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Football’s biggest issue: The mental pressures facing academy players

Eno Nto, an 18-year-old former Derby Academy player coming to the end year of school with the thrilling US Soccer Scholarship opportunity in the not so distant future, spoke to us about protecting his mental wellbeing.

What is your first memory of football?

My first memory of football is me playing in the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ in Dubai, which doubled as my back garden, our first summer living there over ten years ago. Myself, my young brother and three of our new friends playing bare foot on concrete, trying to recreate skills and goals we had watched.

Although, it was only five of us playing, the games were intensified by stubbed toes and the unforgiving temperatures, when the sun subsided, we continued playing even having broken all the backyard lights.

I feel in love with the game watching the under-17’s World Cup held in Dubai, seeing boys practically my age playing with confidence and flair, representing Nigeria and winning the tournament; I can say that was the moment a decision was made to make it my reality.

How did you get into the Derby Academy and what was your relationship with football like?

I was having the time of my life with football, my confidence in my abilities was second to none, so much so that I was scouted by Wolves after freestyling and challenging spectators to panna ‘nutmeg’ games at my cousin’s tournament (which I wasn’t even playing in). I had returned to England and moved to a boarding school in the Midlands, so I could complete my trial. However, while playing in a game for the boarding school, I was spotted by Derby who invited me to come for some sessions as they were closer than Wolves, two weeks later I was offered to sign my schoolboy forms.

“At that time, football had helped me settle in and make friends in a new school, and to some extent what felt like a new country. Outside of school, I was now seeing a professional academy for the first time, a distant dream from playing Saturday league in Dubai. The thrill of playing premier league academies on a weekly basis, I was allowed to express myself freely. I enjoyed football, there was no pressure on me, I had no academy experience before I was 14, so there wasn’t this expectation on me from myself or from my team.

How important has a strong support network in the UK been?

Coming back to the UK, to a boarding school at that and living thousands of miles away from your family are obstacles not every 12-year-old child goes through, but I had to. However, knowing that your classmates are experiencing this very challenge you begin to create bonds with each other. I believe you attract what energy you give out, in that sense. I’ve been blessed with friendships I easily term family and to this very day, we serve as support systems for each other. Speaking of family, thanks to technology thousands of miles diminished by facetime and WhatsApp and during these challenging months, I have also benefited from positive conversations with my mentor Emmanuel Nare.

When did you realise the correlation between your mental health and your performance on the pitch?

Firstly, credit to Derby because the improvement I had there in such a short space of time had me believing that I could make a living out of this dream (I still can).

At 16, rumblings of scholarships and suddenly every performance is centred towards securing a full-time scholarship, a steppingstone to a professional contract. An attacking player’s game is judged on the numbers produced, a win on the weekend without an assist or a goal to show for it, I would be dispirited going into that following week. Over analysing and over criticising what had gone wrong, in contrast, following sporadic spells of excellent form, I remember feeling a heightened sense of accomplishment especially after positive feedback from the coaches. Like their words about my performance was a measure of my worth - it was as if I defined myself by a performance on the weekend. With the rollercoaster nature of the game I love, there was only a matter of time before this attitude would fault me.

How did you deal with your mental health at the time?

At the time I remember punishing myself for bad performances or sloppy training sessions by overtraining in my downtime, to the extent where it was more harmful to my confidence and physical state than productive. I neglected the importance of investing time into pampering my mental health and started to feel an element of imposter syndrome. I remember fooling myself into thinking all it takes is one goal and this all reverses, not knowing it’s a deeper fix than that. It wasn’t until I found myself consecutively out the squad and overtraining myself to injury that I realised I was doing something wrong.

What’s changed on how you deal with it now?

Now I realise the importance of prioritising mental health and a strong positive mindset. One of my major changes is my use of downtime: connecting with my faith regularly has let me embrace uncertainty positively, conditioning my thoughts in a way that replenishes my levels of self-belief.

“Especially in times like now showing gratitude in what we have, appreciating the loved ones and counting the many blessings I used to take for granted due to being so wound up over, 90 minutes. Some simple advice I live on; trust the process, control the controllable. By having your eyes set on the process and not the prize, you do not give yourself the chance to overthink.

Just like with physical injuries, there may be times where mentally we aren’t feeling 100% and just as it’s okay to express a knee injury it is also okay to express the lack of confidence or faults in your mindset. Just as you can do exercises to rebuild strength following an injury you can also work towards building a stronger mindset after dips in mental health and confidence. We have emotions for a reason, if we embrace them instead of neglect them, we can begin to understand how we can move forward again.

How have you managed your education and playing football at the same time?

Both my parents are hard workers and what they’ve achieved to date, career wise and personally, inspires me daily. I try and apply this very same work ethic in balancing my education and football which in my eyes work hand in hand. If my work rate in the classroom is subpar then how can I expect to work hard and produce the goods on the pitch. However, the help I’ve received from tutors and housemasters at my school have gone a long way in improving my organisation and time management. I really believe in the value of education, not only does it set me up for life after football, but it allows to learn and explore passions I have alongside the game

This article was first featured in Issue 13 of On The Front Foot Magazine.

Mental Health Awareness Week is taking place from 10 to 16 May and we have spoken to a number of professionals across the sports industry about their mental wellbeing. To find out more about the services Premier Sports Network and our charity partner Beder provide to help promote positive mental health across the world of sport, please email