During Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, we have been speaking to a number of sports professionals and athletes. Here, we spoke with former Brighton & Hove Albion, Southampton and Leicester City midfielder, Dean Hammond.
Throughout the last 12 months, whilst coming to terms with a global pandemic and being forced to stay inside to protect ourselves and others, the conversation around mental health has opened up on a scale unlike anything seen before as society continues to try to understand how our own minds work.
Former professional footballer, Dean Hammond, has taken the opportunity throughout the course of the pandemic to open up about his own struggles, as well as align himself to the path he wishes to take throughout the remainder of his career, away from lacing up his boots on the pitch.
"Mental health can mean many, many different things," Dean started, when asked about the subject. "Something that is really important - and only something I realised once I had finished my career - is trying to understand yourself and being comfortable in your own skin, especially coming from a competitive world such as football.
"At times, it can feel like you're wearing a mask and you're trying to hide who you are or you become someone you feel as though you need to be to progress in your career and get to as good of a place as you can to achieve your dreams and then when the games finished, you've created this person that you're not. For me, that's where my struggles began."
In football, your career is only a short one, with many players retiring from the game during their mid-30s, leaving them to have to consider and plan for the long-term future in their lives.
"I thought I had it all figured out and I really didn't," said Dean. "I didn't plan to finish football when I finished and it happened simply because I was mentally drained. Physically, I think I could have easily carried on and could be playing now but mentally I was so drained from the pressures and expectation that comes from playing football.
"I had a plan to finish at 40-years-old but I ended up stopping at 34 so I didn't know what to do. I had a financial plan in place, which didn't quite work out as expected as well. There was lots of ups and downs and lots of challenges I had to face at once.
"One of my biggest regrets is not having a plan earlier in my career and I wish I found what I was interested in sooner. When I left school, all I had was football and I am someone who had to be dedicated to their craft and live and breathe football to get the best out of me and be the best player I possibly could. I think I did that to achieve my ultimate dream but what I didn't realise at the time was that there is a life after football and I didn't prepare for that.
"When I finished playing football, I felt like I lost my identity and purpose of what to do for the rest of my life. It was a tough transition that I could have made easier for myself by having that plan. Everything in life is a lot easier when you have a plan of the direction you are heading in."
Whilst struggling with some of the lowest moments, Dean admits he found it hard to open up initially to those around him, which made it a more difficult problem to deal with.
"When I was going through the low moments, I didn't open up or allow anyone in or to support me. Not my family, my wife, kids or close friends. It was only when I did open up that things really changed.
"Before, I would just paint a picture to everyone that I had everything worked out and I know exactly what I'm doing. When you do open up and do start speaking about it, it does help. It's such a simple thing to do as well and it helps massively.
"I've met a lot of new people that have come into my life over the last two years who have supported me, alongside my family and friends too. Meeting new people who have been through similar situations, i think thats where it really helps."
Football has long been known as a game which requires a certain level of mental toughness, which in turn has caused problems for athletes who have not had the confidence to express their emotions and true self. Dean believes that this attitude is starting to change however and different things are being asked of players.
"The awareness and the fact that people are taking about it is helping to change that attitude. I think its still there though. There is still a requirement for you to have a mental toughness or it's said that you have to have a certain amount of mental toughness to be successful in the game.
"Reflecting on my career now that I am out of the game, I don't think that you need that. You have to be focused, you have to be disciplined, you have to motivated but that can mean you can be all different types of characters. You can be yourself and you don't have to be a certain type to be a footballer and thats where we're changing, which is really good."
For many, the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns, have caused multiple issues and problems for the world who have struggled to adapt to the new way of life. On the other hand, Dean has been able to take a step back and make some life-changing decisions.
"For me, lockdown has been a really interesting period. Its actually helped me because I've had a chance to pause my life and really consider what I want to do with it and where my life was heading.
"For instance, I stopped drinking and haven't touched a drink in 15 months now, which has had huge benefits on my life and I never thought I would be able to do that. I never had a problem with alcohol and it never got out of control but I would drink to make myself feel a certain way - to feel like Dean Hammond again, which isn't good.
"I've changed career and got back involved with football after coming away from the game after facing up to my demons and challenges of leaving on such a negative note that effected me personally.
"The world stopped and there was no obligation to do anything and we all had a lot of time on our hands to communicate and speak to people, which for me felt a bit like therapy to be honest. Once I opened up a bit more about my challenges, other people wanted to hear it and for me its been very rewarding.
"Yes, there's been challenges along the way that have been difficult because everyone likes a bit of normality but lockdown for me might have actually transformed my life because it's helped me to realise what I want to do with it."
As lockdown looks to be coming to an end, it opens up the door for more opportunities and things to look forward to.
On this, Dean said: "Building awareness and helping to support people off the pitch, which is my passion now. Its taken me a while to find that but I think that this is my calling.
"I think if you're a happy player off the pitch, you will be a happy player on the pitch and if you can learn to understand yourself, it's only going to be of benefit to what you accomplish in football and I cannot wait to help in this area."
To hear more from Dean Hammond, you can find him on The Life Outside of Sport Podcast on all major Podcast Platforms!
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 email@example.com