MY palms were really sweaty. That’s the first thing I remember. And my mouth felt incredibly dry. It wasn’t that the room was spinning, exactly. More like it was swaying side-to-side in quite a violent fashion. As though I was on a rope bridge in the middle of a silent storm.
I was stood on stage in Birmingham as part of the cast of Blood Brothers and I was experiencing my first serious bout of stage-fright. It came towards the end of the first act when I was playing the part of the postman and I had to tell the Johnstones that they were being re-homed. My words kickstarted Bright New Day – the big closing number of the first-half of the show.
I didn’t quite understand what was going on. I delivered my line but felt as though I was in the middle of a tunnel and could barely hear myself. My character leaves the stage at that point and it took all of my inner strength to walk off without looking like I was off my face. As I got into the wings one of the other cast members asked me if I was OK, such was the state I was in. I had to hold on to the wall and take deep breaths to get myself recentred.
One of the main things to do if you get stage-fright is to take deep, diaphragmatic breaths. Of course one of the other problems is that if you take too many breaths then you can make yourself hyperventilate or you can make yourself dizzy through too much oxygen. It’s a delicate balance, but I must have gotten it right enough as I was able to go back on stage and complete the first act.
During the interval I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t really feel like I could talk to anyone about it. What do you say, for a start? It shook me up in quite a big way and my mind immediately turned to the second act. The thing about the postman/bus conductor role in Blood Brothers is that it’s a small part in one sense, but it’s a large part of the ‘ensemble’ and Blood Brothers is a hugely ensemble case. Virtually everyone apart from the narrator, Mrs Johnstone, Mrs Lyons, Mickey and Eddie has to double up playing loads of different parts.
I was OK for most of the second act, spending my time concentrating on my breathing and looking my fellow actors in the eye. A quick scan of Google during the interval had taught me that staying in the moment is important with stage fright, as it’s when your mind is allowed to wander that you start to question yourself and freak yourself out. It’s best to practice what is nowadays called ‘Mindfulness’, but this was about seven years ago and that wasn’t overly prevalent back then.
As much as everything was going OK for me and I was feeling as though I’d got past it, I knew there was a moment coming up that was going to test me to my core. At one point towards the end of the show I played a prison guard who was supposed to stand watch over Mickey and Linda during an emotional scene after he’d been arrested (spoiler alert, soz). All I had to do was stand there and stare out into the audience. Suffice to say this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, with my mind racing as to what the hell had happened earlier in the show.
I wondered whether it was something serious. Could I have had an inner ear infection? If that were the case I would surely have been feeling dizzy throughout the show. Could it be that I had some sort of major illness and that was my body’s way of telling me? The symptoms I’d searched the internet for earlier came back pretty clearly as stage-fright, but you never know.
All the while I was just staring into the audience. Could they see that I was panicking? Did the front row know that my hands were clenching and unclenching, desperately trying to keep myself focused on the task at hand? Was everyone in the theatre ignoring Mickey and Linda and just watching me sway from side-to-side where I stood? My back was soaking with sweat as I left the stage, a two-minute scene feeling like it had taken an hour.
The worst thought that had occurred to me during my entire time onstage was that I might have to give up acting. How could I possibly feel like that every night of my life? The scariest thing was that it had come out of nowhere. I had been doing the show for about a year, performing eight times a week which, by my calculation, meant that I’d done somewhere in the region of 400 shows without it bothering me as much as that. Yes I’d had moments, but those moments were nothing like what had just happened.
Of course I didn’t leave the show. I went on to do it for another six months or so and never again went through that same feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. As an actor I have been very fortunate. I have never been a regular on a show such as Hollyoaks but I’ve been lucky enough to play small roles in The Thick Of It, The IT Crowd, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. TV, of course, is different than stage work and I’ve never had anything other than my character in my head during all of those bit-part performances.
What, you may be wondering, has any of this got to do with football? It’s an entirely fair question. Perhaps it’s got nothing to do with football. Maybe this is all little more than an actor being self-indulgent about the work that he’s done and the experience that he’s had with something psychological.
Yet, I listened with interest to the TAW City Talk show with the sports psychology consultant Damian Hughes last Friday (press play below to have a listen). It got me thinking about how in this day and age football is as much a form of entertainment as it is a sport in its own right. How little appreciation is given to the psychological side-effects of having to perform to an incredible standard on a weekly basis.
As with actors, footballers are asked to perform regularly and aren’t given any room for being below par. If anything, it’s a lot more difficult for footballers than it is for performers. TV and movie actors can ask for another take if things aren’t right. Stage performers will almost certainly have another show the next day, if not later on the same day. Actors are always judged, obviously, but I would hesitate to suggest that few audience members can easily identify what makes a good or poor performance. They’re certainly less likely to take to Twitter and say someone’s been terrible.
Footballers have their movements and decisions questioned by virtually everyone. It doesn’t matter your level you can go to the shop, buy a football and be in the park having a kickabout within half an hour if you fancy it. Unlike getting up on stage in front of thousands of people, football is something anyone can do and therefore most people have an opinion on the performances they’ve witnessed by the people that play for their team. The worst parts of society are also happy enough to tweet streams of abuse to a player they think has ‘let them down’.
My point, I suppose, is that we should probably take the mental health of players a lot more seriously. I personally will never buy into the idea that because they’re paid such vast sums of money they should be able to cope with whatever is thrown at them. If anything, I think it possibly makes that side of their lives more difficult. They live in gilded cages and often can’t spend time living a ‘normal’ life. Don’t get me wrong, I’d take the life of a footballer in a second, as I’m sure most of us would. Yet we demand incredible things from them without much thought for how they cope with the ups and downs of the jobs that they have to do. We expect them to be at the very peak of their game each and every time that they perform and I’m not entirely sure that that’s a realistic ask.
I know plenty of people don’t have a whole load of time for Brendan Rodgers but one thing he said has always resonated with me. He talked about “the weight of the shirt”. It’s a metaphor that I think really hits home. I, like all of you, am exceptionally aware of how long it’s been since Liverpool have won the league. It consumes me. It keeps me up at night. It should be the one and only target on Jürgen Klopp’s list of things to do.
I’m quite sure that it’s also something the players think about. For some, it is probably too much. Some players have a level, both as far as their personal ability is concerned and also their mental acumen. Playing for Liverpool might just be a bridge too far for some — and that’s OK.
They’re not going to turn a move to Anfield down as they will want to test themselves. But maybe when they get here they realise just what a huge club Liverpool still is, despite what our rivals may say, and they wilt under the pressure. Others may let it affect them briefly and then get on with the task at hand. Everyone’s different.
Do listen to that City Talk show, though. It will get you thinking. I’m thinking of getting t-shirts made saying, “Sit Down When You Punch”. Sometimes all you need is a simple message to make the point.
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