The British gymnast Nile Wilson steps on stage and introduces himself.
In a broad Leeds accent, the 27-year-old describes himself as an Olympic medallist, the owner of several successful businesses, and the face of a YouTube channel with more than 1.5million subscribers.
Then he pauses — and, as if he’s slipped off the pommel horse, he begins again.
“I’m self-destructive,” he says. “Competing at the highest level of sport, I spent four to five nights a week at the casino alone. Once I drink alcohol, I struggle to stop for days or even weeks at a time.
“I believe both introductions are true for the same reason. What can be our strength quickly turns into our weaknesses.”
This is the dichotomy of sporting excellence.
By starting young, athletes are malleable.
Like gymnastics, football asks its participants to adopt an elite performance mindset from an early age. In general, those who turn professional in both sports have generally begun to participate before they are six years old, and are in systematic coaching before they turn 11. And at the end of that, there is no guarantee of a pro career.
There are consequences to this model.
Increasingly, this type of coaching means children are pushed into developing an “addictive personality”; a single-minded focus in which nothing is done in moderation.
Wilson describes this reality, flitting from the sporting (endless hours of training) to the innocent (watching The Lion King movie every night as a small child) to the more sinister (trying to drink more than his friends when out socialising).
“Elite athletes, often driven by the rush of competition and desire to win, certainly display behaviours resembling addiction,” explain sport psychologist Marc Sagal and addiction expert Ned DeWitt. “Their focus, discipline, and pursuit of excellence can border on obsession. These qualities can contribute meaningfully to success — but can also create problems like life imbalance or relationship challenges.”
“I brought the same intensity to a night out as I did to gymnastics,” Wilson said. “It was a competition, I wanted to win.”
In this context, Tottenham Hotspur and England footballer James Maddison’s eye-raising comment that he “likes to be the main man at a roast dinner” begins to make sense.
But as Wilson foreshadows, this mentality can have serious and even traumatic consequences.
“I’m obsessive, I’m competitive, I’m a risk-taker, and I’m a show-off,” Wilson summarises. “You can see where I’m going with this. It sounds like a pretty good concoction to create a champion — and maybe an addict.”
When it comes to football’s relationship with addiction, the crumbs are peeking out from under the carpet.
Brentford’s Ivan Toney and Newcastle United’s Sandro Tonali are both serving lengthy suspensions for betting (eight and 10 months respectively) — with the legal process revealing that both players were gambling addicts.
“The biggest game has started against an illness,” Tonali’s agent, Beppe Riso, said after the news broke. “Sandro is used to big games and usually he wins them. Sandro’s experience will save the lives of other kids.”
Nottingham Forest’s Harry Toffolo was also handed a suspended five-month ban in September, with the FA Commission stating the bets “were the result, at least in large part, of significant mental health challenges”.
Their experiences are not unique in football — players including Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Paul Merson, Peter Shilton, Andros Townsend and Dietmar Hamann have all spoken about struggles with gambling.
Other addictions are prevalent across the game. This month, The Athletic reported on the scale of tramadol use within the sport, a strong, prescription only painkiller which former Liverpool and England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland said left him suicidal. Earlier in November, Rooney spoke about his reliance on alcohol during his early twenties, while Dele Alli’s emotional interview with Gary Neville in July saw the pair discuss Alli’s dependence on sleeping pills. Gambling, however, is seen as particularly dangerous because it has no direct physiological impact on performance.
“Besides the horrific guilt, the next day I could perform to the best of my ability,” Wilson explained.
“The game has changed,” adds Michael Bennett, head of player welfare at the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) — players’ trade union in England. “It’s very much more data-driven. Gone are the days when you could go out drinking at the weekend, then play on a Tuesday. All the data is checked, from training and in matches. So it’s very difficult to do what you used to, back in the day. That leads itself to the possibility of other vices.”
Football is at the sharp end of wider problems. Research released this month by Ipsos and GambeAware shows that, amongst the general population, nearly two-thirds of problem gamblers (64 per cent), had never spoken to anyone about their issues. Though the overall number of gamblers between 18 and 24 has fallen, those remaining are far more likely to bet more than they can afford (42 per cent).
