Bafana Bafana and Dortmund legend Delron Buckely on the importance of Mental Health.
Delron Buckley has had an illustrious football career; playing for the South African National team 73 times and for Borussia Dortmund 61 times. The attacking midfield has had incredible successes on the pitch, but also has made amazing strides in dealing with his own mental health.
Buckley had difficulties travelling to a foreign country at a young age, and managing the titanic expectations thrust upon him. Buckley spoke to Varsity Sports about these trying times and gave advice to other athletes on how to navigate through the pressures and anxieties that comes with high-level sports.
Varsity Sports: Why is mental health important and how mentorship help?
Delron Buckley: Mental is important for an athlete when you get to the elite level. There is so much determination put into the sport, people are purchasing you, for millions and millions of Euros and Rands, to come and play for them. The pressure is enormous because the people all their money in to you expecting that you’ll produce and if you don’t, it falls into such a situation where don’t know how to get out of it.
You probably being bought for a lot of money, and you’re not producing. That becomes a mental problem that I had when I went to Borussia Dortmund. That’s why I say to many athletes that it’s very important that you have someone to mentor you, to tell you look, ‘ this is life, but you are going to come back, you are going to produce, and you are going to keep on going’ and I didn’t have that. At the age of 16, I went straight to Germany and was put into the German system. But the clubs at the time, didn’t have a highly qualified mentors to mentor players.
But now, believe it or not, if you go to Germany I think Borussia Dortmund has a mentor for every single team, from under 7s to the First team.
Varsity Sports: When an athlete is going through anxiety or frustration, why is it important for them to SpeakUP and speak to someone else?
Delron Buckley: I can only speak from my experience. When I went into that dark hole, I didn’t know which way to get out of all the mess that was happening around me. A mentor can motivate you to not take the wrong direction, pick you up and take you out of that dark hole, so that you can do what you do best.
Varsity Sports: On a lower level whether it be Varsity Football, or local club football, who should people be speaking to?
Delron Buckley: At a university level, or smaller clubs, athletes come with different problems; whether it’s things that are happening at home, which affects the athlete’s performance, to an extent where the athlete can’t concentrate properly. Then the coach sees the athlete not producing and puts more pressure on the player, and that pressure is a whole different ball-game in terms of mental pressure.
It’s very hard because at the elite clubs they are providing support but at the bottom level it’s difficult, because who do they talk to? We live in a society where you can’t trust anyone, where an athlete will tell someone something, that person tells someone else, and now suddenly the whole world knows that player might be struggling with mental health. Players at the lower levels are really careful not to tell somebody about their problems. They should try find someone that they trust, or a mentor that is willing to help them for free. Because a lot of these players don’t have the money for a motivational speaker or psychologist.
When I left (for Europe) in 1994, I was 16, I was playing for free and I was enjoying my football, of course I had my problems with school, maybe family problems, maybe other problems but I tried not to let these problems affect me. But I had lots of family and friends that I could speak to. But I had one thing in my head and that was to be a professional footballer and at the end of the day, nothing is going to stop me. It was my only chance to get out of where I grew up, because if I knew if I don’t make it I’ll probably end up being a gangster or be a drug dealer or even be dead by now. I knew this because of the environment I grew up in. That kept me motivated and kept me trying.
Varsity Sports: But even after success, you had frustration and anxiety, how did you handle those issues then?
Delron Buckley: When I first went to Germany it was 1994, I was still becoming a professional footballer, I had no family that side and the first years in Germany were really difficult. I was living with a German family that couldn’t speak English, not a word of English, so the communication was hands and feet, can you believe it? That was also mentally draining for me, after every training session, I knew I’m going to have to go home to this family that treated me as one of their family members but couldn’t speak a word of English, so it was make or break. But the good thing was as the years went past I signed my first professional contract, I started being recognised in Germany and then I met my wife, and that was another pat on my shoulder because when she came into my life, as much as my life got better, my football side got worse you get more famous, more money, you drive nice cars and people are jealous of you driving a Porsche or a Ferrari around, so my friends circle became very small.
Sometimes I wouldn’t play, or the coach would put me on the bench, my wife would be the one who used to cheer me up. Then when my first daughter was born, it was a different story, the minute you come home you have a bad day, you see your daughter all the bad stuff gets blocked out, and you realise because of this you need to keep on going.
Whenever I do motivational speaking, just a few weeks ago, there was some big athlete convention here at the Moses Mabhida Stadium and I did a speech there. There were lots of young athletes, top South African athletes, they asked me that questions and I said:
“One thing they must realise is that their career is going to come to an end, it’s not going to last forever and that they must enjoy it as much as possible. And if that time frame, you’re going through depression, don’t be afraid to speak up, don’t be afraid to ask for help. They shouldn’t keep it in if you don’t talk about it it’s going to affect them a lot. It can affect them so much that they might come to a situation where they might want to commit suicide believe it or not I never thought that would happen to me. And I was close to taking my life, very very close. But it can happen overnight.”
Varsity Sports: When you eventually went back to Borussia Dortmund, it was your birthday and the crowd started singing happy birthday to you, but the last time you were there, they were booing you. Was the Borussia Dortmund crowd singing to you a sign that things to do change?
Delron Buckley: It was a big moment, that’s why I put that story in my book, so that people realise that things can turn. Because that’s why I wanted to prove to the people in Dortmund that although I had a bad season, I was depressed, I wasn’t scoring the fans were booing at you. I needed to leave for a second and get my head free. And I came back, the tables had turned, if I had to return to Dortmund they would give me VIP tickets to watch any game I wanted to and the fans love me, so things do turn.
It’s like a storm, it’s not going to be a storm for a whole 12 months, it will come for one or two days and it’s going to end, and what comes after the storm? Sunlight.