, try something new — it doesn’t have to be a big life-altering event; it can just be a conversation.
“Talk to people and, if I can give people one piece of advice, it’s even if you’re not sure, just mention how you’re feeling to someone, and the likelihood is that they’ve probably experienced the same or know someone who has. So, if this can help someone talk to someone about the same kind of feelings I had, then I hope I’ve helped.”