The Sporting Chance clinic, set up by former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams in 2000 to support players with various mental, emotional and addiction issues, had more than 35 players require residential rehabilitation last season, with over 50 per cent related to gambling.
In 2014, research from the Professional Players Federation, an organisation of athletes’ associations across UK sport, stated footballers and cricketers were three times more likely to become problem gamblers than other men in their age group. Eight years on, EPIC, a consultancy group specialising in problem gambling, said professional athletes were now four times more likely than others to develop issues.
“The modern footballer has no shortage of stress, pressure to perform, access to certain substances, and a culture that sometimes normalises risky behaviours, all of which might contribute to addiction and other mental health problems,” say Sagal and DeWitt.
These numbers are startling — and beg the question of why.
There is an increasing belief that the increasing pervasiveness of addictive personalities is a contributing factor.
When Kobe Bryant, one of the most influential athletes in history, wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune, he titled it “Obsession is natural”.
For Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Bryant, and his legendary work ethic, maybe. Later on in that piece, he expanded on that intensity: “I swore to approach every matchup as a matter of life and death.” The mindset he coined as “mamba mentality” is not so different at all from an obsessive personality.
Three years after his untimely death, Bryant’s legacy continues.
Newcastle winger Anthony Gordon, then at Everton, paid tribute to the 41-year-old when he died in a helicopter crash, posting on Twitter: “RIP to the greatest competitor the sports world has seen. A true definition of hard work and dedication. A Kobe video or quote has gotten me through some tough times during my career. Thank you for inspiring me CHAMP.”
Gordon, in turn, has displayed elements of that mentality. Speaking to the Newcastle matchday programme last month, he revealed: “I get really obsessed with things. Whatever is on my mind for those couple of weeks, I’ll buy all the gear, research every detail of it; it’s just my personality.
“I think that’s a good thing because I don’t settle for just being average at something — I want to be the best at everything I do. It’s a good mindset to have, but I think it stresses the people around me out.”
While the latter part of that statement hints at some minor repercussions of an obsessive personality, this is not to pick out Gordon, or even to say he is at risk — but to highlight how widespread this attitude is within sport. The England Under-21 international is not an extreme example.
During the 2017 Women’s European Championship, Sarina Wiegman, then coaching her native Netherlands’ national team, found herself so consumed by the job that she left a planned family day halfway through the tournament, telling her loved ones: “I’m sorry, I can’t relax. I can’t do this.”
In other sports, legendary England rugby union international Jonny Wilkinson was famous for his obsessive preparation — something that he revealed post-retirement had left him with acute anxiety.
Wilkinson, who refused to leave training sessions until he had completed six consecutive successful kicks from the touchline, maintained a stratospheric success rate of 95.7 per cent during the final five years of his career at French club Toulon. He also taught himself how to kick drop goals with both feet — then unprecedented — in case of such an opportunity as that which arose for him in the last minute of England’s 2003 World Cup final win.
“I spent my career surviving the pressure I put on myself,” Wilkinson recounted.
With football getting faster, more intense, and with more games in the schedule than ever, players are forced to wring themselves dry with increasingly less rest. To reach the top — and to stay there — players almost have to be addicted to the fitness, training, and development part of the process.
NFL player Maxx Crosby is a recovering alcoholic. The Las Vegas Raiders defensive end has openly spoken about how he has an addictive personality, but sees the positives of it, in that it allowed him to refocus on his American football career once he went sober in 2020.
“Yeah, I’m an addict,” Crosby told ESPN this year. “I went through what I went through, but this is way bigger than that. For me, it helps that I have that addictive personality, but I’ve always loved football.”
In an interview this month, Nile Ranger, another footballer to reveal a gambling addiction, told The Athletic: “I’m an addictive personality. I got addicted to it, that feeling of winning would be outrageous, that adrenaline was crazy.” It was a major contribution to the unravelling of his career.
Nile Ranger: ‘I’m Haaland if I’d eaten and behaved better. I didn’t. I thought I knew it all’
In research carried out in 2017 by the University of Bradford, several footballers who had spent time at the Sporting Chance clinic were anonymously interviewed.
One of those, given the pseudonym of ‘Tony’, had made more than 300 professional appearances and played in the Premier League. He now suffered from depression and alcohol misuse — and outlined the connection with the obsession he developed during his playing career.
The report states: “After being rejected as a player at 18, he had worked on a building site and then at 21 was signed to a team; he was determined that he would not be rejected a second time. He described himself as having been very focused on his game, training exceptionally hard. It meant everything to him: ‘I lived and breathed it, I even ate it…’”
As his level of play gradually dropped with age, Tony described it as a “slippery slope” in terms of self-worth. He developed an alcohol dependency, and made attempts to take his own life.
Of course, players can have an obsessive personality — and be intensely driven — without it leading to addiction in other areas of their lives.
“I was addicted, I know I was; I was addicted to football and addicted to scoring goals and addicted to trying to be the best,” says former Newcastle and England striker Alan Shearer, now a colleague at The Athletic. “Those things pushed me.
“Goals were the biggest rush I’ve ever experienced. You score one and you crave another. But all I can do here is talk about myself and that obsession never really filtered into other areas of my life. I liked going out and having a drink and a laugh with the lads, for example, but it never became more than that.
“Everything else was in moderation. I loved winning and still do, but not to the point where it took over my life. My obsession, if that’s what it was, was very channelled.
“What I do understand is how difficult it can be for footballers and other elite athletes to cope with losing that addiction, that focus. When you’ve had those incredible adrenaline spikes, when you’ve enjoyed adulation, you can see why people might look for compensation elsewhere. I was very lucky; I went from one dressing room to another with my television work. I know I’ll never have that feeling of scoring again, but at least I’ve got something else.”
But when talking about psychology, it is more useful to think of risk factors rather than causal effect. This is a field which operates through predisposition rather than guarantees.
“Addiction is a compelling urge to act or use a substance despite negative consequences,” explain Sagal and DeWitt. “It’s driven by the brain’s reward system and operates on a continuum with varying degrees of severity.”
This begins to explain why an addictive personality can lead to off-pitch difficulties — the brain’s reward system has been conditioned throughout a career.
For a long time, sporting development was based on the ‘10,000 hours’ theory — now considered to hold flimsy relevance as the original study was based specifically on violin students — which encouraged early specialisation and constant pushing.
With players being picked up by academies at earlier ages, and the dedication required to make it at an elite level ever higher, the brain is encouraged to become even more obsessive. When that obsession becomes focused on off-field issues, the risk of addiction grows ever greater — with other implicit parts of football accentuating that danger.
Footballers face extended periods of boredom and elevated levels of pressure. There is also the potential of isolation — with players, often on short-term contracts, competing with team-mates for places. This is the nature of the profession — hours of travelling for matches and sitting in hotels, before the burst of activity for 90 minutes in front of thousands of passionate people.
“Footballers have a lot of time on their hands and are earning a lot of money,” explains former Stoke City and Crystal Palace manager Tony Pulis, who has been involved in professional football for just under 50 years as a player and then coach. “The game is a real drug and a real high. Sometimes players need to fill it if they’re not getting that high, and look for other things. Gambling is an avenue to get that.”
‘Frank’, another player in the University of Bradford’s research, spoke about the difficulties he had adapting to all the free time. He called the hours after training finished for the day “a lonely place to be” and described an “aimlessness” that led to depression and gambling.
“You need to rest as a footballer,” says Charlie Daniels, who made more than 450 professional appearances, and played in the Premier League for Bournemouth. He currently works as manager of Championship club Watford’s under-18s side. “And so that means you’re sitting down a lot, and need some sort of stimulus. It might start as a social thing — but it gets the better of some people, and they become addicted. Maybe it’s a release.”
A release from the pressure — with large sums of money, long stretches of down-time, and with the same obsessive personality that has driven their sporting success.
“As a professional athlete, you might well have thoughts about persevering and ‘pushing through’ — a determination to never stop seeking that victory, even though it’s difficult,” sports psychiatrist Dr Tim Rogers told The Athletic in February 2021.
“Those are great attributes if you’re 1-0 down in the 87th minute of a football match, but not great if you’ve already lost £500 and you’ve only got £100 left.”
Ex-Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson, who presented the documentary Football, Gambling and Me about his own addiction, spoke of a similar mentality.
“Maybe you were a sensation seeker, maybe you tried to do unusual things,” an academic put to him, after testing revealed his betting tactics were far less conservative than an average gambler.
“I tried to play football like that, yeah,” Merson replied. “My teammates at Arsenal would always say, ‘Stop hitting the glory ball, the killer ball.’ But that’s what made me the player I was. Other people would play safe football. But I didn’t play like that, it was all or nothing.
“Looking back at it now, thinking about it, that’s exactly the same as my gambling. That impulsivity which made me so effective on the pitch almost killed me off it.”
Research has implied that sportspeople are also more likely to display traits of psychopathy, with several of those characteristics — such as a desperation to win, being committed, and a lack of empathy — suggestive of a negative link with problem gambling.
Jeremy Snape is a sports psychologist and former international cricketer who has worked with clients including Crystal Palace, the England rugby union team, and the South African cricket side. The Athletic asked him about the difficulties of his job — whether he felt the need to find a balance between creating an elite performance mindset versus a healthy mindset for everyday life.
“The path to mastery is steep, alluring and slippery,” Snape said. “For elite performers, the same obsessive drive for continual improvement and gratification can spill over. What does success and failure really mean? It needs a more broad and balanced appraisal across our sport, mental health, relationships and life.
“While medals and records are great achievements, winning at all costs may be too high a price to pay for some.”
His answer gets to the heart of the dual-purpose role psychologists play. On one hand, they were hired to produce the winning machines of elite-level competition. On the other, they are often the employee responsible for looking after players’ mental health — even if that intervention comes with a sporting cost.
The older members of football’s current generation of players did not necessarily have that support. In 2011, England’s Football Association produced a 117-page document on academy restructuring as part of its Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). Just half a page — and seven bullet points — was devoted to player welfare.
Within that half-page, there was little guidance or structure on how that welfare should be administered — just that clubs should do something. As a comparison, the sections frameworking performance analysis — how many games should be filmed, how many analysts should be employed et cetera — were extensively detailed over several pages.
As of two years ago, one Premier League club had just one player care officer across the entirety of the academy age groups on the boys’ side. That is not thought to be atypical, with clubs employing more analysts than player-care staff. The responsibility of that job is to create close relationships with players — but the workload is spread far too thinly.
“Clubs can educate players from a young age about addiction risks and promote a culture of openness,” say DeWitt and Sagal. “(This can mean) Encouraging early help-seeking and providing psychological support can act as a strong defence against addiction. Normalising talk in and around mental health and wellness is important, while finding ways for pros who have experienced and overcome addiction to connect with and relay their experiences to academy players is another smart approach.” When physical testing is already done on under-nines players, following up with the mental side seems a no-brainer to implement.
Strides are being made at the older ages.
Completing a wellness assessment on a tablet device each morning is now typical practice, as well as the rise of wearable trackers such as sleep bands. However, these do not pick up every issue — while players do not always have the incentive to self-report when they want to start games every week.
To Pulis, it’s about seeking distraction over obsession. “Youngsters coming into the game who haven’t been indoctrinated fully need to find another avenue, perhaps a dual-career, which they can enjoy as well as their football,” he says. “There should be a real force of direction that pushes clubs to guide players into something that can take the strain away, to address the free time.”
Finding solutions is difficult. Football’s encouragement of addictive personalities is not done out of vindictiveness or apathy. But it is a by-product of the pursuit of elite performance — and an industry that is only just starting to recognise the strength of the mind as well as the body. As mentality is weaponised from ever-younger ages, those traits can spill out in unforeseen and extreme directions.
Football’s relationship with addiction is extensive — the money, the escapism, the rampant gambling advertising. Dozens of tales lie in its wake — and not all will end as happily as Toney and Tonali, who are anticipated to return to playing next year after serving their bans.
But before all those risk factors comes the brain. And without further player care, existing pathways are predisposing athletes to vulnerability too.
(Top image: Sam Richardson for The Athletic, images: Getty Images)